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Reflections On Afghanistan's 20-Year War
Joe Biden

Reflections On Afghanistan's 20-Year War

The mission of the United States in Afghanistan was supposed to be simple.

On September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden and his followers did the unthinkable: they hijacked passenger planes and killed thousands in attacks on buildings that symbolized American power, and the public overwhelmingly supported invading Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban movement had sheltered bin Laden.

The initial strike was swift, but American troops and their allies remained in Afghanistan for another 20 years, despite the fact that president after president said it was time to leave, and the Taliban regained ground while US-backed forces remained shaky.

President Joe Biden announced on April 14 that the United States would withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.

“I am now the fourth president of the United States to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” Biden said in a speech delivered from the White House Treaty Room, the same location where President George W. Bush announced the start of the war in 2001. “I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.”

According to a Defense Department statement issued this week, the United States has completed approximately 12% of the withdrawal.

Stardia spoke with veterans of the war, including non-Americans who supported the US campaign, about their complicated feelings about the war's end, their doubts about the value of the effort, the friends they made (and sometimes lost), and how it felt to risk their lives for a project that most Americans seemed to forget.

‘We learned how to fight a war for which no one cared.’

Peter Lucier, 31, is a law student at Saint Louis University School of Law who served as a Marine infantryman in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. Since leaving the military in 2013, Lucier has written about his experiences and is active with the progressive veterans group Common Defense, which advocated for a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It was supposedly over, and I wasn't happy. I didn't cry until later; I just felt empty, almost angry. It seemed like the announcement was coming not as a result of a watershed moment. It's cliche, but it was definitely not with a bang, but with a whimper. There wasn't a moment of reckoning.

“I want you to remember that not a single thing you do out here is worth the life of a single Marine,” said a colonel to us shortly after we arrived in country.

It felt like something you'd hear at a safety briefing before a training exercise, like, "Hey, remember, this is just training. Nothing we do is like worth someone dying over, so if something's unsafe, just stop it." But this is war. The thing we're doing is supposed to be worth a Marine's life, because if it's not, then what are we doing here?

I have the impression that the business of government, whether it was Pentagon brass or senior-level calls, was a campaign of dishonesty and half-truths that was allowed to continue because no one cared, because of public apathy, because of the war's "low cost" an acceptable number of casualties, a relatively low footprint.

We learned how to fight a war that no one cared about, and perhaps that is the legacy. We learned how to keep a war going for 20 years without enraged the average voter enough to do anything about it. The legacy is that America can now get away with long-term violence and military action in other places by putting it on the shoulders of a remarkably small group of people.

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‘Nothing civilians can say compares to war.’

Esti Lamonaca, 30, is a native New Yorker who vividly recalls the 9/11 attacks. Lamonaca served in Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst attached to Special Forces task forces from 2015 to 2016, before leaving the military as a sergeant and pursuing a degree in anthropology with minors in community organizing and women and gender studies. They are the national lead organizer at Common Defense.

I proudly wore my Afghanistan vet hat [the week of the withdrawal announcement] because I felt such a sense of relief and euphoria.... When I wear my hat around, I never expect anyone to say anything to me because I don't assume people understand what it means, but I was stopped by one much older African American person who said they were extremely happy the US was withdrawing.

It really helps a lot of us who are suffering from PTSD to know that no one will have to suffer there any longer... We did not win the war by any means, but we did win the fight for what was desperately needed right now and had been long overdue.

I didn't stop crying all week. I walked around, went for runs, and cried. I thought about every single person I lost there and lost back home, and I prayed for them to be at peace now. I literally re-lived every single day, things I had suppressed. I saw Afghan women looking at me with stoic faces that didn't want us there. I saw kids throwing rocks at us but also hugging us.

There is a quote-unquote normal way to be in the world, and when veterans share our stories, many people will gasp or feel so bad for us; they simply don't understand, and just sharing our stories makes us feel even more alienated. Don't try to relate to us, either; there is nothing that civilians can say that is comparable to war unless they have been there themselves.

I hope that every single troop member who returns home understands that their experiences are valid, and I really, really hope that the media considers taking on stories from people who have actually witnessed the war, because just because the war is over does not mean that any sort of Afghanistan vet is over the war.

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'It'll be complete chaos and a graveyard.'

Between 2010 and 2014, Najeeb Aminyar, 30, worked as an interpreter for US forces in Afghanistan in Kabul. He moved to America on a Special Immigrant Visa, but nearly all of his family remains in Afghanistan. He has earned associate and bachelor's degrees and is now a law student at Texas A&M University. He also volunteers with the group No One Left Behind to help other Afghans on SIVs.

