- After 20 years of operations, US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.
- In recent days, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban has swept across the country.
- The events have frustrated US special-ops veterans, some of whom question why they spent 20 years fighting there.
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After almost 20 years of operations, the US began its withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this year, precipitating in recent days the fall of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s reconquest of the war-ravaged country.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, US special-operations forces, alongside members of the US intelligence community, were the first in, partnering with anti-Taliban guerrillas and defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban after a short campaign.
Throughout two decades of war, special-operations forces were at the tip of the spear, conducting raids, capturing high-value targets, trying to win over the population, and training and advising the Afghan military and police.
As usual, their contribution was disproportionate to their numbers, and they often achieved wonders with a few men. But as the years passed, the US military lost focus on why it was there in the first place.
Why are we here again?
The US went to Afghanistan with the goal of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing the country from being used as a base for future terrorist attacks against the US.
The Taliban was only relevant as it was hosting of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters. Initially, the US wasn’t planning to do any nation-building.
“After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan after Al Qaeda to ensure they could not use Afghanistan as a staging base and prevent further attacks. For nearly 20 years we have attacked and attacked relentlessly. Additionally, we have funded, equipped, and trained [hundreds of] thousands of Afghans to protect themselves. For this, I am proud,” John Black, a retired Special Forces warrant officer with several deployments to Afghanistan, told Insider.
“I am disappointed in Afghanistan and its failure to be able to secure itself after we told them we were leaving in 2014,” Black said.
Fred Galvin, a retired major and former Marine Raider, told Insider that the “time and sacrifices” of those who fought in Afghanistan were not wasted but that Americans do need to hold to account lawmakers who imposed rules of engagement that “favored the enemy.”
Senior military leadership who promoted an unwinnable hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency strategy should be held accountable too, Galvin said.
Hearts-and-minds strategies involve efforts by one side in a conflict to persuade the local population that it is a better partner than the enemy, often as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.
The US failures in Vietnam and Afghanistan are perhaps the two most well-known examples of such a strategy, but it has seen success elsewhere – by the British against communist rebels in Malaysia and Oman, for example.
“Everyone, EVERYONE knew that would never work, and the officers who ordered the immoral hearts and minds [strategy] – especially those officers who retired and immediately went to board of director memberships at defense firms and coerced their former subordinates they left in the Pentagon to go along with the 20-year spending scandal – need to be exiled to Kandahar,” Galvin added.
After years in Afghanistan, and as an insurgency ravaged Iraq, the US’s goal in Afghanistan shifted from counterterrorism to nation-building, a tough proposition even in a cohesive, “normal” nation, which Afghanistan isn’t.
“Afghanistan is a tribal culture. Therefore few have love of ‘country.’ Their idea of country is lines someone else drew in the sand,” Black said. “It’s impossible to win against an idea or belief. The Taliban and others will continue to spread and hopefully we can look at containment, rather than defeat.”
“We should have left after a few years, leaving behind a small CT [counterterrorism] contingent to deal with any bad guys. We should have also trained only a few number of loyal Afghans, like the commandos and some other special units, and avoid[ed] any nation-building dreams,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.
A sour aftertaste
The US withdrawal and the rapid collapse of the Afghan military has left many veterans of the conflict wondering what their sacrifices were for. In some cases, they’ve questioned in whose interests their commanders were acting.
Galvin and his MARSOC Fox Company, a Marine special-operations unit, were falsely accused of killing civilians while fighting off an ambush in March 2007. Seven Marine Raiders were prosecuted and ostracized, despite all available evidence indicated they acted within the laws of war, before finally being acquitted years later.
“Afghanistan was the ultimate military scandal fueled by retired generals influencing those in the Pentagon and lawmakers to spend, spend, spend forever,” Galvin told Insider. “America should never forget this, and the people must exercise their freedoms by removing and punishing the military officers and lawmakers who profited through the needless loss of lives, limbs, and trillions of American dollars.”
The killing of Osama bin Laden and degradation of Al Qaeda are often pointed to as important accomplishments in Afghanistan, but that is little consolation for some who fought there, especially as the future now looks dire for Afghans, with the Taliban expected to reverse any progress made over the last 20 years.
“It definitely hurts to see the country collapse in such a short amount of time after all the blood, sweat, and tears we shed. I get the arguments that it wasn’t for nothing and that we made Americans safer and the Afghan people better off, at least for a few years, but it just feels bad right now,” the former Navy SEAL officer said.
Other special-operations veterans say it wasn’t all for naught. Black said he would remember his time in Afghanistan “with great love and sadness.”
“I have many trips and built incredible friendships there. My teammates and I fought hard and were very triumphant in battle,” Black added.
While many veterans may be upset or feel that their comrades fought and died for nothing, “that is the wrong way at looking at it,” Black told Insider.
“For nearly 20 years the US and its partnered forces fought tirelessly to help the people of Afghanistan, and for that we can be proud,” Black said. “In the end, we would much rather fight the Taliban in Afghanistan than in our home country. And for nearly 20 years there has not been a major successful attack against the US. We pray for the Afghan people and hope for peace in a war-torn land.”
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.