The Defense Department recently announced troop withdrawals by Jan. 15 that will reduce American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to 2,500 each from their one-time highs of some 170,000 and 100,000 troops, respectively. This drawdown makes explicit what those of us who served in the military have long realized: We lost.
War is evil even when it is necessary but our inability to win has stolen even the possibility that the ends might justify the means. For the roughly three million service members whose boots touched soil in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 19 years, our defeat is a uniquely personal loss.
When I was sent to Iraq in 2009 it was to safeguard our withdrawal. During our entire deployment in the once treacherous Sunni triangle we discovered and disposed of a single roadside bomb on the main highway outside Falluja, where they had once been as common as potholes. I returned home wishing I could have done more but was glad to see how much progress had been made by the regiments who’d fought so hard before me.
When I read a few years later that the Islamic State had overrun that same area I began to sense that our efforts had been in vain. But it was my Afghanistan deployment in 2010-2011 that cemented their futility for me.
My company defended a labyrinthine cluster of mud-walled villages set amid fields of poppy and corn in the Musa Qala District of Helmand Province. As the northern tip of the Marine campaign in Helmand we held a line alongside battalion after battalion of Marines that extended south through the river valley to the district center, where the bazaar and the governor were, and then down past Sangin to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and further to Marja and Garmsir.
People often ask me what Afghanistan was like but I can never really answer: Each district might as well have been its own war for the Marines who fought, with victories and defeats known only to them.
I often think back on the moments in my deployments when the crack of a gunshot or the deep thud of a large roadside bomb suddenly infused my life at war with a clear and tangible purpose. I remember the kids lining up the first day after the school reopened, the first time the partners we trained in the Afghan Army took the initiative to patrol without our assistance, and the rare smile on a villager’s face after we’d provided the first aid that had saved the life of his father, who had been shot in crossfire.
I try to remember those small decencies instead of the casualties and the killing but they do little to assuage the overwhelming senselessness of the greater war.
‘Democracy Doesn’t Come in a Box’
Five American military veterans on why they see the war in Afghanistan as an unwinnable conflict.
When I signed up for the Marine Corps, I really believed in the mission. I believed that it was bringing something like democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. But now, I don’ t see how you can be a killer and be a nation builder at the same time. There’s a concept that if you kill the wrong person you just create more insurgents. How do I win the hearts and minds of the local populace by walking around with a machine gun in their neighborhood and shooting at people? Democracy doesn’t come in a box. It’s not something that fits every country. And it’s an ideal that America has never been willing to let go. The fact that we’ve gotten to this place now, in 2019, where poll after poll has shown that nearly two-thirds of Afghan and Iraq veterans have said, quote, “The wars were not worth fighting,” is remarkable, because that’s a higher rate than the American people at large who didn’t serve. The United States does not possess the capability to ultimately alter the outcomes meaningfully in Afghanistan. I consider myself a conservative, a Republican. In 2011, I had read that things were on the way to getting better. But when I was deployed to Afghanistan, I can tell you, I saw violence was going up the civilians were getting killed, the Afghan military were not being effectively trained. Our leadership had been lying to us. You cannot accomplish with military power a political outcome. ”The bad news if we leave this place it’ll to go to shit in a year.” “Seriously?” “If we pull out, this place will fall apart very, very quickly.” “In terms of our security, you need to maintain some footprint or some guarantee that Al Qaeda won’t resurge in the area.” There’s this line of thinking that if we withdraw from Afghanistan, there will be a new civil war that’s going to start. O.K., there is a civil war going on in Afghanistan right now. The Afghans were having a civil war in 2001 when we first went in there. They had been fighting for years. And our presence there does not stop it. We’re keeping our troops there indefinitely because of this idea that if we leave there’s going to be this vacuum. This idea really needs to be questioned. It’s really not an idea of safety. It’s really keep our troops on the ground to control the Muslims and the brown people of Afghanistan. I don’t think the American people have actually really refreshed their browser on the Afghan war since 2001 or two. All the guys who are responsible for 9/11 are dead. The primary enemy in Afghanistan is the Taliban. It’s crucial for Americans to understand that the Taliban is not Al Qaeda. Whereas Al Qaeda is centered on going to war with the United States, the Taliban rejects that entire idea. Their concern is not to make the world Islamic. It’s to make Afghanistan an Islamic emirate. The fact is right now that tactically on the ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban are in a very strong position. Southwest Afghanistan is just a free-fire zone. Everybody is getting shot at regularly. The Taliban own the area outside of us and they would just bombard our towers all day and we’d fight back and forth. And then we’d have to go out on patrol, even though patrolling was stupid because as soon as you leave the walls you have no protection. I remember hearing the first explosion when the first Marine landed on an I.E.D. and it seemed entirely meaningless