Americans Have been Forgetting Afghanistan for 20 Years. I Didn't Have That LuxuryRoundup
tags: war on terror, Afghanistan, refugees
Ali A. Olomi is assistant professor of history at Penn State Abington, specializing in the history of the Middle East and Islam.
As a history professor specializing in the Middle East and Islam, I always start my lessons on Afghanistan the same way. I ask my students: What is the longest foreign war in U.S. history? Their guesses include the war in Vietnam, World War II — even, inexplicably, the American Civil War — but not once has a student mentioned the 20-year campaign in Afghanistan that finally ended, in tumultuous fashion, this past summer.
It’s not their fault. Despite the tens of thousands of lives lost and billions spent over the two-decade war in Afghanistan, our country has had a way of collectively forgetting about it. From the spasm of coverage in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to the wall-to-wall coverage this summer of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, most Americans’ awareness of Afghanistan has happened in bursts of remembering and forgetting.
As a child of refugees from Afghanistan, I never had the luxury of forgetting. My journey was shaped by a commitment to remember what other people forgot.
I was a kid attending a predominantly White school in Southern California when the war in began. Before 2001, when people in my community asked me where my family was from, the response would elicit blank stares. After the invasion, any mention of the country of my parent’s birth would invoke suspicion or pity. I was sometimes forced into the role of educator, as happened when a teacher incorrectly called Afghans “Afghanistanisians.” When the teacher talked of a Stone Age culture, I talked about Rumi. Other times, I had to stay silent, as I did when the crowd at a pep rally chanted “bombs over Baghdad,” not realizing Baghdad is in Iraq — or meaning to be prescient. I felt helpless hearing friends, classmates and peers gleefully chanting for war.
As awkward as those moments were, what followed was even stranger: Everyone forgot. Afghanistan faded from the public memory. It would pop up in the headlines when tragedy struck or during election season, but it faded into the background like a dull hum. When you listened for it, you could hear it, but otherwise life went on.
For those with loved ones in Afghanistan, though, the war was a constant. For us, every phone call with relatives lingered around the latest bomb or drone strike. My cousins and other family members experienced 20 years of turmoil, caught between Taliban bombs on one hand and American drones on the other. Whenever I talked to them, I could hear the exhaustion in their voices. Every Afghan American I know has lost a family member or friend. The war became part of who we were and even shaped our career trajectories. Afghan friends became immigration attorneys and activists. I became a historian.