The last couple of weeks have been full of coverage and commentary about the U.S. military leaving Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan and the nearly complete withdrawal of American troops. Our time in Afghanistan is indeed coming to an end. Perhaps just about every single news media outlet has published or shared some article or thoughts about this withdrawal. How come these events are so significant?
A Bitter-sweet Event and a Confusing Sentiment
For many people, like myself, this is an extremely bitter-sweet event for many reasons. Having served in Afghanistan in the U.S. Army, I still miss it, after many years. I have come to the conclusion that I will always miss it. There will always be a huge sense of frustration, romanticism, and nostalgia about Afghanistan.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now, Charlie Sheen plays U.S. Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard. At the beginning of the movie, just as he is about to return to Vietnam for a special mission, his thoughts summarize this seemingly impossible irony quite perfectly: “When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.”
Now, of course, we can replace “jungle” with “the most beautiful, desolate, remote, backward, primitive, mountainous desert in the world.”
This sentiment, I am sure, is shared by thousands of Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and Sailors who passed through this place, at one time or another, during the last 20 years.
Afghanistan does have something both truly remarkable, and truly romantic about it. Yes, romantic. I fully recognize that this sounds completely crazy. Afghanistan is magical. It has an inexplicable allure. A charm in its chaos and a magnetism in its ruthlessness. There’s something poetic in the harshness of its reality. Don’t ask me to explain how or why. You need to have been there to understand.
I still want to go back.
Afghanistan, a Graveyard of Empires
Afghanistan has often been called the Graveyard of Empires. Should we place one more tombstone in the cemetery?
Almost every major civilization in history has tried to conquer or influence it: The Persians, Greeks, the Maurya Empire, Muslim Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, Mughals, British, and Russians. Believe it or not, in the city of Deh Rawud, along the Helmand River where I had my first posting to a remote, joint U.S. and Dutch firebase, there still stand today the ruins of a fortress constructed by Alexander the Great.
Control of Afghanistan and the jockeying of power between the British and the Russians was called “The Great Game.” What a great game it is. And probably will be, even after we are long gone.
Most of those civilizations never fully and effectively maintained control in Afghanistan and what control they had never lasted. Eventually, in some form or other, they all left.
With that said…
…here we are today. One more tombstone in the Graveyard of Empires, which reads:
Twenty Years of Nation-building
Twenty years later, this is the cost of the war and our time in Afghanistan. “Nation-building” is an expensive effort. It costs a lot of time, treasure, and blood.
And what do we have to show for it? This bitter-sweet moment… this significant event of U.S. troops vacating Bagram Air Base, which had been the main logistical and command hub for the U.S. and Coalition Forces, “ahead of schedule.”
Once we leave, Afghanistan will surely descend back into chaos, as the Taliban are now poised to retake control of huge portions, effectively guaranteeing a repeat of the civil war in which they took power over 25 years ago.
Talking about the “would haves, should haves, could haves” is another conversation entirely. The intense and deep feeling of frustration from many of us — both while we were there, and looking at it now — is significant. The combination of a lack of a will to win, poor decision-making, and lack of political strategy is something to revisit another day. Maybe we will come back to that.
What Do We Have to Show for Our Time in Afghanistan?
Should the U.S. remain embattled in a “forever war?” No, most certainly not. Should we remain in Afghanistan indefinitely? Of course not. Did we win? Hard to say. Now, should we stay?
Those of us who have lost friends, been wounded, and left a portion of our soul in Afghanistan, will always wonder and ask whether it was worth it. Did we do our job, did we make a difference? For years, the Taliban knew they didn’t necessarily have to win. As in the entirety of Afghan history, they just had to wait it out. So, they only had to not lose. This is a significant difference. And now after 20 years, when the Taliban retake the country and overwhelm the Afghan government’s forces what will we have achieved?
Fighting on Their Turf
Many of us, myself included, will carry physical and mental wounds from our time in Afghanistan for the rest of our lives. Was taking the fight to al-Qaeda and other extremist forces in Afghanistan, to disrupt their ability to plan and conduct future attacks against the U.S. and other Western countries enough, to justify where we are today?
Make no mistake about it: by fighting on their turf we tied down many of their resources and personnel and helped prevent Islamic extremists from conducting another September 11 attack. Was it worth it from that point of view? Of course yes. But, it was very expensive and we will continue paying for it for a long time.
With all of that in mind, we just turned a significant corner in the war in Afghanistan. Did we do enough? If the Taliban retake Afghanistan, and once again a haven is created for the remains of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, would it still have been worth it?
Will we have to go back?
I would go back.