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The War I Know: What's Being Done in Afghanistan

written by Kanani Fong
on September 16, 2010

The crape myrtle in our front yard is known in our family as the 9/11 tree. Planted on the first anniversary of the day terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center, its beauty is a quiet reminder of the tragedy. Last week, we planted another to honor that day and also those who have served. No other event has shaped future generations like those attacks on America, my family included.

When we planted the first tree, no one foresaw that short wars and war-free days would become distant memories. Before we became a military family, we could turn off the war. If the issues seemed complex and inconvenient, we simply didn't think about them. But this changed when my husband joined the Army to provide his skills as a surgeon. The war became defined by what was happening on the ground, not partisan or ideological polemics. We joined the tens of thousands of husbands and wives raising their children apart. If given a map, we can easily locate not only Afghanistan, but also the rest of the 'stans, along with Iraq and Iran. Or as my daughter once said, "The stans, the raq and the ran."

One day this summer, I was sitting in a lobby with filmmaker Tim Hetherington. We'd been traveling with the film Restrepo and were readying to drive a modest Corolla to Ft. Campbell.

"I know this sounds odd, but war is something our family does," I said.

Tim laughed. "I'm British. I understand irony," he said.

We're a war family. Yet, we live in a city and a region where war is a distant event; Los Angeles and the West Coast are mostly anti-war. Living amid the surreal background of film and celebrity, I tend to think war gives my family a grounding that most rarely think about. I show up at a party and it's as if the dirt around everyone's feet starts swirling around. Inevitably, someone casually inquires whether or not we should stay in Afghanistan.

To many, war is boiled down this: 1. War is bad and 2. Casualties are unacceptable. It's become a numbers game, and the statistics give rise to sentiments from "Bring our troops home now" to "Books not Bombs." Americans both on the right and the left are war weary.

Without question, war is bad, and casualties are tragic. I would like to bring our troops home and wish dropping books from planes would end the war. These sentiments, however, are difficult to base military strategy on, ineffective to get rid of bad guys with, and cast all wars as unnecessary. It takes much more to bring stability to a region, let alone peace, literacy and health care. Besides, even if we left, I doubt Al Qaeda would leave us alone. Most people already have an opinion but haven't taken into account the scope of positive things both the military and contractors have produced in Afghanistan.

The naysayers ask, "But where's Osama?" To which I can only guess, working in a hostel in Sydney. It's inarguable that he hasn't been found. But without intervention, the Taliban would have continued with their stadium killings, oppression of women, the banning of music, art, medical treatment and, yes, the flying of kites. The Afghans have had to endured brutality and a rock-ages existence under the Taliban.

In Kunar today, girls are going to school, and women are selling handcrafts. Medical treatment is given to locals by military doctors, and they're training Afghan doctors and nurses. The ISAF has worked in Helmand to secure the local population. Bazaars are busy, schools have reopened. Contractors (unfairly painted as corrupt by the press and politicians) have delivered on sanitation, road, Wi-Fi and other projects at a fraction of the cost of USAID. Nonprofit organizations such as the La Jolla Rotary Club and MIT's Fab Lab fund schools and computer labs in Jalalabad. To media cynics, these efforts might seem small. To an Afghan, however, these efforts are huge, whether it's sending a daughter to school or simply having a child treated for burns from a cooking mishap.

Still, the Taliban has a hold on many areas; their beheadings, torture of females and forcing children to fight is documented. The murder of ten medical health workers in Badakshan by jihadi tourists in August is a reminder of the danger. Now, there's a growing political crescendo in the United States for an orderly pullout from Afghanistan. The reality is there is nothing orderly about ceding a battle to the enemy. If we pull out, the same conditions that existed prior to our invasion will come back tenfold. Al Qaeda isn't a beneficent organization, and the Taliban doesn't hold back from oppressing the Afghan people.

Every gain has come from the sweat, blood and sacrifice of the men and women serving at the tip of the spear, as well as the Afghans themselves. The thought of losing those glimmers of civilization is unimaginable.

These answers can stop a party. Before I reply, I size up the person asking. I try to learn about their sources of information, if they already have an opinion, or if they could turn into a mean drunk. It's not clear-cut. Talking about the war I know isn't easy with someone whose only source of info is the TV, polarized blogs or political polemics. So most of the time, I relax into cocktail chit-chat, choosing instead to talk about planting the second tree.

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