Written by MacKenZie Rumage
On 13 April, President Biden announced that he would pull the remaining 2,500 American troops out of Afghanistan by a date none other than the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, carried out by al-Qaeda and spearheaded by the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Originally, he meant to stick to the 1 May deadline former President Trump set but it became clear that the peace talks between the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani, the United States and the Taliban that have been going on since December 2019 would not conclude by then.
Originally, the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to drive the Taliban out of power in order to deprive al-Qaeda of a foothold in the country. ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, as the initial invasion was called, was meant to not only avenge the 9/11 attacks but to take part in a larger ‘war on terror’, as former President George W Bush coined it. Initially, the American public greatly supported the invasion because they thought the masterminds behind 9/11 would be swiftly brought to justice. However, it would be ten more years before bin Laden was killed by Seal Team Six in Pakistan.
In his announcement, Biden said, ‘We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for withdrawal, and expecting a different result.’ This may sound like Biden admitting defeat. But it also sounds like what has been clear to many for years: the war stopped being winnable a long time ago. He continued, ‘I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. […] I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.’ Over one hundred thousand people have died in the war, including nearly fifty thousand civilians.
There has been much discussion among American politicians about the merits of withdrawing and the grave risks. Those opposed to the withdrawal argue that since the Taliban currently control more area than they have over the past twenty years, Afghanistan could once again become a ‘terrorist haven’, making the United States only more at risk of another 9/11-style attack. They also argue that the headway the United States gained, such as increased freedoms for women and girls and tenuous peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, could be reversed. In other words, despite twenty years of American presence, Afghanistan may not be strong enough for a full withdrawal of American troops. Those who support the withdrawal argue that the sheer length of the war is reason enough to leave. Twenty years is enough, if not far too long. Kids who were born in 2003 — long after the initial invasion — can now fight in the country their home has been at war with their entire lives.
For American veterans, however, reactions to the withdrawal decision have been less clear-cut. According to the Washington Post, nearly eight hundred thousand people served in Afghanistan in the United States military, thirty thousand of which were deployed at least five times. Loren Crowe, who was deployed to Afghanistan twice in the army, told the Post that he wasn’t sure how the military could stay, but was concerned about what withdrawal meant for the Afghans themselves. ‘There are forty million people in that country. They’re going to bear all costs of this decision.’
As combat veterans, people like Crowe understand the costs of war — and the costs of withdrawing — more acutely than anyone else, including the politicians and top brass of the military. They make the most important decisions about the war, but do not have to live with those decisions the same way servicemembers do. Felix Figueroa, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marine four times, told the Military Times part of him was saddened, because he knew how American military backup helped the Afghan commandos he became friends with. But at the same time, ‘no amount of [American] money or years spent training and advising is going to change the systematic problems of tribalism, religious radicalism and corruption crippling the country. I feel it’s time that Afghanistan and the Afghans figure it out on their own.’ In other words, America has outlived their usefulness in Afghanistan. If they couldn’t help to fix the country in twenty years, how much good could any more time in the country do?
Amber Chase, who served three deployments as a mortuary affairs soldier who prepared bodies to be returned home, felt that the withdrawal ‘makes every life we lost over there pointless.’ This sentiment makes sense too: if the United States left Afghanistan in arguably worse shape than when they arrived, did those killed in Afghanistan die in vain?
This all goes back to the question of whether the war itself was worth it. That’s not an easy question to answer, and everyone will have their own opinions. And it may be years before anyone can answer with any certainty. There are too many uncertainties, too many unknowns. What will happen to the women and girls who have made such progress and gained more freedoms than would have been imaginable twenty years ago? Will President Ashraf Ghani be able to keep his precarious hold on power? Are the Afghan security forces strong enough to hold their own against the Taliban, who believe they have already won the war?But one thing is for certain, as it has been for a long time: this war was not going to have a happy ending. No matter how long it went on, no matter whether Afghanistan became a strong democracy or a failed state, the end of the war was never going to be a celebration. Too much money was spent, too many lives were lost, and too many years were spent on fighting an amorphous enemy known as ‘terrorism’ to ever give a satisfactory sense of justification or closure. And nobody in America knows that better than the veterans themselves. As Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan told The New York Times, ‘The people who served on the ground are the last people you need to tell that the war is going to end in tears.’