That question - which has been asked in outrage, in confusion, in exploration - is over a decade old and doesn't have a clear answer. While more Americans might have had a more certain response in the time shortly after September 11th, now very few can articulate what our aims are, what is a price worth paying, and what success looks like other than drawing a finish line in the sand and then crossing it.
This question is now part of its third presidential election, but it has never been the protagonist. In its first, it was overshadowed by the Iraq War. In its second, it was fatefully deemed the "right war," in contrast with the Iraq quagmire by the man who would become president. In this election, where the economy looms largest, and Iran is puffed up to me the international bogeyman, most candidates have something in common with most Americans: they'd rather not discuss Afghanistan.
That comfortable neglect has been shattered by recent news, though; most immediately, the seemingly senseless and horrific killing of civilians by an American serviceman. Either we're trusting arms to the wrong men in our ranks or the experience of war is making good men go sour - and either one is a prospect we would rather not consider.
Whatever events that led up to this man's actions, there are other decisions within the power of our nation to make that would prevent the continued loss of civilian and military lives, the excessive expenditure of our national wealth, and the increase in danger our presence engenders: ending our military operation as soon as possible. We shouldn't leave because of Sunday's event, but Sunday's event at least re-awakens our nation to the fact that we are still in Afghanistan.
Shaking our country to that realization may be an important step to generating the will to end this costly expedition. Even today, it's being reported that White House advisers are considering an expedited drawdown. Sadly, that is the one opening the GOP needs to insert the war into the primary debate—shouting at President Obama for being a coward, for running away from an unfinished job, for not believing in the greatness of America.
Yet, I want a President brave enough to put an end to a misadventure; I don't know what the job is that we can finish; and I don't believe the deranged shooting of civilians represents American's greatness.
And, I'd wager, more Americans would agree with me—a cautionary tale as the GOP candidates (other than Ron Paul) wade into the debate. This war has continued because so many of us haven't been paying attention, or have accepted the Administration's plans for bringing our troops home. But the more we notice, the more we ask the question, "What are we doing in Afghanistan?"...and find ourselves able to answer it even less than any time in the past ten years.