Many politicians, scholars, journalists (and pundits) have expressed their views on President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. (and allied) troops from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Many are supportive of the decision and many are critical. This author’s views (below) are subjective, based on personal sentiments and experiences.
There are, however, a few essays that are objective, sober, based on facts and history, pragmatic.
One of the best is by Steve Coll, a staff writer at the New Yorker.
Before, after (or without) reading my piece, please read “Leaving Afghanistan, and the Lessons of America’s Longest War” – It is the Afghan people, of course, who have paid the highest price for America’s failed ambitions — HERE.
On Wednesday – nearly 20 years into America’s longest war — that “good war” — and nearly 2,500 American deaths later, Joe Biden became the third U.S. president to promise the American people that we were done in Afghanistan.
No, those were not his exact words, but they reminded me of the words of the mother of the 1,990th soldier to be killed in Afghanistan nearly nine years ago.
The mother of Lance Cpl. Gregory T. Buckley, the 1,990th U.S. soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, said then, “Our forces shouldn’t be there. It should be over. It’s done. No more.” Cpl. Buckley was 21.
In a plea to President Obama, Buckley’s father wrote, “I’m begging you, in the name of my son Greg Jr., to bring our troops home NOW!”
There would be many more Gold Star parents to plead so.
For many Americans, the Afghanistan War has been a roller coaster of conflicting emotions, evolving viewpoints.
This author is no exception.
After the horrific attack of September 11, I supported the reprisals against those who had masterminded and organized the attack that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people and on the Taliban government that supported and subsequently protected and provided safe haven for the terrorists.
While I have always supported the troops, my support for sacrificing more American lives and squandering more treasure on a war more than 7,000 miles away has, let’s say, vacillated.
Today, as another president announces that “it’s time to end the forever war,” I look back at some of those emotions, some of those doubts and reflect on the human cost, the cost to humanity.
The reflections are long, very long, but so is the war.
In September 2010, more than 1,100 of our military had died in Afghanistan.
At that time, in “The Afghanistan War: ‘They Were Children When the War Began,’” I bemoaned the loss of so many young soldiers, many as young as 19, and quoted a very short letter to the New York Times that hit me like a ton of bricks.
“The saddest thing about reading the names of the American casualties in Afghanistan is to read their ages: 18, 19, 20, 21. They were children when the war began,” the writer said.
We know exactly how young these heroes were when the war began.
They were ages 9, 10, 11 and 12.
By God, they were only babies when the war began!
Just a month later, in “One Constancy of War: The Youth of Those Who Fight and Die,” I recalled how, while transiting through the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, my wife and I spotted a number of young men and women in pristine, desert-camouflage uniforms walking purposefully through the concourses towards the gates and to the aircraft that would eventually take them back to “somewhere in Eastern Afghanistan” to fight and perhaps to die, after having visited their parents, wives or husbands, their newly-born babies for a few precious days.
That same year, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan reached 100,000 and our forces would suffer more casualties that year than in any other year of the war, up to then…
Fifteen months later — 11 years into that war — I wrote in “Afghanistan: ‘Goal’ Accomplished’”:
Today, as our stay in Afghanistan exceeds a decade and has already surpassed the duration of the Soviet occupation of that country and as our goal to bring Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts to justice has been accomplished, our mission remains muddled, our objectives remain befuddled and I expressed “some serious concerns about that war” including rampant corruption, backstabbing, incompetence, and disloyalty at the highest and all levels in the Afghanistan government, military and police.
In April 2012, when more than 1,800 members of our military had died in Afghanistan and more than 15,600 U.S. service members had been wounded in hostile action, Afghan President Hamid Karzai — adding insult to our injuries and deaths — started “haggling over the price it would take for America to continue to help defend his country, his government,” demanding the U.S. commit to pay at least $2 billion a year for his forces.
These “insider attacks” or “green-on-blue violence,” would continue to rise.
Less than two weeks later, with the death of Army Specialist James A. Justice, the United States military reached 2,000 dead in the then-nearly-11-year-old conflict.
I had hopes that perhaps “a doomed soldier’s Letter could change the Course of the Afghanistan War.”
You see, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton, 26, an Army Ranger who was serving on his third tour of duty, in Afghanistan wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, (R-Fl), the senior Republican in the House of Representatives and the chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee.
