Scenes from inside America’s longest foreign war

Scenes from inside America’s longest foreign war

Urgency Afghanistan — Today marks 20 years since the US invaded Afghanistan. A new exhibition highlights the vital power of photojournalism in documenting the country’s ongoing crisis caused by the war.

October 7 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the United States invasion of Afghanistan. What began as “Operation Enduring Freedom”, an air strike against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets, has resulted in anything but.

The US completed the withdrawal of its armed forces from Afghanistan on 30 August 2021, bringing to end the nation’s longest war of foreign land. Despite costing $2.313 trillion and 243,000 lives, the war proved yet another abject failure on the part of global empire – like Britain and the Soviet Union before it. 

Afghans enjoy the rides at Kabul City Amusement Park on the first day of Eid Al-Adha holiday. July 20, 2021 © Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

As the Taliban claimed victories across Afghanistan, the United States fled, leaving in its wake horrific scenes reminiscent of its departure from Vietnam. “The parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are uncanny,” says American photographer Michael Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center. 

Together with Cynthia Rivera, Kamber curated URGENCY! Afghanistan, a group exhibition bringing together the work of Victor J. Blue, Paula Bronstein, David Gilkey, Kiana Hayeri, Jim Huylebroek, Joao Silva, Marcus Yam, David Gilkey, killed in Afghanistan in 2016, and Tim Hetherington, killed in action in Libya in 2010.

URGENCY! Afghanistan explores the impact of war on a nation struggling to rebuild after it drove the Soviet Union out in 1989 after a ten-year war. In 1996, the Taliban came to power but very little of the country was rebuilt in the give years before the US invasion. 

US Army operations in Logar Province, village of Charkh

“The country was destroyed,” says Kamber, who was stationed in Afghanistan in 2011. “I’ve never seen anything like it. There were fields of rubble as far as you could see. There were no roads, no electricity, no plumbing. It’s a big country. Afghanistan is the size of France, and people lean-tos, in mud huts, or under a piece of plywood. People are living a subsistence level of survival. It’s such a hard life.” 

Despite these conditions, Afghanistan did not fold. “It was extremely difficult for the US to come in and try to unify Afghanistan under a democracy. The Pashtun leaders weren’t particularly interested in democracy, modernisation, building girls’ schools, or a lot of things the US was pushing. I saw the same thing in Iraq,” Kamber says.

Boys sell cotton candy near Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, August 2021 © Victor J.  Blue for the New York Times

“It takes trillions of dollars and several generations to revitalise a country of that size – and the American public lost interest almost immediately. People didn’t want to do decades of nation building in a country that they don’t understand and don’t feel they have any investment in.”

While stationed in Afghanistan, Kamber and Hetherington discussed the need for free journalism and photography education – and from these conversations, the Bronx Documentary Center was born. 

Displaced Afghans wait for aid handouts at a makeshift camp. 10 August 2021 © Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

“Some of these photographs are quite subtle, quiet moments. There’s a picture of a squad of American soldiers taken from above, and you seem them walking into this enormous desert that goes on for miles and miles. You just realised the futility of a dozen guys trying to patrol hundreds of square miles,” says Kamber. 

“It’s something you can’t get from a written piece or even video. You have to sit with these images to really let them soak in. That’s the power of photography.”

Talibs say their afternoon prayers before an MI17 helicopter damaged by departing US forces at the HKIA airport in Kabul, 31 August 2021

Khalil Ur-Rehman Haqqani delivers remarks at the Pul-i-Khishti Mosque in Kabul, 20 August 2021 © Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

German military convoy heads towards Kabul as a Northern Alliance guard from the checkpost waves them on after arriving at Bargram airport

URGENCY! Afghanistan is on view at the Bronx Documentary Center through November 14, 2021.

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