Fighting a “Forever War”: Growing Up with the War on Terror, and Lessons Learned from “Afghanistan ‘11”

A scene from “Afghanistan ‘11”, in which a US Army company travels to the village of Awi to gather intelligence and win “hearts and minds”.

It’s been a while since I last wrote on Medium, as I’ve since started a full-time summer job in order to save up for my master’s program in London this fall. It’s rather easy for life’s everyday labors to get in the way of one’s desire to be creative, but hearing the news of the fall of Kandahar to the Taliban on 9 July 2021 dragged me back to the greater world as a student of international relations and history, and as a man whose earliest years were spent growing up amid the War on Terror. In order to truly appreciate how much the War on Terror impacted and defined my childhood, I’d have to first take you on a journey which began in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey twenty-two years ago.

My childhood home, Navesink, an unincorporated community within Middletown Township, New Jersey; to the right is Navesink Elementary School, where I first went to school, and, behind where I took the photo and to the left, was the street, Division Street, where I spent the first 19 years of my life.

Growing Up with the War on Terror

I was born on 18 June 1999 in Red Bank, Monmouth County, New Jersey, the son of a father who originally worked on Wall Street and commuted to Manhattan via the Seastreak ferry during my early childhood. As a boy who grew up in an idyllic Jersey Shore suburb just an hour’s drive from New York City, and just across the Raritan Bay (from which I could see the New York skyline), I felt that the New York metropolitan area has always held a special place in my upbringing, my life, and my heart. Many Middletown residents would probably feel the same way, as, according to a 2015 App.com article, more than 2,000 Middletown and Atlantic Highlands residents commuted to New York on the ferry, 24,000 Monmouth County residents commuted to the city by car, and another 20,000 Monmouth County residents took the North Jersey Coast Line train to New York Penn Station. Whether my neighbors took the NJ Train train from Middletown train station to New York Penn Station, or the ferry to the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, we all had a special connection to the “Big Apple”.

The Mount Mitchill Scenic Overlook 9/11 memorial in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey

Then, on 11 September 2001, our Middletown community, and the greater American community, was struck by tragedy. On that morning, the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan was struck by two passenger jets hijacked by 19 members of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization; my mother told me that, when the planes struck that morning, she remembered how I was sitting in a high chair and watching Barney the Dinosaur, only for the breaking news to interrupt the television program, and for my family to panic, as my father worked just across the street from the World Trade Center. I was incredibly lucky that my father came home safe that day, but many other families were not as fortunate; in fact, 37 Middletown Township residents lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks.

A scene from 2008's “Iron Man” in which the pseudo-jihadist “Ten Rings” terrorist group (stated by the movie to be based in Afghanistan’s real-life Kunar Province) hold Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) hostage

Part of me thinks that I remember that exact moment; then again, it may just have been a second-hand memory which my two-year-old mind may have adopted as its own through several retellings. In any case, I grew up with the War on Terror having a constant presence in daily conversation both on the news and among adults, and I remember keeping track of the conflict on Wikipedia and watching international news networks from a young age to stay informed on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Every August, Navesink would hold a Fireman’s Fair, and the turnout was amazing, as, in the aftermath of 9/11, Americans in every community acquired a newfound appreciation and gratitude for their first responders. I also grew up with movies and video games depicting the War on Terror; the first movie about the War on Terror that I remember watching was Iron Man, the 2008 superhero film which kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and which begins in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, where a pseudo-jihadist group called the “Ten Rings” ambushes a convoy of US Army Humvees and kidnaps Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) with the objective of forcing him to make “Jericho missiles” for them. Seeing Tony Stark instead forge a suit of armor and weapons and avenge the deaths of the US soldiers and his cellmate, the Afghan villager Yinsen (played by the brilliant Iranian-American actor Shaun Toub), was cathartic for myself and my friends, who cheered him on as if he was killing al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters rather than the Ten Rings, and as if he represented real-world America rather than the fictional Stark Industries. In many ways, the War on Terror helped to define the popular culture and news intake of my childhood.

President Obama announcing Bin Laden’s death

I was in middle school when Osama bin Laden was killed in a US raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan on 1 May 2011, and I remember how, while I was taking the bus to school the next morning, I thought to myself that the War on Terror had suddenly ended; then again, naivety comes with youth. I am now 22 years old, and the United States is still fighting against the forces of organized terror across the globe. However, the announcement of President Biden’s plan to permanently withdraw all US soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of August 2021, and the concurrent and phased withdrawal of the US military from the region, promises an end to America’s first “War on Terror” overseas intervention, as well as the end of an era.