Even though I am not there and am not in danger, I was terrified by this news because I feel for hundreds of thousands of others who are in great danger and are expected to be left behind once the United States leaves. The United States government still has time: If they want, they can do a lot to improve the situation. They can increase personnel to work on [Special Immigrant Visas] at the United States embassy in Kabul.

When I was in Kabul, I was terrified for myself and my family.... In the last 20 years, 300 interpreters [and their family members] have been killed, and I believe the number of people who have been injured or whose families have been kidnapped must number in the thousands. When I went out, I hid my face with a scarf. Close relatives, neighbors, and friends had no idea what I was up to.

When I first arrived in the United States in 2014, the situation in Afghanistan was ten times — if not more — worse, and once the United States troops leave, the situation will be total chaos and a graveyard for people known to be affiliated with the United States army and coalition forces.

The ideal situation would be for the United States to reconsider their withdrawal, giving at least a year or two to mitigate the situation in Afghanistan and bring both sides to the table, to create a comprehensive peace treaty between them, and then have neighboring countries and other influential countries sign the treaty. They should take responsibility, saying, "We guarantee that we are not g

I'm concerned about the entire population, not just my family.

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‘I literally have soldiers in my formation who... believe in conspiracy theories.’

Timothy Berry, 31, was a captain in the Army who served in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division in 2015. While at West Point, his classmates elected him class president, only the third time in the school's more than 200-year history that a Black student was chosen and graduated with that position. He now lives in Hudson, New York, and is a graduate student at NYU Stern School of business.

At the time, I was noticing an erosion of trust in democracy at home, particularly as a Black American; Ferguson was taking place, and the Black Lives Matter movement was taking shape in 2015....

Something that was always clear to me, even when I arrived in Afghanistan, was that we were trying to help build this country, and then I turned on the television and saw police violence at home, and Donald Trump rising to power and eventually becoming the Republican nominee for president, completely trashing all the institutions that Americans had previously trusted.

I had a conversation with an Ohio soldier about the Newtown massacre with those children who were killed [at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012] and he said to me with a straight face, "Sir, that didn't really happen. That was all fake." My first reaction was to get a counseling statement. I kept talking to him and was just realizing.

There is a lot of work to be done at home, so the withdrawal, even if it is only symbolic, is significant because it shows that the US is working internally to prove that its own democracy is worthwhile.

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‘The country is lovely, and I really enjoyed it.’

Jessica St. John, 35, joined the Iowa Army National Guard right out of high school and served in Iraq (2007-2008) and Afghanistan (2010-2011), providing security for an agriculture team in Kunar Province. Her experience working with the local population inspired her to pursue a degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages, and she now teaches English-language learners.

After my service, I attended the University of Northern Iowa, where I studied TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), which was inspired by my work with the local population in Afghanistan.

I was on a super base in Iraq, where you couldn't see anything but sand and fences, and I was in Afghanistan on [Forward Operating Base Camp Wright], which is in a remote location. The country is beautiful, and I don't know how to put it into words.

I became obsessed with the culture, reading a lot of books to learn more about why Afghanistan was the way it was, and working with the locals was also a lot of fun.

I was reading the news online [when I found out about the withdrawal decision] and all I could think was, "Thank God." To me, both wars were a waste of resources: people's lives, money, and time. Because we were there for so long, we did so to speak, to win hearts and minds, but I believe what we were actually doing over there could've been done covertly, with special forces and dif

I feel sorry for the interpreters and others who worked with us; they are not safe there, and they need a way out, whether it's to the United States, Canada, or wherever they feel safe.

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‘My oldest daughter is 11 years old, and she would have enough time to go there twice if she kept going like this for another ten years.’

Sam Rogers, 34, enlisted in 2004 and deployed to Afghanistan three times, twice in uniform and once as a civilian; he now lives in Milwaukee and works for Concerned veterans for America, an organization opposed to extensive U.S. military involvement abroad that is funded by the well-connected conservative Koch network.

My first tour was during President Obama's 2009-10 Kandahar surge, which was probably the bloodiest conflict in the country's history, with my unit losing 42 soldiers and having over 300 amputees.

I was in disbelief [when the news broke]. I honestly didn't think we'd be able to leave... I expected us to leave with a large Special Forces contingent or something. I'm probably more to the right of center. I shared the video of [Biden's] speech; I pulled over on the freeway to listen to it. I was thrilled that he was so explicit in his commitment to withdraw all troops and to end this conflict.

Connecting the futility of a campaign to the sacrifice and valor of individuals is one of the reasons we've been trapped in this for so long, and I'm glad that future generations of Americans won't have to go through it. My oldest daughter is 11 years old, and she'd have enough time to go there twice. Both my wife and I are military, so there's a very good chance that our kids will be f

My third deployment was as a civilian intelligence officer, and it really cemented the fact that there was no grand strategy, no master plan, and that these things that I had assumed or hoped existed above me as an enlisted man didn't.

