As a former Army officer, the last several weeks have been difficult. My friends’ social media posts are reflective of the confusion and anger racking many who served in Afghanistan as they attempt to process the chaotic evacuation and crumbling of the Afghan state.
The comments take many forms, but if I could sum up one principal theme, it would be a sense of betrayal. Betrayal that so many years of hard work could be lost so suddenly, that Afghan allies could be left behind to their fates, that a 20-year mission seems to have ultimately had no purpose.
As a veteran who served in Afghanistan and was provided a brief view of the sacrifices being made there, I understand the sentiments of my fellow service members. The president’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has raised a number of painful questions about our actions, our lives and our sacrifices. But as we reckon with the fallout of the withdrawal, we must step back from our reflexive feelings and ask ourselves: Was this truly a betrayal?
How many of us who served in Afghanistan got to some point of the deployment, looked around, and knew with certainty that what was being asked of us was hopeless? Or perhaps more accurately, how many of us didn’t even know what was being asked of us? Help build a representative democracy? Ensure the Taliban could never again gain power? Deny safe haven to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda? All of the above?
I will forever remember leaving our small combat outpost in northern Kunar province for the last time in 2012 as the next, and final, American unit came in to relieve us. As I looked around at the surrounding hills and valley one last time, I knew with absolute certainty that the area would be back under Taliban control as soon as U.S. forces left. It seemed impossible that the Afghan Security Forces would have the means or will to fight to hold it on their own. I wish I could say that I had been wrong, but long before Kabul fell last month, that prediction proved true.
Admittedly, it would be the height of arrogance to think that my experience represented that of all U.S. military personnel in-country. But it wasn’t just my experience. Over the years, as I spoke with Army friends returning from Kandahar, Logar, Paktika, or Helmand provinces, I heard echoes of the same conclusion: “My area will fall to the Taliban once coalition forces leave.” Sure enough, as coalition troop levels slowly receded, this simple assessment was nearly always proven correct.
It is strange, then, to see some of my same friends now feeling so betrayed by a president withdrawing troops from the same conflict which they themselves knew to be unwinnable. Is it really a betrayal when a president finally acknowledges a decades-long reality and reacts by attempting to remove service members from harm’s way?
Witnessing such a presidential action is certainly outside of the norm of American presidential behavior. After all, not much separates a Trump from an Obama from a Johnson in not wishing to be the president who goes down in history as a war loser. But if anything, this would make the withdrawal order an unfamiliar act of political courage. The only alternative would seem to be the unacceptable status quo of more years ticking by with more Americans and Afghans dying, and more national resources being wasted. Despite the spectacularly wrong assessments of a discredited American foreign policy establishment, this war dragged on for 20 years because no president had the courage to acknowledge what basically everyone on ground long ago knew: This is a militarily unwinnable war. Now that wider American society is being forced to come to grips with that reality, it might be a good time to reflect on why America seems so prone to reaching for expansive military solutions to intractable problems in other countries.
If you are an Afghanistan veteran, you don’t have to like the way things ended. You don’t have to excuse the shameful chaos of the evacuation. You certainly don’t have to cease honoring the fallen just because the mission was unworthy of their sacrifice. But you should be honest with yourself. If that last jet full of American troops was ever going to leave Kabul, it was always going to be just a matter of time before the Taliban flag was flying above the city behind it.
We who served there were put in an impossible situation. We did the best we could. Our job now is to use our experience to ensure that American political leaders never put others in such a position. A failure to do that would be the ultimate betrayal.
Nathan Smith is a former U.S. Army artillery and intelligence officer. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and the counter-ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.