Take some time to read “The War Ends Here,” the cover story in the New York Times Sunday magazine. It’s the latest in a series of reports from embedded reporters—in this case, Luke Mogelson—about the endless and intractable war in Afghanistan. Mogelson spent weeks with the US Marines in Helmand province, where 821 American and British troops have died. And he asks, For what, exactly?

Countless Afghan civilians have died there, too, some of whom may or may not have been included in the latest annual report from the United Nations on civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

According to Mogelson, who lets his reporting speak for itself, the point of the American role in Afghanistan today is:

How can we forestall [the Taliban’s] full-fledged resurgence upon our departure?… First, leave behind a proficient national security force. And second, win them as much breathing room as time allows.


Neither one is happening, even as the French declare that they’re pulling up stakes in 2013 and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says that the US combat mission in Afghanistan will end no later than late summer 2013.

The ostensible reason the remote corner of Helmand is important, Mogelson notes, is that it’s home to the Kajaki Dam, a strategic resource that provides much of southern Afghanistan’s electricity. But he points out that there’s a good chance that by 2013 the Marines will have left, and that the Taliban—who’ve retreated north but are still active—will simply come back. The Afghan forces there are mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks in an overwhelmingly Pashtun region, and they’ll likely be heading home too, back north.

The article highlights the defiant futility of the Marines, who for some reason hoist an American flag over a fortified position, even though it’s guaranteed to draw enemy attacks:

Upon arriving at the Shrine, while his squad was still unpacking, Granados climbed onto a bunker roof and planted the flag between two sandbags. It was a surprisingly potent image—something you rarely see in Afghanistan, where the United States deliberately fights the stigma of an occupying force by framing its activities as strictly ancillary to the national government. I would learn that marines from the previous battery also had a flag. Invariably, they said, whenever it went up, the Shrine came under attack.

Mogelson travels to villages almost within a stone’s throw where the authority of the Afghan government has never reached, “entire communities, not a quarter-mile from the Shrine, cut off from the Afghan government, untouched by its laws, its army and police.”

And though civilians have died or been maimed by insurgent-planted IEDs in the area, the article makes the point that even though the Taliban is responsible for those deaths and injuries, the locals blame the international forces because they’ve drawn the Taliban into the fight in an area that was otherwise calm. He quotes a US officer:

“They feel like if we weren’t here, bombs wouldn’t be in the ground.”