The Showtime documentary The Longest War shines a light on the US occupation of Afghanistan which, pushing towards 20 years, is literally the USA’s longest war ever. This is a bracing, graphic and disturbing watch, showing the aftermath of decades of conflict and terror that has plagued the region. It has been an escalating series of bad decisions and mismanagement that has contributed to the ongoing war. Afghanistan has earned the nickname of “the graveyard of Empires” where world superpowers go to die and The Longest War shows why; armies go there, get stuck in a quagmire and can’t leave.
Jumping back decades, even past the initial start of the US war in 2001, The Longest War starts in the 1970s with the invasion of Afghanistan by Russian forces. The US supplied arms to the Mujahedeen “freedom fighters” via Pakistan in a proxy war against the Russian communist threat. This was a plot point in Rambo III when Rambo righteously fought against the Russians alongside the Afghan freedom fighters. This supplying of arms sowed the seeds of what would become the Taliban rule and the rise of Al-Qaeda which led to the 9/11 attacks. But there were obvious missteps and mistakes that piled up along the way.
One thing that Director Greg Barker is very good at is showing the domino effect of historical moments that could have changed the outcome. The Longest War does not have an overbearing voice over narration, instead it is a lot of interviews with spies, journalists, former US government agents, Afghanistan locals, and more as the film goes along a timeline revealing critical points throughout the years. This movie does not shy away from the messiness of war, with a lot of graphic images showing the result after citizens are endlessly bombed for decades.
The missteps and mistakes are infuriating in hindsight. With the Russians leaving in the late 80s, Afghanistan descended into civil war for a decade which is where Al-Qaeda consolidated their power, with one journalist saying they were able to take over entire cities without even firing a shot as they were so powerful and feared. After Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in the 1990s President Bill Clinton said he was a threat but an interview with a former US operative reveals they could have killed Bin Laden in the ‘90s but were not authorized to use lethal force. Letting Bin Laden go eventually lead to the 9/11 attacks, and since Bin Laden had a power base in Afghanistan and was supported by the Taliban government, the US invaded.
This is where the war officially started, just a few weeks after 9/11. But as interviewees note throughout the documentary, the CIA has always been involved in Afghanistan, going back to the Russian invasion. Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were driven from the region but, naturally, there is yet another screw up. The mountain region where Bin Laden where hiding was bombed mercilessly but the US refused to commit more troops on the ground which led to his escape. But for a moment, something approaching “democracy” did actually flourish in the region, Afghanistan actually held elections for the first time in its history and the restrictive Taliban rule was gone. Gender equality and even local popular culture started to emerge. In one of the movie’s more interesting side tangents, there are interviews with local Afghan media producers who started a radio station and even moved onto a TV broadcast singing competition. It is fascinating to see a culture starting to emerge from a repressive regime.
Which makes it more frustrating as things come crashing down again. Not all at once, but a slow shifting of priorities. What had the most impact was the War in Iraq where suddenly resources and troops who were keeping Afghanistan in a semblance of order mostly vanished for an even more pointless conflict. As one interviewee points out, with the sudden influx of cash into the region, corruption was inevitable as the people became disenfranchised with their government. Add in the shocking escalation of drone warfare under President Obama where the civilian casualties were increasing, which the US Government denied.
This led to the Taliban worming its way back into Afghanistan as they took back territories that they had abandoned years later. There is a chilling interview with the current Vice President of Afghanistan near the end of the film where he rather coldly states that the Americans can leave at any time but they would be leaving a country to collapse under Taliban rule again. There’s even a recounting of an attack on an Afghanistan university which is downright horrific, combined with a bombing of a hospital that is even more horrific. The movie’s closing images offer up a brief bit of hope, the surviving victims of the university attack come back to get their diplomas, and there is progress made towards an eventual peace treaty. But as the entire film as laid out, peace does not come easily to Afghanistan.
The Longest War is a fascinating watch that clocks in a less than 90 minutes so it keeps things fast pace without ever seeming like a dull history lesson. War is definitely Hell and Afghanistan seems to have been caught in Hell for decades with no escape.
The Longest War
Director: Greg Barker
Starring: Lisa Maddox and Breshna Musaza