Sitton’s letter pointed out the dangers and mistake of sending troops on foot patrols in fields that were known to be full of IEDs, with “no end state or purpose,” and where “every time they went into this field, someone lost a leg or an arm or their life.”
Sergeant Sitton was killed by an IED less than two months after writing the letter. He left behind his wife, Sarah, and their 9-month-old son, Brodey.
While his letter contributed to a change of heart on the part of the 81-year-old Congressman who thus far had consistently voted against troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, it did not materially change the course of the war.
Others, including Republican Congressman Tom Rooney, had second thoughts, too. “I no longer know what our mission is anymore…right now I am on Bill Young’s side of this issue. I have never been before,” said Rooney – but the war went on.
It would continue through 2013 despite “violations of the most basic human rights, decency and morality — the trampling of every democratic concept; the rampant corruption in [the Afghan] government, the military and security forces.”
It would go on even though the number of Americans killed by Afghan military and security forces in “insider attacks” rose to 37 since the beginning of 2012. These “insider attacks” or “green-on-blue violence,” would continue to rise.
It would go on even though the president of Afghanistan, for whose country more than 2,150 had then died, “slandered and accused our troops and our country of colluding with the Taliban to sow fears in order to prolong the presence of international troops in Afghanistan.”
Four months later, encouraged by President Obama’s commitment to end our military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014., I wrote “There comes a time when one must say, ‘Enough is Enough!’ ¡Basta!”
But the war would go on for another eight years.
Of course, I was conflicted about what would happen to innocent Afghan men, women and children when we left Afghanistan.
I felt exasperated — sick to my stomach — when I read, and wrote, about the despicable crimes committed against women and young boys…
When discussing the horrible freezing deaths of babies and children in the winter of 2012, I said:
For those of us who believe that we should get out of Afghanistan, there is the sad conundrum:
If we stay longer in Afghanistan, will we be able to save these children?
If we leave Afghanistan now, will more children die?
I went back to the words of regional expert Christine Fair who told CNN in the wake of the public execution of an Afghan woman accused of adultery (She was shot nine times “right under our noses”): “We can ask the question what will happen when we leave, but let’s remember that this is actually happening while we’re still there.”
On Christmas Day 2013, our troops – numbering 40,000 — were still there…
On Thanksgiving 2014, approximately 35,000 were still in Afghanistan, but approximately 24,000 troops would be going home under President Obama’s “drawdown plan” before the end of that year.
About 9,800 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan to support a non-combat “train, advise, and assist mission.
But the deaths would continue for another six years.
Young men and women would leave grieving parents behind and parents, warriors themselves, would “leave behind young children who would continue to pay the cost of war “with the cheers they won’t hear from the soccer sidelines;” who would leave behind teenagers who would have to do with “the hugs they won’t get at their graduations;” who would leave behind young adults who will pay the price with “the arms they won’t clasp down the aisle at their weddings.”
Those were the haunting words in 2015 by Steve Hendrix at the Washington Post introducing a heartbreaking collection of stories of sons and daughters who have lost their parents in the Afghanistan War.
The stories are of children who have heard “[t]he knock at the door.” Stories of children who have experienced and continue to experience “[t]he shock and grief that followed. An absence that lasts a lifetime.”
As I wrote at the time, “With a box of tissues by your side, read about 6-year-old Calvin Davis who was only four when his dad was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan. As his mother’s car passes some white fences along a gravel road in rural Arizona, Calvin turns to her and says, “There’s the graveyard…I see Daddy’s flags. Do you see it, Mommy?”
Read the “Children of the Fallen- Portraits of Loss” of 14 children – including Calvin’s — one for each year of a war that at the time had already claimed 2,351 U.S. servicemembers’ lives.
But the war would go on through 2016, 2017, 2018.
Fortunately, the “now-forgotten war” was not claiming as many of our soldiers.
In 2019, 22 American service members were killed in Afghanistan, the highest number since the end of 2014.
In 2020, 10 American service members died in Afghanistan, including Army 1st Lt. Joseph T. Allbaugh, 24, the last American service member to die in the war to-date.
On Wednesday, President Biden finally said “no to the generals.”
The President’s address was 2,200 words long. But, “in so many words,” he said, “It’s done. No more.”
Let’s hope third time is a charm.
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.