The Afghan war was enormously popular when it began on a fall Sunday eight and a half years ago. Less than a month had passed since the September 11 attacks, and President Bush could draw on deep wells of support when he ordered air strikes against Kabul, Jalalabad and the Taliban stronghold at Kandahar.
"We are supported," Bush said that day, with only slight exaggeration, "by the collective will of the world."
By mid-November American forces had driven the Taliban from the capital; at month's end Kandahar was in the U.S. sights; in early December the Taliban leadership fled, and Marines set up a base near the Kandahar airfield.
No one proclaimed "Mission Accomplished," but they might as well have. Surely, it seemed, this would be a brief campaign.
On the one-year anniversary, in October 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told CNN, "The Taliban are gone. The Al Qaeda are gone."
And yet here we are, nearly a decade since that October Sunday, and the end of this often-tabbed "Other War" is hard to see, or fathom. Under the order of a new commander-in-chief, the U.S. is now "surging" forces into Afghanistan; a new and complex mission looms in Kandahar; and the Taliban are "surging," too – to devastating effect.
As I began this column we received word that 15 more coalition soldiers had been killed in the last two days in Afghanistan; 11 of the dead were American. Their names will be added to a grim roster whose numbers recently cleared 1,000.
And today "The Other War" has gained a fresh and dubious distinction: it is the longest war in our nation's history, surpassing the conflict in Vietnam. 103 months passed between passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the withdrawal of the last American combat forces from Vietnam. As of today, the Afghanistan war is 104 months old.
Afghan War Surpasses Vietnam War in Duration
In many ways, Vietnam and Afghanistan defy comparison. One was the result of a slow, creeping policy of containing communism in Southeast Asia; the other a visceral, swift response to an attack on U.S. soil.
One became a terribly divisive home-front battle, provoking passions almost as powerful as those seen a century before, during the war between the states; the other has resisted close public attention – and even today sparks far less passion, one way or the other.
More than 50,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam; certainly no one expects the toll in Afghanistan to reach anything like that number.
But Vietnam and Afghanistan do have this much in common: they are distant, profoundly complex, and ill-understood campaigns. Not surprisingly, then, they defy easy resolutions. And, in their own ways, these two wars have tested the mettle and patience of a nation.
For today, we remember this "other war"'s duration. 104 months ago, when those first bombs fell, anthrax was terrorizing the nation; Barack Obama was a little-known Illinois state senator; and soldiers now "surging" to Kandahar were in junior high. We didn't have YouTube, or IPhones. And we had not a single soldier in Iraq.
104 months. It's a very long time.