More Than Ever, We Should Be Grateful for Those Who Served in Afghanistan

This column was originally published for nationaljournal.com on August 17, 2021.

If there was a time that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan could have been declared a success, it would have been at least ten years, perhaps even 15 years, ago, when we had crippled the country's ability to host and train terrorists. Since then, the mission was cloudy, and victory was always going to be illusory.

Many argue that the U.S. leaving Afghanistan is dishonoring those Americans who have lost their lives, their limbs, or their quality of life, to say nothing of flushing out money down a toilet. But asking even more Americans to die or come home in physical or mental anguish doesn’t honor them either; it just makes their number bigger.

On Monday I spoke to two Afghanistan veterans. One, an Army lieutenant colonel still on active duty who and served combat tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said, I am a little shocked at how quickly Afghanistan has been overrun by the Taliban. My assessment is that corruption sealed their fate. The Taliban didn't have to fight, they just paid off commanders and city leaders."

Still, my friend of more than 20 years remains philosophical: "The way I like to think about it is that we took the fight to them for the last 20 years and likely prevented attacks on our homeland." Still, he added, “The only way Afghanistan could be a success is if we stayed forever, like in Korea or Japan. I have long thought that nation building was a mistake and that Counter Insurgency (COIN) cannot be won by foreigners, U.S. soldiers being the foreigners in this case. It does appear in retrospect that the Afghan Defense Force with the help of US enablers (Air Strikes, Intel, Special Forces, Training) could keep the Taliban at bay and prop up the Afghan Government. I think history will be harsh on our decision to pull out like we did. The cost of sustaining our gains will probably pale in comparison to the cost to do it all over again should the need arise."

The other is David Cook, one of our two sons, who with his 82nd Airborne unit deployed as an enlisted man for seven months in 2012 to Forward Operating Base Warrior and Joint Security Station Hasan in Ghazni Province. Returning safely (thank God) and awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge when his enlistment was up, went back and graduated from college under the GI Bill, is married and pursuing a career in coaching college football.

David writes: “I’m pissed but not surprised. This isn’t all on Biden since he inherited a losing hand (although he gets extra blame for being involved under Obama also). But Biden has taken a losing hand and utterly blown it. It’s disgusting what’s happening. I told [my wife] the other day I was all idealistic and thought I was joining the legacy of the WWII guys, didn’t realize I was getting the Vietnam side of history.”

Afghanistan is not so much a country, with a sense of patriotism or common identity, as a collection of tribes. President Biden said as much in his news conference last month. Leaving Afghanistan was inevitable, the only question was which president would pull the plug. Staying in would be a mistake, leaving now is a mistake, everything a mistake for the last 15 years or so, the question is whether you want to compound the mistake further. But the way in which the U.S. pulled out is where Biden has considerably more exposure.

My understanding is that the administration had a great deal of advice from active and retired military and diplomatic officials on how to plan and execute an exit strategy and prepare for various contingencies. No doubt a fast collapse by the Afghan Army and government should have been one of those scenarios. After all, nobody ever went broke betting against the unity of the Afghanistan military.

In recent hours I have already seen sharp analysts sending reports to clients suggesting that the Afghanistan collapse will feed the “America in decline” and an “undependable ally” narrative that U.S. adversaries like Russia and China have been promoting in recent years, the opposite of the “America is back” message that Biden and his administration have been promoting to our allies around the world.

The images of what we have seen on the news in recent days are obviously depressing for many Americans. But they should not diminish the honor and the sacrifices of the brave Americans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. They did their job as well as was possible under extremely challenging circumstances. The Vietnam War-era veterans were treated shabbily for decisions made by others. They, as well as those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, should be seen alongside those (like my Dad) of the Greatest Generation 75 years ago, as Americans deliberately putting themselves in harm's way on behalf of their country. We should be eternally grateful for them.