20 Years of Afghanistan's Turning Points

I’ll be frank: this is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever written. Early in the day a friend tweeted about how clichéd it was to mention the still-ongoing war in Afghanistan as having reached a turning point. I responded that in October, there will be 20 years of turning points. Then I began to wonder if that was really true, thinking of an old, now offline but widely referenced blogpost I did ten years ago (Dear God) where I noted that every single fucking year someone tries to argue that the war in Afghanistan is at a turning point. So I decided to see if there really are 20 years of turning points, going back to the 20th anniversary of the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan to acknowledge that the war was already in-progress long before America got involved. And behold:

  1. Pamela Constable. “Buddhas’ Rubble Marks a Turn for Taliban.” The Washington Post, March 20, 2001.
    • The event also appears to mark a turning point within the Taliban. Following an internal struggle, some foreign observers here said, Islamic hard-liners have gained influence over moderates who support collaboration with international agencies on a variety of issues, from historic preservation to women’s rights.
  2. Bruce Pannier. “Afghanistan: The Battle For Mazar-i-Sharif Seen As Turning Point.” RFE/RL, October 18, 2001.
  3. Eric Schmitt and James Dao. “A NATION CHALLENGED: THE AIR CAMPAIGN; Use of Pinpoint Air Power Comes of Age in New War.” The New York Times, December 24, 2001.
    • ”That really was another turning point,’’ said a senior Air Force official deeply involved in the air campaign in Afghanistan. ‘’All these things gave confidence to the Northern Alliance, and it really was a shock to the Taliban.”
  4. Fred Barnes. “The White House at War.” The Weekly Standard (archived by Washington Examiner), December 2, 2002.
    • But in “Bush at War” there’s a glaring omission. Woodward misses the turning point in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces. It’s as though the most important scene had been left out of a movie, say, where Clark Kent turns into Superman.
  5. Scott Baldaur. “US close to cornering Taliban forces.” The Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 2003.
    • Until recently, contact with the enemy for many US soldiers has been limited to rocket attacks on US bases - most of which miss entirely - or the occasional homemade bomb or land mine placed near US bases. The growing aggressiveness by guerrillas is a relief for US forces, who greet the possibility of a real engagement with the Taliban as a possible turning point in the war.
  6. Reuters. “Afghan constitution becomes law.” Reuters, January 27, 2004.
    • A statement from U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called the enactment of the constitution a “turning point for the Afghan nation.”“We are witness to a major milestone in putting behind the era of the rule of the gun in Afghanistan,” it said.
  7. Esther Pan and Mary Crane. “Afghan Foreign Minister Calls Election “Major Turning Point.” Council on Foreign Relations. September 22, 2005
    • Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s foreign minister, called the recent parliamentary elections “a major turning point” on his country’s path to democracy. “The people of Afghanistan seized the opportunity” offered by the September 18 parliamentary poll, he said. “There is a new rule of living and working together…through the democratic process. [The elections] should be considered a visible, transparent success.”
  8. Charles Sennot. “Afghanistan: After 5 years, a forgotten war? - Asia - Pacific - International Herald Tribune.” The New York Times. September 12, 2006
    • The Afghan front is at a critical turning point that imperils many of the hard-fought successes of the early phase of the conflict and the prospects for snaring bin Laden.
  9. NATO. “Afghanistan: Wall completion signifies progress in Northern Laghman.” NATO, February 26, 2007.
    • It may only be a 150-meter flood protection wall outside Dumlam Village in Laghman Province, but its completion 21 Feb. signified a turning point in an area once gripped by extremists.
  10. Laura Winter. “Afghanistan strains NATO ties.” The Christian Science Monitor, February 6, 2008.
    • “It’s starting to get to a turning point about what is this alliance about,” says Michael Williams, director of the transatlantic program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
  11. Mark Thompson. “Turning Point Looms for the U.S. in Afghanistan.” Time, August 31, 2009.
    • Monday marks the end of August, a month with both good and bad news out of Afghanistan — and the approach of a key turning point.
  12. Dion Nissenbaum and Jonathan S. Landay. “Afghanistan war: Kandahar offensive is now in the slow lane.” McClatchy Newspapers, May 17, 2010.
    • NATO officials once spoke of demonstrating major progress by mid-August, but U.S. commanders now say the turning point may not be reached until November, and perhaps later.
  13. AFP. “Troops Eye Battle Ahead as Afghan Spring Looms.” Agence France-Press, March 15, 2011.
    • International troops in Afghanistan face the prospect of a spring offensive by the Taliban every year – but this time the US-led alliance believes it could mark a real turning point in its favour.
  14. C.J. Lin. “Panetta sees ‘significant turning point’ with drop in violence in Afghanistan.” Stripes, December 18, 2012.
    • “That has been in my book, the significant turning point,” Panetta said. “For the first time, we saw the transition working, the Afghan Army able to do its job and violence going down.”
  15. Ernesto Londoño. “With U.S. pullout, military burden shifts to Afghan army.” The Washington Post, December 20, 2013.
    • In the few dozen bases that remain, including this dusty camp in the east, U.S. troops are racing to improve the Afghan army’s logistics and supply systems ahead of a year that many see as the war’s turning point.
  16. Jabeen Bhatti. “Afghans hope elections bring turning point for economy.” USA Today, April 5, 2014.
    • Many are looking at the elections Saturday as a turning point to get the economy and the country going again.
  17. Taran N Khan. “The awful truth about post-Taliban Afghanistan, one lynching at a time.” Quartz India, March 25, 2015.
    • For all their famed resilience, this is a turning point for Afghan women, and … representing all the horrors against women that unfolded during the civil war.
  18. Hamid Shalizi and James Mackenzie. “Afghanistan weighs Islamic State threat after Kabul attack.” Reuters, July 26, 2016.
    • But while seeing the threat, officials are cautious about whether the attack represents a real turning point for Daesh, which has been under heavy pressure this year from both U.S. air strikes and Afghan ground forces.
  19. Paul McClary. “U.S. Has ‘Turned the Corner’ in Afghanistan, Top General Says.” Foreign Policy, November 28, 2017.
    • After 16 years of war, the United States and its Afghan partners “have turned the corner” and “momentum is now with Afghan security forces,” the top U.S. general there told reporters on Tuesday. Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the Trump administration’s plan to beef up the U.S. battlefield presence is a “game-changer” that puts Kabul’s battered forces “on a path to a win.”
  20. Dan Lamothe. “Trump’s pick to lead the Afghan war says he won’t talk turning points ‘unless there is one’.” The Washington Post, June 29, 2018.
    • The U.S. general nominated by President Trump to be the commander of the war in Afghanistan told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he wouldn’t speak about the war reaching a turning point “unless there is one.” The statement by Army Lt. Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller during his confirmation hearing was an acknowledgment that the war has dragged on nearly 17 years… (note: LOL)
  21. Kimberley Dozer. “Exclusive: Secretary of State Pompeo Declines to Sign Risky Afghan Peace Deal.” Time, September 5, 2019.
    • For Afghan officials, or at least the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, it’s a final insult and a dark turning point in relations with Washington.
  22. Sarah Dadouch, Susannah George and Dan Lamothe. “U.S. signs peace deal with Taliban agreeing to full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.” The Washington Post, February 29, 2020.
    • The United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal Saturday that calls for the full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan within 14 months — a turning point in an 18-year war that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
  23. Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield. “Afghanistan peace talks under threat as major Taliban spring offensive takes shape.” Reuters, February 17, 2021.
    • “Taliban violence is much higher than historical norms,” Miller told Reuters. “It just doesn’t create the conditions to move forward in what is hopefully a historic turning point for Afghanistan.”