to me. There seemed to be no redemptive meaning behind this death. I was there when we had 140,000 troops on the ground. And I can tell you there was vast areas of the country that we didn’t even have influence. Now imagine the 14,000 troops we have there right now. They’re not protecting anything back home. We’re creating war zones and we’re creating refugees. People are going to get mad. They’re going to get upset and they’re going to get tired of it. They’re going to want revenge and they’re going to figure it out. It’s a war that we’ve spent $1 trillion on now. It’s a war where thousands of people have died, where children are growing up and all they’ve ever grown up in is a war zone. That’s the big lesson we need to learn. Diplomacy and targeted military deterrence is what will keep you safe. Whether we leave tomorrow or whether we leave 10 years from now, the outcome is the same, which is a brutal civil war and half the country is going to fall under Taliban rule again and women are going to live in a medieval situation until the Afghan people as a whole come up with an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem. It hurts like hell to say we should leave. But the argument that we should stay there because we are protecting women’s rights is not good enough anymore. Whatever we do is never going to ensure that the most disenfranchised people in Afghanistan are going to be protected, that women are going to have their rights protected. That is a burden that America will have to bear on its soul. I’ve seen firsthand men that I’ve known that end up getting blown up there, and I’ve questioned what do they sacrifice themselves for. But I’ll tell you what I’m worried about even war is that is the ones who haven’t died yet. Kids are joining the Army today — today — who were born after 9/11. Within six months, they’ll be in Afghanistan. My dad was in the military. My grandpa was in the Marine Corps and my daughter’s 4 now — she’s about to be 5. And I want the war to be over. Because 12 to 15 years from now, I don’t want my kid to die in the war that I went to.
Shortly after I returned from Afghanistan in 2011, President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed during a raid on his compound in Pakistan, where he was living after fleeing Afghanistan years before. As I watched people celebrating outside the White House and outside ground zero I hoped that the war was finally over, but even then it didn’t feel like victory.
The conflict had grown so much bigger since the attacks of Sept. 11 that his death felt like a footnote. The execution of a single dethroned sheikh suddenly paled in significance to my own recent experience at war. Later that night I tried to recall the circumstances surrounding the death of each man we’d killed and count how many there had been but there were too many to remember.
The Afghanistan war was finally lost for me in August 2015, several years after my own deployment ended, when the Taliban recaptured Musa Qala, which five men in my company had died defending. After the Taliban’s seizure, allied airstrikes bombed the same government center we’d sacrificed so much to hold.
A member of Parliament from Helmand Province later described that building as “completely vanished from the earth.” Along with it was buried any hope there might have been that the sacrifices I, and so many others, have made in service to our country would not be in vain.
The cost of these wars has been astronomical: Roughly $6 trillion in government spending, with the Defense Department spending alone costing each American taxpayer an estimated more than $7,000. Additionally, today’s young veterans face a legacy of psychological and physical injury, as well as illness from our war’s Agent Orange: the toxic burn pits whose smoke we inhaled.
Even more costly are the approximately 515,000 people killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, including more than 260,000 civilians. And for what? Iraq remains a tenuous democracy teeming with militias while Afghanistan is locked in a conflict with a resurgent Taliban, and peace talks are in deadlock.
Both countries fail to meet the objectives of freedom and democracy set when President George W. Bush started those wars. They fall short of President Obama’s goals when he sent me and 30,000 other troops to Afghanistan and of the claims he made when declaring an end to combat operation in Iraq only to see the Islamic State undo those gains. President Trump does not seem to even have a purpose for those 5,000 troops who will remain in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Like many service members I wrote a letter in case I was killed during my deployment. It began with an assurance to the friends and family I would have left behind: “It was worth it.” I believed then that we had a moral obligation to not only protect my fellow Americans but to leave the Afghan and Iraqi people with a chance to live in peace.
That obligation remains even though it cannot be fulfilled. Instead I am resigned that these wars will finally enter the history books not only as defeats but as stains on our national honor.
The political theorist and philosopher Michael Walzer writes in “Just and Unjust Wars” that “it still seems important to say of those who die in war that they did not die in vain. And when we can’t say that, or think we can’t, we mix our mourning with anger.” I would add that we also mix it with shame.
I recognize that shame is not a very American trait but with it comes humility. Sadly, my generation had to relearn the lessons of Vietnam in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in coming to grips with our defeat, we have a chance to ensure that we do not sacrifice future generations to such folly.
And by so doing we may yet salvage some purpose from this tragedy: to do everything in our power to avoid more wars, and to ensure that if and when the next war does come, it is worth it.
Timothy Kudo (@KudoTim), a former Marine captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is working on a novel about the Afghanistan war.
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