Copyright: TIME, October 4, 2018. With P.W. Singer.
Weeks ago, in Afghanistan, the Taliban marked the Eid al-Adha holiday with a surprise attack. It sought to demonstrate that 17 years of effort by the U.S. forces were for naught–and to inspire the American public to bring its troops home, as the Tet offensive playing out on U.S. TVs did during the Vietnam War. There was just one problem.
Almost no one noticed.
Yes, the Taliban seized much of Ghazni–a strategic city just 75 miles from Kabul. But while U.S. troops and their local allies battled for days to regain what they lost, few Americans back home were paying attention.
When U.S. forces first deployed to Afghanistan in October 2001, the war was conveyed in the same way as conflicts past. Journalists followed the troops in, filing stories that graced morning newspapers, evening broadcasts and weekly magazines. Seventeen years later, the troops are still there–nearly 15,000 of them–fighting America’s longest war. But most of how that war is told has changed. Just as Facebook (created in 2004), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011) and the like have transformed everything, they have also helped alter what we experience, know and think about war.
At the time of the U.S. invasion, almost no Afghans went online or used mobile phones. Now, 3.5 million people there use the Internet, and the nation boasts 24 million cell-phone subscriptions. Access to the web exists almost everywhere soldiers are deployed. This connectivity was unimaginable in past wars. Each minute, thousands of new data points tell the unending story of Afghanistan–from U.S. troops’ Instagram images and the Taliban’s YouTube propaganda to journalists live-tweeting shootouts and civilians sharing their lives like anyone else. All of us can now peer into a war zone, via direct sources, any time of day.
Yet beyond the families of deployed U.S. service members, most Americans have never been so distant from their nation’s wars. On Google, searches for “Afghanistan” have seen near constant decline for the past decade. On Twitter, “Afghanistan” is a mix of lightly read news reports and veterans lamenting how little talk there is about the conflict.
Maybe the best illustration, though, comes from America’s most influential social-media personality, who now commands not just those soldiers but also the country’s attention. As of Oct. 3, @realDonaldTrump had devoted some 30 tweets to the NFL anthem controversy during his presidency. He had tweeted about Afghanistan only five times.
Trump, more than most anyone else in the world, understands what sells online–and what does not. It is telling, then, that the conflict’s most “viral” moment in the past 10 years was not an insurgent attack or an American death or a serious discussion of ending the war. Rather it was the showy April 13, 2017, dropping of the “Mother of All Bombs.” Across social media, mentions of Afghanistan finally, briefly spiked–but only to say how amusing the name or big the explosion was.
Yet even as the American public drifts further from the conflict, social media has enabled surreal new connections among those who fight it. On 9/11, the U.S. military and the Taliban had literally zero contact; their first exchanges were voiced threats over crackly walkie-talkies, followed by hundreds of bombs dropped by B-52s.
Today they don’t just communicate with each other online on a regular basis–they do it in front of the world. As a result, their interactions frequently resemble beefing teenagers, celebrities or, well, politicians. They argue about everything from the justness of their cause to the casualty count after an air strike. (When, in the midst of one angry 2016 exchange, the Taliban feed made reference to a NATO commander’s mistress, it left observers aghast. The consensus was that the Taliban, a group that murders women for learning to read, had gone too far.)
Recently, there has been a little-noticed shift. After years of taunting and trolling, the tone of NATO and Taliban social-media feeds has begun to soften. Perhaps this is the beginning of a slow dance toward cease-fire negotiations, akin to once feuding celebrities sending flirtatious signals. Or not.
It is unclear how history will remember the Afghan war. The conflict seems a sort of background static rendered almost inaudible by the sound and fury of the social-media-driven news cycle. But there is one sure thing. Whether we “like” it or not, the war will end–as most things now do–with a tweet.
Singer and Brooking are the authors of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media