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Remembering a horrific day

We are not the first to get bogged down in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.

On Saturday, scores of residents throughout western Washington County, like those across the nation, will take time to remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

For those too young to recall Pearl Harbor or even the JKF assassination, the events of 10 years ago serve as a prompt for the classic question: 'Where were you when....?'

While almost all of us can answer that question, others are more vexing a decade later.

How did 9/11 change America?

Has the government done enough to keep the country safe from further acts of terrorism?

Has it gone too far?

Were we right to send troops to Afghanistan? Is their job done?

The death last month of Navy hospital corpsman Ryley Gallinger-Long in the Helmand Province is a grim reminder that the answers to these questions have real consequences. The young man from Cornelius, who was aiding a wounded soldier, was killed in the deadliest month this year in Afghanistan: 66 military men and women perished in August in that war-torn country, bringing the death-toll to nearly 1,650 over the past 10 years.

When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, it wasn't clear what our country's response could be.

Those who hijacked the planes used as weapons of mass destruction that day did not act on behalf of any nation state.

The organization they killed in the name of, Al Qaeda, operated at the time in dozens of countries, with membership scattered across the world.

And when a paper trail led U.S. forces (along with our allies) to the mountainous wilderness of Afghanistan to look for Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership, the task ahead of us was the ugly, difficult work of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism work: picking out enemies from crowds of potential allies.

Since starting this fight in October 2001, Americans have gritted their teeth and hoped for the best.

That time is over.

Even our victories have been messy.

While 20-somethings cheered in the streets of U.S. cities at the death of Osama Bin Laden in May, the U.S. military assault inside the borders of Pakistan destabilized our country's relationship with the political and military leadership inside that key Muslim country.

In getting bogged down in the messy politics of Asia and rugged mountains of Afghanistan we have joined a small list of powerful empires that could not exact their will there. The British gave up in 1842, three years after colonial troops first clashed with local warriors along the Khyber pass.

The Soviet Union lost its nine-year battle with the Mujahideen fighters in 1989.

So far, we've spent nearly 10 years.

We haven't lost for lack of trying. We haven't lost for lack of will. We have lost because toppling a nation state (like we did in Iraq) is a dramatically different task than toppling a world view.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley returned from Afghanistan last month, saying it's clear that we need to focus our anti-terrorism efforts elsewhere.

And it's equally clear that our costly mission there cannot return the world to the innocent state it was in before planes became bombs loaded with the innocent.