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Content warning: This story includes accounts of graphic violence
As the United States leaves Afghanistan after 20 years of war, a chaotic scene is unfolding with the Taliban reasserting control over the country in mere days as the state’s government and military collapsed.
It’s hard to know what comes next. Thousands of Afghans are begging to be airlifted out of the country, pleading with American officials at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to put them in planes and get them to safety. The situation in the country is increasingly dangerous and may have already changed by the time you read this.
One refrain from pro-war critics of the withdrawal is that the absence of U.S. and other foreign soldiers in the country will lead to increased death and violence. But after 20 years of bloodshed, with tens of thousands of civilians dead, it's hard to stomach the assertion that the continued presence of coalition forces in the country would lead to anything other than more brutality for the Afghan people.
I talked to three U.S. veterans of the war about their experiences in the country and whether or not their presence made things better. Nate Bethea, who served in Paktika province from February 2009- to March 2010, told me that coalition presence made things worse, and the military attempts to make up for the upheaval fell flat.
“When people died accidentally and it was the fault of the coalition, we’d make condolence payments of around $1,000 to $2,000, depending on if it was the breadwinner or like a spouse or child,” Bethea said. “And people thought, ‘Okay, this is fine, we paid them out’ — but you killed their fucking family. How could they not hate you forever?”
“The War Effectively Had No Real Purpose”
Bethea, 36, said that his time in the country quickly convinced him the mission was destined to fail.
“My impression when I got there was that the war effectively had no real purpose, because in my experience, the foreign troop presence was the single largest driver of the insurgency,” Bethea told me.
The ongoing battles between the coalition soldiers and insurgents cost civilian lives and fueled anger against the foreign troops, whose presence provided a clear target for attacks by the Taliban and other groups. According to Bethea, occupation led to death and destruction, mostly through collateral damage.
During his tour, Bethea said he witnessed people killed in the crossfire in numerous ways, including “families hit by stray bullets, cars shot up at checkpoints by mistake, houses strafed or bombed by mistake, families killed by IEDs [improvised explosive devices] intended for coalition vehicles, people in… public areas hurt or killed by IEDs or mortars, children killed by large military vehicles in traffic accidents, collisions with military vehicles and civilian vehicles,” and more.
That bred resentment and anger, said Bethea, which in turn led to more violence and resistance — adding to the instability of a government that wasn’t serving the people and was clearly destined to fail the minute the U.S. wasn’t there to back it up.
“An Impossible Cause”
For Jason Kirell, 42, there was never a chance for a different outcome. The war effort was doomed from the outset.
“Afghanistan was a beautiful country, but nothing we did would make much of a long-term difference,” Kirell told me. “And for the war in general, it was not, like, a lost cause, because lost implies we could have done something different to succeed, but an impossible cause.”
Kirell was in Afghanistan from June 2010 to April 2011. He told me that the war’s relentless grind, the complete lack of accountability for wrongdoing by soldiers, and the general instability exacerbated by the invasion made the situation for the Afghan people absolute hell.
“I saw civilians blown up,” Kirell said. “I know we used grape huts [where] farmers used to store their harvests for target practice. I was in a mortar unit and we used them to practice dropping rounds on. I can’t imagine having an outside force come in and use your workplace as a target range [engenders] much love and respect.”
As the war dragged on, things only got worse, said Kirell. The Afghans had zero trust in the occupation forces, who rotated out with such regularity that there was no way to build relationships. Soldiers had total control over the population. Their boredom and lack of inhibitions made for disturbing situations.
“I had to talk guys out of just shooting farmers because they thought it would be fun,” Kirell told me. “They literally didn’t care by that point.”
“It Really Feels So Pointless”
Tyler — who did not want to give his last name — is a 31-year-old veteran whose eight years in the military included a stint in Afghanistan from February 2012 to November 2012. He believed in the mission at the time, Tyler told me, but looking back on his experiences today, he’s of a different mind.
“I was 22 at the time and I vividly remember watching 9/11 in junior high, so I went in with enthusiasm and patriotic feelings, but in the years since I’ve gotten more frustrated, not only with my time there but with the ‘War on Terror’ as a whole,” Tyler said. “It really feels so pointless, and like a huge waste of time, money, lives, and grief. I hate what we as a nation have done to the people of Afghanistan.”
During his tour, Tyler witnessed horrific incidents that served to calcify local resistance to the occupation. A firefight with insurgents culminated in a call for air support that got the coordinates wrong, bombing an apartment building full of civilians instead. The consequences of the mistake, he said, damaged the relationship with local officials.
“I’m not sure how many civilian casualties there were, but I do remember explicitly that the provincial police chief’s wife and daughter were among the ones that were killed,” Tyler said. “This obviously made tensions between us and the police very tight for the remainder of my time there.”
Another disturbing incident made the human cost of the war apparent to the young soldier. An investigation into an explosion in a nearby city brought the soldiers to the burned-out wreckage of a car.
“We approached the wreckage and found a woman covered in blood and burns who was holding something in her arms that was red and black as she was trying to pull another body out of the car,” Tyler said.
The object in her arms was a child.
“The black was the charring on her body, and the red was the blood and where her skin had peeled off,” Tyler told me. “She pushed her into my chest and I grabbed the body and set it down on the ground so that the medics could aid her. Her torso was ripped open, I could see her ribs and collar bone, as well as what looked like multiple organs. She likely died instantly — I hope she did, anyways.”
“I’m Glad That We Have Left”
All three veterans are now looking at the collapse of the Afghan government with anger and sadness. This outcome was predictable, said Kirell.
“The U.S. tried to build Afghanistan from the top down, and the Taliban went bottom up,” Kirell said. “One way clearly worked better than the other.”
“Afghanistan isn’t Germany or Japan after World War II,” he added.
Tyler agreed. He told me that the entire approach to putting together the Afghan army was wrong from the beginning.
“There was no training of Afghan forces that could have been done to get them to fight like American forces,” Tyler said. “And there was no way that local tribal leaders were gonna trust us when we kept rotating in and out every year and they kept having to deal with new Americans.”
Today, as control of the country turns over to the Taliban, Tyler is relieved that the U.S. is leaving — though he wishes the departure had been better planned.
“I’m glad that we have left, I just wish we’d had an actual plan in doing so. We were there for 20 years, and the best we could do was to pack everything up in the middle of the night and hand the keys off to the locals and say good luck,” Tyler said.
That’s par for the course in how the country’s people have been treated, Bethea said.
“If there’s any one thread throughout this whole venture, in my opinion, it is our limitless contempt for the Afghan people, who are some of the poorest and most victimized people on this entire planet,” Bethea said.
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