As a veteran of both Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan (2012-2013), I am having a hard time processing all my feelings today. Seemingly from minute to minute I change from anger to sorrow to determination to a sense of helplessness and abandonment. I suppose I naively assumed that the United States would maintain a presence in Afghanistan like we have in Okinawa, mainland Japan, Korea, Germany, and Italy, and that we would stay the course to ensure our hard-won advances on the battlefield would be supported by the American people and our government for generations to come.
Now I watch in horror as all of that is undone.
I watched as terrified Afghans clung to the bottom of an American C-17 as it took flight, leaving them to plummet to their deaths. Watching the scene, I could not help but think of the Americans who hurled themselves off the top of the burning World Trade Center towers twenty years ago. Yes, death was inevitable, but it beat the alternative. They died trying.
In 2020, the U.S. lost eleven service members in Afghanistan, whereas eighteen were killed in non-combat operations elsewhere in the world. With those numbers, it is hard to argue that the cost of keeping a small combat force in Afghanistan is worse than the international disaster and detriment to the American image we’ve witnessed over the last few days.
We as a country have been here before. We did this in Iraq in 2019, 2011, and 1991; Vietnam in 1975; and Cuba in 1961. In fact, we have abandoned everyone who has ever helped us in a major conflict since 1953. Since Vietnam, our adversaries have learned that all it takes to defeat the most powerful, technologically advanced military that has ever existed is to simply be patient. We think in two- to four-year election cycles, whereas our enemies think in decades to centuries. When you’re up against supersonic fighters, ten carrier strike groups, stealth bombers, and the most elite force on the planet, all you must do is wait it out. Poke and prod and kill enough Americans to keep the war on the front page of the news, and eventually, an election cycle will come up with the slogan: “Bring our boys home.”
The irony, of course, is that this is precisely how we defeated the largest and most advanced military in the world some two hundred years ago. Twice. This sort of guerilla warfare is how our nation was founded and how we again defeated the British in the War of 1812. We seem to have no institutional memory. Not only have we forgotten this fact, but we also seem to have forgotten Saigon and ISIS.
It is too late to retake Afghanistan. We have just handed them, on a coyote brown platter, twenty years’ worth of weapons, armored vehicles, aircraft, artillery, logistical know-how, and training. The Taliban now have in their possession all that we have worked for, all the funds we committed, and the fate of not only the Afghan people but also the region and the future.
What we have before us is the largest humanitarian crisis seen in a generation (or two). Personal Afghan friends who worked on bases with me in country are currently in hiding, fearing for their lives. I am actively using every channel available to me, official or otherwise, to get them to safety.
As one of my close friends in Afghanistan said to me: “Our life is in danger. My [family’s] in danger. My daughter, she cannot go to school.”
If we do not retrieve every last Afghan who is sympathetic to our cause from their country safely, securely, and speedily, we risk their lives just as surely as we risk losing the last shred of credibility we have in the world.
My fear is that history will look back in hundreds of years, point to this day, and say, “Thus began the fall of the American dream,” as the flag of our enemies flies proudly overhead.