The war in Afghanistan for U.S. troops has lasted twice as long as World War II. There is honest debate now about whether the United States should commit more troops to Afghanistan, or withdraw them.
Would more forces decisively defeat the Taliban? Or, after eight years, does the presence of U.S., British and other NATO troops — and civilians killed by air strikes aimed at insurgents — only anger Afghans?
As a journalist, I just try to help frame that debate. But I was part of the NPR team that covered the war in Afghanistan eight years ago. I get distressed to hear analysts and policymakers say the primary goal should be just to keep al-Qaida terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base.
I saw the kind of society the Taliban made in Afghanistan. Those of us who did remember it as a nightmare no people should live again. Women could not work or attend school. They could not so much as walk outside without a male relative. We met women who said they had prepared to commit suicide, because they had no hope of change. The world tut-tutted when the Taliban did things like destroy the enormous Buddha statues in Bamiyan. But after feeling briefly ennobled, the world would turn away.
The Taliban outlawed news, art, music, theater, song, literature, dance, sport, comedy and any religion but theirs. They built a society in which women were captive, dissenters were prisoners and minorities — Buddhists, the Hazara people or gays — were marked for extinction.
We did a story about the Kabul soccer stadium. The groundskeeper there recalled how on Friday afternoons, Talibs with guns and whips rounded up people on the streets, herded them into the stadium and locked the doors. They would parade a couple of dozen prisoners across the field, and denounce them by name and crime: theft, adultery or heresy. Then, they strung them from the soccer goal posts and — I choose to be blunt about this — chopped off their hands or feet to bleed their lives away in the grass.
Today, political corruption, tribal rivalries and violence against women still afflict Afghanistan. But there are millions of women in school and at work. Women are in the Afghan parliament. There are numerous allegations of vote fraud in the recent election, but there are political parties and free press to pursue them. It is hard to weigh the crime of vote fraud against the kind of people who chop off limbs in soccer stadiums.
It was the crime of al-Qaida terrorists, whom the Taliban let use Afghanistan, that brought the U.S. and NATO there. But even if al-Qaida now hides in the hills of Pakistan, for many of us who saw the Taliban's brutal and bloody abuse of their own people, it would seem another crime to let such murderers take power again.