Joe Chenelly, a former U.S. Marine who was there at the beginning as part of the U.S. invasion force in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, is not happy with how the longest war in American history is coming to a close.
U.S. military personnel who fought there, in a high number of cases serving multiple tours, at first thought they were part of a new “Greatest Generation” that had mobilized to avenge the wrongs that terrorists had done to their country, Mr. Chenelly said.
But with President Biden’s decision to pull out all American military personnel from Afghanistan and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul on increasingly shaky ground, Mr. Chenelly said he is worried that if the Taliban return to power, any gains won through the sacrifice of so many U.S. military personnel over the years will soon be wiped out.
“You really start caring about those people over there,” he said. “I never saw the fear [from them] that I expected to see. We were really welcomed by the Afghan people.”
Nearly 800,000 U.S. troops deployed at least once to the country. Two thousand died, and another 20,000 suffered grievous wounds. But as with the Vietnam War, those who served have been coming to terms with the fact that the U.S. is pulling out with the job undone, with allies still in peril, and with the enemy they ousted 20 years ago scoring success after success on the battlefield.
Mr. Chenelly remembered inching his way through the unforgiving terrain of southern Afghanistan with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. It wasn’t uncommon for one of their Humvees to become hopelessly mired in a dried-up riverine bed.
“They would come out and show us how to put rocks under the tires to get out,” said Mr. Chenelly, the national executive director of the veteran’s group AMVETS. “The young men would come out from nowhere and show us where the minefields were. The local populace was really looking out for us.”
Feelings about the end of the war from veterans and Gold Star families who lost loved ones in Afghanistan will likely be a mixture of sadness and even anger, retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, a former commander of U.S. Central Command, acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Times.
“I feel a sense of disappointment that we were unable to move this forward. I feel sad for the good Afghan people who really deserve an opportunity for peace,” said Gen. Votel, now with the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Whether or not they will have a parade in the future, veterans of the Afghanistan War should remember that they stepped forward when their country was attacked, Gen. Votel said.
“In that act, there is a lot to take pride in and feel good about,” he said. “We don’t know what history is going to say about all of this. But what was never in doubt was the commitment of our soldiers: their ability to step up and do their duty.”
Brett Allen is the author of the novel “Kilroy Was Here,” loosely based on his 2009 deployment to Afghanistan as an Army officer in the 10th Mountain Division. He said the United States should have left Afghanistan years ago. Barring that, military and civilian leaders in Washington should have readjusted the strategy with more emphasis on special operations missions and less on using the military to help rebuild a nation, he said.
“We were trying to fight the war in Afghanistan like we had been fighting the war in Iraq — rolling around in heavy trucks and bogged down in heavy armor,” Mr. Allen said. “You just couldn’t find the enemy that way. Those trucks couldn’t go anywhere.”
Pentagon officials and the White House express confidence that the government in Kabul has a well-trained army capable of defending itself against the Taliban and say the pessimism of many veterans is overstated.
“They have numerous advantages. They have better capabilities than the Taliban in the air and on the ground,” said chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. ”It’s really going to come down to their ability and their willingness to use those advantages to their benefit.”
Toward the end of Mr. Allen’s deployment, word came down that the locals would be taking over most of the ground combat missions in Afghanistan. His unit was detailed to get them ready to assume responsibility.
“We had all kinds of teams working with the local nationals to build up their forces. They weren’t grasping it, or they didn’t care,” he said. “You kind of got the feeling we were over there treading water.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week that there would be no “Mission Accomplished” moment for Mr. Biden or the troops who have served because the fate of the mission remains very much up in the air as U.S. and allied forces pack up.
“It’s a 20-year war that has not been won militarily …,” she told reporters. “We are not having a moment of celebration.”
Bush hits Biden
While many veterans express quiet resignation, some of their former leaders are more outspoken. They say the withdrawal plan launched by President Trump and accelerated under Mr. Biden was an error and a betrayal.
Former President George W. Bush, who ordered the first American troops into Afghanistan right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, slammed Mr. Biden’s strategy in an interview that aired Wednesday with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
“I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm. They’re just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart,” Mr. Bush said, according to DW.
Dan Caldwell was in the Marine Corps during the Iraq War and is now a senior adviser at Concerned Veterans for America. He predicts most veterans will back Mr. Biden’s plan to get out of Afghanistan.
“It has been difficult to watch a lot of friends continue to go over and over in support of a mission that doesn’t have a clear path to victory,” Mr. Caldwell said. “Marines that I have served with now have sons or daughters who have deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan. In some cases, they were deployed to the same bases.”
Afghans were fighting one another before Americans ever set foot into the country and will be fighting after the last U.S. and allied troops have been evacuated, Mr.Caldwell said.
“Whether we stay or not, [Afghanistan] is going to remain violent. The question is: Is it worth American blood and treasure?” Mr. Caldwell said. “The answer is clearly no, and I’m glad Biden recognized that.”
Gen. Votel predicted that the Taliban will ratchet up the pressure against the government in Kabul until they either accommodate them politically or simply collapse.
“I think what we’re seeing here is exactly what we expected with our departure — whether that takes six months or a year,” he said.
Even after years of being trained and equipped by the U.S. government, Gen. Votel said Afghanistan’s military is no more than a “mixed bag.”
“There are some parts of the Afghan military that will perform quite well,” he said, citing the country’s special operations units. “But some of the units will dissipate very quickly.”
Maybe the U.S. should have left Afghanistan once 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden was killed, Mr. Chenelly said.
“How long until they’re allowing terrorists to train over there?” he asked. “The snake has regrown its head several times. It will continue.”