An 18 April 2021 cartoon criticizing the USA’s perceived abandonment of Afghanistan

While I am neither a neoconservative “war hawk” or a self-proclaimed “anti-imperialist” progressive, I still have mixed feelings about the withdrawal. On one hand, I am incredibly worried about the state of affairs in Afghanistan at the moment; the United States has yet to finish its withdrawal from Kabul, and the Taliban already claim to be in control of 85% of the country, including its second-largest city and the Taliban’s birthplace, Kandahar. A few days ago, ABC News aired footage of a Taliban massacre of surrendering Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, as well as of the desertion of over a thousand Afghan troops across the border with Tajikistan rather than fight. I also watched an al-Jazeera roundtable in which an American analyst compared the situation to that of the Fall of Saigon in 1975 or, worse yet, the Fall of Mosul in 2014, both of which occurred in the power vacuum caused by the USA withdrawal. Unlike neoconservatives, my main issue with the withdrawal is not the loss of American military prestige, but the effect that the withdrawal will have on Afghan ethnoreligious minorities (such as the Sunni Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Uzbeks and the Shia Hazaras) and on women, as both groups have been treated with astonishing violence and contempt by the fundamentalist Taliban movement. However, the other part of me knows that the United States can not, and should not try to sustain a losing war if it means the loss of American lives and the use of billions of dollars of taxpayer money. The Taliban movement emerged as a popular response to rampant warlordism in the 1990s, unifying the Pashtun majority of the country in opposition to governmental corruption and promising an end to anarchy through the establishment of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and strict sharia law. The war will most likely end the same way it began: with a popular reaction against rampant governmental corruption and warlordism, even if it means that the self-proclaimed “liberators” champion iconoclasm, violence against women, the banning of music, televisions, computers, and women’s education, and the destruction of cultural heritage sites. While this is not a deisrable outcome, it is sadly the most expected one.

Lessons Learned from “Afghanistan ‘11”

The Steam cover art of “Afghanistan ‘11”, a computer wargame which simulates the struggles surrounding the United States’ nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, and the military and political quagmire which the USA found itself in. The objective of the wargame is to win the “hearts and minds” of local Afghan villages while gradually withdrawing the USA’s troops from Afghanistan and turning over security responsibilites to the ANA.

Since I started my Medium blog, I have tried my best to emphasize the educational role that video games can play in the average person’s life. In the past few weeks, at the same time as the Taliban’s ongoing blitzkrieg through Afghanistan, Steam held its annual “Summer Sale”, and I decided to spend $7 on a unique educational opportunity which I could not find elsewhere. This opportunity came in the form of “Afghanistan ‘11”, a computer wargame developed by the UK’s Slitherine Software, which has worked with US military and defense companies to supply simulation software. While I’ve heard it said by many an adult and “over-sensitive” youth that military simulator (“mil-sim”) video games trivialize violence, turn complex real-world issues into entertainment, dishonor fallen American soldiers, and (especially among younger people, who are more distrustful of the United States government and foreign policy) can serve as pro-government, jingoistic, and imperialistic propaganda, I will maintain that Afghanistan ’11 is an experience worth taking part in both by military historians and actual military veterans, and by the aforementioned stay-at-home pundits alike. Regardless of political, social, or religious beliefs, I strongly believe that everyone who experiences this simulation can have a better understanding of the challenges faced by both the US military and the Afghan people during America’s war in Afghanistan, and the many social and political factors which outweighed and invalidated every American military victory over the course of 20 years.

An ingame screenshot of Afghan National Army troops (bottom right) visiting the village of Gereshk as a company of US Army troops guards a forward operating base (FOB) to the northwest.

Afghanistan ’11 is not a conventional wargame, as it prioritizes managing a successful occupation rather than eliminating the enemy. The game requires players to have a great deal of patience with regard to managing resources (such as trucking or choppering in supplies from their headquarters to their distant outposts), making sure to sweep every road for IEDs before moving vehicles or soldiers between outposts or villages, paying attention to the American public’s support for the war (which can be increased by pulling individual units out of Afghanistan, winning battles against the Taliban, and disarming IEDs, and which can decline as the result of American casualties, sending more troops to fight in Afghanistan, or ramping up military expenditure in the form of building new bases or calling in airstrikes and drone missions), and knowing that not every ingame “turn” will see a major battle. The game is thus not for FPS players who enjoy senseless violence, and, thus, it also defies the stereotype of military simulator games glorifying violence. Instead, losing men in this game drains the player’s “political points”, thus impairing their ability to send in reinforcements, use airstrikes (a major advantage over the numerically-superior insurgency), or build new bases, and destroying Taliban cadres provides minimal political points.

An election simulation in Afghanistan ‘11

In addition to presenting the player with the issue of having to deal with public opinion and politics in the United States, the game also presents the player with the challenge of dealing with public opinion and politics in Afghanistan. Every so often, elections are held in ingame Afghanistan, and the player can choose to back a candidate whose policies are most favorable to them. This may seem like an everyday game mechanic aimed at giving the player “boosts” and “modifiers”, but it is much deeper than that; it accurately portrays the importance of local elections in Afghanistan during the war. Afghanistan is often stereotyped as being a backwards country without democracy, but, since the 1980s, Afghanistan has seen several political parties (most of them with an ethnically-defined voter base and paramilitary wings) form, such as the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e Islami, the Pashtun-dominated Hezb-e Islami, the Uzbek-dominated Junbish-i-Milli, and the Hazara-dominated People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, among others. These parties each participated in local elections, which were nominally nonpartisan, but often reflected Afghanistan’s sectarian and political divide. The Taliban often attempted to disrupt local elections, but the Americans provided security to them; while it might go too far to suggest that the United States actively rigged Afghan elections, it is certain that, as the guarantors of Afghan democracy against the authoritarian Taliban, the United States had great power when it came to supporting pro-American (or, more accurately, anti-Taliban) candidates. Providing political support to local Afghan politicians is a key feature in ingame elections, and the candidate’s election can lead to major changes in the way that the ingame world responds to the US occupation.