So, can we learning anything from this, apart from the perils of perpetuating a cliché for decades? Maybe. I do find it interesting that Senator Warren grilled General Miller about all the many turning points in 2018, which he promised not to refernece, only to reference a turning point in 2021 for something (rising Taliban violence) that really doesn’t seem like a turning point at all. If I still worked in this field, that would be interesting to explore.

I also noticed that the Islamic State sort of appeared and then vanished in the conflict, as has Al Qaeda. I’m sure they still exist there, but the ways in which officials and journalists frame the conflict seems to have moved on. Does this mean anything? Probably not in a grander sense, anyway – there was a lot of speculation 6-ish years ago that the IS stuff was really just branding for a Taliban faction, not really the war in Syria being exported to Afghanistan. But my inner communication scholar wonders what we might also think about how the public’s understanding of the conflict is shaped by these clichés, trends, and narratives – what endures, what fades, and what changes over time.

For example, you can see a lot of talk early on about elections, then very little afterward; these things still happen, but they no longer seem instrumental to the conflict. In a sense, they stopped mattering (and probably never did matter). Negotiations with the Taliban is similar; you can find discussions of that process going back more than a decade, with the exact same failure points, pitfalls, and optimism, though more lately it seems to the tremendously bad will Trump and his officials cultivated globally have moderated the optimism bit.

Still, beyond how depressing it is that the War in Afghanistan is about to turn 20, the sheer longevity of the “turning point” metaphor is worth acknowledging. Maybe, we can think about moving the media coverage of the longest war America has ever fought into something a bit more substantive, but I suspect everyone involved – the combatants, the governments, the aid workers, the military, the journalists – are just damned tired, burned out from the brutality and just trying to make it through the day. And at this point, in 2021, I cannot blame them.

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