The war in Afghanistan is the longest in American history, approaching 18 years. It began in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaida. The goal was to destroy al-Qaida's home base in Afghanistan, bring down the Taliban government that hosted the terrorist organization and support some semblance of a democracy.
The war has been costly: More than 2,200 American service members have been killed, nearly $1 trillion in U.S. taxpayers' money has been spent and several hundred thousand Afghans have lost their lives.
Some 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands have returned home badly damaged, most notably with traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. An average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Despite these grim facts, many Pittsburghers seem to know little about the ongoing war.
A tough assignment
On a rainy June day, I ventured to Pittsburgh's Market Square from the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University to accomplish my first task for the center as a visiting journalist from Afghanistan. I asked Pittsburghers a question that made some uneasy: "Is America at war in Afghanistan?"
Many people were reluctant to speak to me. It was one of the toughest assignments I've had, and I normally work as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.
Nearly 50 people were approached seeking comment. At the end of several days there were just 10 vague responses. Many said they "don't know about the war in Afghanistan," even though Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest population of veterans in the United States.
"I don't feel that America is at war in Afghanistan," one woman said.
"If American troops are helping Afghan people, rebuilding schools and roads, then there is need to stay rather [than] pull out and get back home," another person said.
Less than a month later attendees at a lecture by Luke Peterson, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and Arabic at the University of Pittsburgh, were more willing to discuss the war in Afghanistan.
Mark Labby, of Downtown, emailed later: "I would have to say that the U.S. has been fighting a long time in Afghanistan, but we have not gone to war. ... The American people have not truly accepted the war. If they had, then you would see popular support, and the president would ask [Congress] to declare war. Without popular support, they refuse to make Congress accept their constitutional duty and make a declaration of war. If there were popular support, Congress would impose a tax and pay for the war. ... You see almost no politicians ... talking about Afghanistan [or] allowing their own children to be sent there.
"So the general attitude is, as long as other people's kids [primarily our poorest] go off and you don't make us pay, Americans are ignoring the war and not letting it affect their lives," Mr. Labby wrote. "Politicians know they can get away with this and every so often beat their chest that they support a war on terrorists — just don't inconvenience most of us with it."
Christine Meredith, of Oakland, also attended the lecture: "I think America is there maybe not with the best intentions. It boils down to economics and control, as most wars do — who can make the most financially and politically out of it. Unfortunately, the idealistic goals of peace, helping a poor community of people to improve economically, freedom from terrorism, democratic elections, etcetera, are not our primary reasons for being there.
"I do believe that the people of Afghanistan need to be able to live their own lives within their culture and without outside interference. They need help to develop economically, but not a war. I don't know when that will happen, because there has always been outside interference. So, it is difficult. It is very difficult. ... It's the economics, it's culture, it's religion, it's a need for strong leadership, and there are no easy answers."
While those attending Mr. Peterson's lecture gave thoughtful responses, many Americans remain ignorant of the war, even as casualties continue to mount. Two Americans soldiers were killed in late July. During the week of July 5-11 alone, 52 civilians and at least 143 pro-government forces were killed, according to a United Nations report.
Afghans do not have the luxury of ignoring the war. For many, the ongoing violence makes it impossible simply to live their lives.
Ahmad Daud Khan, 31, a farmer living in northeastern Afghanistan, said the war is swallowing people, ruining villages, destroying economic infrastructure and spreading mental-health problems.
In June, military operations carried out in his village against Taliban insurgents prevented his family from sleeping. All night, harsh sounds of warplanes could be heard overhead.
"Last night was like an Armageddon," he said. "My biggest concern was my family. I am afraid. If someone is harmed by bullets, what should I do? I couldn't go to a hospital at night."
The U.N. reports blames Taliban, Afghan and international forces for the high number of civilian casualties. Ordinary Afghans are caught up unwillingly in their disputes.
The Taliban currently control about half of the country, making them nearly as powerful as they were when the United States first invaded in 2001. Minorities, women and human rights activists, in particular, have expressed grave concern about the prospect of the Taliban returning to power, given their savage and repressive reign from 1996 to 2001.
Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American serving as U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan, is leading peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, which began in December. The Taliban refuse to negotiate with the government of Afghanistan, which they consider a puppet of the U.S.
On July 22, President Donald Trump, seated beside Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House, said: "If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don't want to kill 10 million people. ... [I]f I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. ... I don't want to do ... I don't want to go that route."
Mr. Khalilzad, meanwhile, arrived in Kabul for another round of talks. Earlier this month, he claimed "excellent progress." Two days later, a bomb exploded outside a police station in Kabul, the capital, killing 14 people and injuring at least 145. The Taliban claimed credit.
Humayoon Babur is an Afghan journalist working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Point Park University's Center for Media Innovation this summer on a Daniel Pearl Foundation and Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship (firstname.lastname@example.org).