A screenshot of US troops disembarking from a helicopter in the pro-Militia village of Gereshk

Related to Afghan elections is public opinion, or “hearts and minds”, as the United States military would call it. In the game, hearts and minds are won over when the United States builds waterworks, roads, and bridges to improve local infrastructure, when the Americans defuse IEDs, and when the military succeeds in destroying Taliban cadres. However, maintaining high support from the Afghan villages is a difficult task, as the game portrays Taliban cadres moving in from the Pakistani border in the east and infiltrating Afghanistan. As a result, IED attacks and Taliban sightings (or, worse yet, ambushes) are common enough, and, occasionally, the player will also come into contact with Anti-Coalition Militia (ACM) insurgents, whose cadres always disperse and disband after combat, regardless of the result. In real life, the Taliban were not the only insurgents to fight against the US occupation, as almost every village in Afghanistan was awash with weapons from the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, the Afghan Civil War of the 1990s, or the ongoing US occupation, during which Chinese arms were imported via Pakistan. When local villages rejected the Afghan government or the US occupation, their young men would occasionally take up arms to fight against the Americans, and sometimes even put down their arms in exchange for bribes. These men were not as ideologically driven as the Taliban, hence their ingame readiness to disband after every battle. However, the ingame Taliban simply withdraw after every battle and live to fight another day if not eliminated. These two factions comprise the insurgents in the game, and the player will often find that the villages their men had just visited to win hearts and minds may be flying either the Taliban or Militia flag on their next visit.

ANA troops clashing with a Taliban technical outside of a US base

Now that the political and military factors of the game have been addressed, all that is left to address is the challenge that the United States currently faces, and the reason why I was inspired to write this article after a month-long hiatus. This is the ingame depiction of the Afghan National Army, the military of Afghanistan, armed and equipped by the Americans, but not nearly as formidable of a fighting force as their Coalition allies. In recent weeks, the ANA has suffered from public relations problems due to the desertion of over 1,000 Afghan soldiers across the border with Tajikistan, and the ANA giving up control of several towns and small cities in “tactical withdrawals” which have created a culture of defeatism in their units. In the game, the ANA is also depicted as suffering from similar challenges, such as demoralization and inferior fighting capabilities. However, the ultimate objective of the game is to have American special forces units train ANA squads at forward operating bases as regular American ground forces are gradually withdrawn. The ANA are much weaker than the American troops in the game, and they are more likely to be annihilated in battle should they lose to their insurgent foes. However, they are the necessary replacements for the US troops stuck in a war which, since Bin Laden’s death and the near-eradication of al-Qaeda outside of Syria and Libya, is no longer their concern. I’ve only played Afghanistan ’11 for four hours, but, during that time, I found myself worrying about how best to withdraw my battle-hardened Americans and replace them with weaker Afghan troops. My “Skirmish Mode” campaign is only at turn 66 of 5,000, and I’ve already gone into the negative on my political points due to my massive military expenditures and mounting military casualties, and, as a result, my American occupation force no longer has the military muscle to crush the Taliban and win hearts and minds in the process. It’s much easier to see how the US command in Afghanistan felt by the early 2010s, by which point the American public had grown tired of the war, and demanded the government wrap up its decade-long nation-building project in Afghanistan as soon as possible. I’m barely a thousandth of my way into the skirmish campaign, and I’m already in a position where I’m questioning how best to withdraw my US forces while I still can and replace them with ANA troops, and how my American soldiers’ ANA replacements can fill the vacuum left behind by the departure of American soldiers and air support.

Conclusion

I admit that this article was quite long, but I felt that, because the War on Terror is such a poignant and touchy topic, I needed to explain why the conflict has played a central role in my upbringing in the form of popular culture and my news intake. I’ve been fascinated with the War on Terror, just as I’m sure that our parents were fascinated with the Cold War when they were young, because it has been an ever-present factor in my life. Getting to simulate and experience the Afghanistan War at a time when the war is rapidly coming to an end was a powerful experience, and I intend to continue playing Afghanistan ’11 to further understand the challenges of maintaining a military occupation in a foreign land with its own unique struggles and sociopolitical factors. Early into my studies of the Afghanistan War years ago, I knew that a US occupation of Afghanistan was untenable; by the time I played this game and simulated the challenges of nation-building while fighting off a spirited and never-ending insurgency, I knew that such a war was instead unwinnable.

A history lover and prolific writer whose greatest passion is to spread appreciation for, and awareness of, history and diverse cultures.