As discussion of Afghanistan heats up today as Obama makes his West Point speech, I realized something. One of my frustrations with the Canadian "this war was longer than World War I and II combined) and the American "fourteen years of war" thing is that the effort in Afghanistan was hardly a steady, consistent one.
Canada came and went in 2002, did some peacekeeping around Kabul in late 2003-2004, and was only really in the war business from 2005-2011 in Kandahar. Yes, casualties occurred before that time frame. But Canada was not "at war" in the same way for the entire period.
The US had "boots on the ground" from 2001 until ... 2016 apparently. But it is critical to remember that the US did not engage in counter-insurgency until 2009 or so, and that NATO did not expand its coverage beyond Kabul until 2005-2006.
So, I had an epiphany. I learned about 18 years ago that that interrupted sleep is vastly inferior to uninterrupted sleep, and I kept re-learning that lesson for about five years. Interrupted war is perhaps similar. That we almost certainly would have better outcomes if we did not give the Taliban a chance to recover after its big defeat in 2001-2002. It is if-history, a counter-factual, but I cannot help but think that the original sin in Afghanistan for the US (other than perhaps empowering Pakistan in the 1980s) was the Iraq distraction. We would still have had difficult challenges in Afghanistan including Karzai, Pakistan and poppies, so it is hard to say how much better things would be.
But whenever we speak of this long war, we should remember that for much of it, it was on the backburner of US foreign and defense policy.