I first went to Afghanistan in 1980. I returned many times over the years. I would never contend that I can bring any great insight into its history, people, or culture. I am a journalist, not a scholar. But I can say that Afghanistan has helped shape me. It taught me, perplexed me, and even comforted me in ways that few places ever have. For as long as I have known Afghanistan, the country has known only war. Sometimes the war was immediate and all-encompassing. Sometimes it felt distant, like the rumblings of thunder in an approaching storm. Peace, that great yearning of so many, was elusive. Always elusive.
I watch what is taking place now and a sickening sensation permeates. I say this not as a political calculation or a military one. But as a human being.
The United States is destined to be yet another of a long line of foreign powers stretching back to Alexander the Great, and through the British and Soviet empires, that failed to leave its intended mark on this complicated and mercurial country. There is something about Afghanistan that encourages broad reflections. Perhaps it is the landscape or the history, but here what might seem hyperbolic in other contexts seems warranted. The United States was never prepared for a protracted war of occupation in Afghanistan. That has been painfully clear for some time. And what we are witnessing now is the result of misjudgements, epic and quotidian, made over many years.
America has done a better job of trying to understand the failures of imagination and hubris of our war in Iraq. We had at least some reckoning of that conflict. It even helped propel President Obama into office. Afghanistan, on the other hand, was often relegated to second thoughts, even as the death tolls mounted and the years of American commitment stretched into two decades. It was rarely if ever raised in political campaigns. Like a forgotten pot left to boil on a back burner it bubbled along rarely spilling over into our consciousness.
I know there is a stirring debate about what American withdrawal means now. Is it wise or foolish? What do we owe a country we invaded? How do we weigh our national security commitments and our moral obligations? How do we define the limits of our power and our patience? Regardless of where you fall in answering these questions, we can at least agree that for many Afghans, particularly women and others who will be persecuted by the Taliban, the looming implosion is a personal tragedy multiplied by the millions. I also feel a particular ache for the many American service members who fought and died in Afghanistan, and their families. The sacrifice in this conflict was always borne by a narrow slice of our nation.
I can honestly say that I do not know what is the right course for American interests in Afghanistan. There is no one obvious choice. All options are troubling for differing reasons.
It is true that there are many places in need around the world, that we can’t try to solve every injustice, even if we wanted to. And it is not clear that American interference, even when we think we are right, always produces better outcomes. Specifically, our military is not designed to be a tool of nation building. And yet Afghanistan is a place where we have a different set of obligations. We did go in. We have been there a long time, but we have been in Korea for even longer. There is no perfect formula to weigh how we commit our forces and our economic resources. The tragedy we are witnessing now is compounded by there being no simple answer for stopping it in the long term.
As a reporter you often come face to face with the immediate human impact of decisions made by distant people and in distant times. We are sure to see much misery in the coming weeks, months, and years. Those responsible for this sad state of affairs are not only the ones currently in charge. But ascribing blame does not solve the terror for those who are now in most danger.
There is a part of me that wishes I could cover this story on the ground, even though I know it is impossible. I know I will never return there. But I don’t want the stories of all who live there or fought there to be forgotten. A chapter is ending in American history. A new one is beginning in Afghanistan. It will be one of pain, sadness, and loss - like so many that preceded it.
Finally, I want to address all those who served in Afghanistan, and for that I wish to share the words of Daniel Barkhuff, a graduate of the Naval Academy and former Navy SEAL, now serving as an emergency room doctor. This was what he wrote recently on Twitter:
“So first of all I'm not an "Afghanistan guy," my combat was Iraq and Africa. I spent 90 days in Kabul, that's it. Wars never end perfectly. Never. Civil War led to the failures of Reconstruction, WW1 led to WW2, WW2 to the Cold War and Iron Curtain, Korea is still a thing, Vietnam was the fall of Saigon.
My point is, it's never the best case scenario. A lot of my fellow veterans spent a lot of their youth in the Hindu Kush, and I get it. But for us, we ought not to forget our job was to follow lawful orders, watch one another's backs, and kick the Taliban's ass when we met them in battle. We did that. We denied a safe haven to AQ and kept the homeland safe for decades.
The mission creep of nation building was, in all probability, undoable. But you all served with honor and courage. And that's enough to hold your head high. I genuinely don't believe we lost when we're instead choosing it's time to go home. I know others may feel differently, but that's how I see it. You came home with your shield or on it, you kept the faith, and you finished your fight.”
I too honor those who served in Afghanistan at the behest of their nation. What is happening is not due to a failure of their sacrifice or duty.
As I think back on all of my journeys to and in Afghanistan, as I try to imagine what might be coming, as I think of the cost of this conflict to my own country, and that of the country we’re leaving behind, I am left with one overriding emotion: sadness. A deep and abiding sadness. I hope that the worst of the tragic outcomes can be avoided. I pray for peace. Please, fare thee well Afghanistan.
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