As General Stanley McChrystal’s disgrace this week opened up the larger conversation about counter-insurgency and corruption in Afghanistan, it is worth revisiting Peter Van Agtmael’s photographs from the ground war. These images are from his most recent trip last year to Helmand Province with the Marines, and although the unit was lucky not to lose any dead, I can feel the palpable cost; physically and emotionally.
These soldiers were ten or eleven years old when this longest war began. That Afghan child was not born yet. The classic stalemate of this war — harrowing echos from Vietnam and the Soviet war in these very same places — continues. The Taliban aren’t strong or popular enough to ever militarily defeat the United States or the Afghan government. But no preponderance of firepower and technology can seemingly ever defeat their insurgency either.
It’s probably fair to say that at any given moment, pretty much everybody in this war has forgotten why it started in the first place: September 11, 2001. Not that we’ve lost the memory, or can’t think about it if it comes up. But why would it now? Rather, the bodies trickle home at Dover Air Force Base, and pile up of Afghan civilians. Taliban and al-Qaeda casualties are uncountable. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain at large. Our own military and political leadership is utterly divided, Karzai’s regime corrupt and untrustworthy, and the prison at Guantanamo Bay stays open.
Forgive me, it is a terrible cliché to think of this when I look at my friend Peter’s photographs, but then again, so is everything else now after nine years; I cannot help but remember Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
captions– (top) A Marine from Forward Operating Base Sharp on a foot patrol in Mian Poshtay. FOB Sharp, in Mian Poshtay, is the combat base of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. The base is named for a soldier from the unit that was killed on the first day of an air assault into Helmand Province in July, 2009. He was killed while assaulting the building that later became the Marine base. Conditions are very rudimentary: soldiers sleep on the floor and there is no running water, showers, or flushing toilets. Most meals are MREs. (Meals Ready to Eat) Soldiers from the unit take contact from the enemy nearly every day. They are the southernmost Marines of 2/8.
(middle) A Marine from FOB Sharp sets up a machine gun during a firefight with the Taliban.
(bottom) An IED detonates on a Marine patrol: It was detonated too soon by the triggermen, and no one was killed or seriously wounded. There were suspicions that there would be an attack. A few minutes beforehand, Marines had observed from a hillside as a man in a ditch near the site of the IED continuously popped his head up and down to observe the Marine progress.