As a conservative, I've begun traveling around and meeting with conservative groups, saying, "I'm sure you're all extremely dissatisfied with President Biden for a variety of reasons, but this should not be one of them. This is where we should be bigger, we should be supporting something meaningful, something that explicitly supports the troops," and that's been received very positively.

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‘Saying it wasn't worth it is a slap in the face.'

Following the 9/11 attacks, the NATO alliance invoked its mutual defense clause for the first time, requesting that the United States' global partners support the mission against al Qaeda, including in Afghanistan. Countries such as Germany sent thousands of troops to join the American effort, and are now withdrawing forces alongside the US.

The withdrawal is a logical answer because... they missed the point of creating a better way for this country; however, I believe the date is incorrect: choosing 9/11 to withdraw from Afghanistan is a terrible date and a slap in the face of every killed and injured soldier, because the meaning is that it began with 9/11, with the attack on the twin towers, and ended in a war that we lost.

When I first arrived in Afghanistan, I thought to myself, "OK, we will bring freedom to this country, education, wealth." We saw a lot of poor people with no medicine, nothing. We saw a lot of beaten females. We saw depression. I thought it would be better... but after an attack on our bus [when a suicide bomber killed four German soldiers in 2003], everything goes wrong.

I cried a lot about my fallen comrades, but to say it wasn't worth it is a slap in the face. In my heart, there are two sides: I see comrades, I see the injured, and I see veterans struggling with PTSD, but it's worth it because I have small examples. We saved a lot of children's lives with minor surgeries, we helped women escape abusive men because we built a women's shelter.

We don't have a veterans' culture like the United States, so everything with a hint of war is very difficult in German society.... They know we were in the war, but they close their eyes, so we struggle with a lot of bureaucracy and with the past. We don't have veterans homes or centers, so it's very difficult in Germany, but it will get better.

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‘If you send people there, you must commit to supporting them.’

Blake Feldman, 41, grew up in New York City and was present on September 11, 2001. He attended Valley Forge Military Academy and joined the Army JAG Corps after receiving his law degree. He served in the military for more than nine years, the majority of which was spent overseas in Central Europe and Asia, and was in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.

I was in Afghanistan during the first government shutdown, and soldiers and their families were not paid for several weeks; I'm there with junior soldiers, and I'm concerned about how their wives and children will get groceries once they return home.

That's unconscionable, and it's the kind of thing that influenced my opinion: if you're going to send people there, you have to commit to supporting them, which includes ensuring they can complete the mission and achieve the goals you've assigned to them. You can't just send them there and then forget about them or fail to provide clear objectives.

Leaving the military was a big decision for me. In 2014, two big things happened. First, the Office of Personnel Management informed me that the identity of everyone who had ever held a security clearance had been compromised.... That was a big deal in my life.

At the same time, I received a letter from the federal student loan office stating that my federal service did not qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.... When I was in Afghanistan in 2010, they did not send [the loan letter] to Afghanistan; instead, they sent it to my old address in Tennessee, and because I did not receive the letter because I was deployed, they assumed I was not interested in cheking out.

So when I realized that, one, my identity and the identities of all my friends and family were not secure, even though I was serving, and two, I wouldn't be able to use my federal service to pay off my student loans, I just felt like I was in the wrong place, like I wasn't relevant anymore.

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‘No amount of Special Forces raids will protect Afghan women’s rights.’

Kyle Bibby, 35, is a former Marine Corps infantry officer who served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012 and later served as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Obama administration. After leaving the military, he co-founded the Black veterans Project and is the national campaigns manager at Common Defense, which advocated for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. He currently resides in Jersey City, New Jersey.

I never felt that what I was doing in Afghanistan made my community in New Jersey safer. They found Osama bin Laden while I was there, and he was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. I had a Marine ask me sarcastically, "So, what, are we going home now?" That was ten years ago.

people in Afghanistan do not want a large, predominantly white army from the other side of the world telling them what to do. I had another platoon commander tell me near the end of the deployment, "The Taliban do a lot of messed up stuff, but the fact is they can recruit guys who want to fight against invaders."

It's difficult to see a largely white military force in a very poor, predominantly brown country and not feel a sense of parity with the policing we see in the United States. My time in Afghanistan piqued my interest in criminal justice and working in low-income African American communities.

There is no amount of Special Forces raids that will protect women's rights in Afghanistan. people are saying the situation is going to deteriorate for women. Will a bunch of SF guys kicking in the door and shooting people solve that?

people need to be more critical of these generals.... I'm tired of hearing them make excuses for why they couldn't finish the job in 20 years. Ultimately, generals win or lose wars, and they didn't win this one.

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