Veterans voice concern about Afghanistan’s future, oppose U.S. involvement
As U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Taliban forces are gaining momentum.
The U.S. intelligence community and foreign policy experts are warning that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the U.S. fully exits.
Last Friday, U.S. troops ditched Bagram Airfield — its key base in Afghanistan it had occupied for nearly two decades — without notifying the base’s Afghan commander, by slipping away in the night and shutting off the electricity, according to national media reports.
The Afghan commander, General Asadullah Kohistani, told BBC Monday that Afghan forces were expecting the Taliban to attack Bagram.
The Pentagon announced Friday that the final withdrawal of U.S. troops will be completed by the end of August, ahead of President Joe Biden’s plan to fully withdraw from the country by Sept. 11, on the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. carried out by Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban has already assumed control of roughly a third of all 421 districts and district centers in Afghanistan, and the U.S. withdrawal is nearly 90% complete, national media reports say.
Local veterans in the Santa Barbara area compared this withdrawal to that of the withdrawal of troops from South Vietnam in the mid-1970s.
“Comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan are hard because of the differences of culture, economy and religion within the two countries,” Staff Sgt. Mark Theis of Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States Post 1649 in Santa Barbara told the News-Press Tuesday. He served in the Army in Vietnam and Germany. “But certainly ‘quagmire’ (for the U.S.) and ‘attrition’ (body count) apply in both instances.”
Ed Montanez, a VFW trustee and a former Navy corporal in the Marine Corps, seconded the quagmire theory regarding U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
“I’m not well-versed to know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen,” he told the News-Press. “It’s just unfortunate that we got involved in a situation there, that, in my opinion, we shouldn’t have been involved in from the get-go, from the very beginning.”
Ret. Cpl. Montanez added that while he also doesn’t know how Afghanistan will progress from here, he hopes any decision regarding U.S. involvement “is in the best interest of the American people.”
Retired Navy Lt. John Blankenship told the News-Press he also was never in favor of sending troops to Afghanistan.
“I’m very frustrated by the whole thing … We’ve learned nothing from history it seems,” he said. “In the 19th century, a British division was wiped out totally there by the warlords, and then you go to the 20th century and the Russians invade for 10 years and finally leave. And it seems like we learned nothing from them.”
Dieter Dupont was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and ended his service as a lieutenant colonel. He said the sneaky exit by the troops from Bagram Airfield last weekend concerns him.
“I have been worried about the withdrawal, and the reason for that is we’ve got so much of a commitment to Afghanistan in terms of lives and money, that for us to pull out, the same thing can happen that happened in Vietnam,” he told the News-Press.
On Monday, it was reported that more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers fighting the Taliban in the northern part of Afghanistan fled over the border to Tajikistan, fearing their ability to stave off further Taliban advances. BBC reported that the escape was the third time in three days Afghan soldiers have fled and the fifth time in two weeks.
“The Taliban is advancing all across the board,” Lt. Col. Dupont said. “I don’t think the Afghan military is strong enough to really hold them off.”
The Air Force veteran said that while he has never been to Afghanistan himself, he has many friends he’s talked to who have been stationed there for two or three tours.
“They all pretty much tell me that the Afghan government and Afghan military are not that reliable in being able to stand on their own feet,” Lt. Col. Dupont said.
Veterans agreed that it is possible (and probable) that Kabul will fall. Lt. Col. Dupont described the Afghan capital as “symbolic territory.”
Robert Wright, an Air Force veteran who served in Germany as an aircraft weapons mechanic, agreed.
“I’m pretty sure Kabul will fall, because already, Afghan troops have been retreating, and it doesn’t look like the government is going to stand in power for maybe five or six months,” he told the News-Press. “I’m sure the Taliban is back in charge, but I guess if they’re not a threat to us and if we decided that it’s not in our best interests, then so be it.”
He added that it could be headed in the direction of a civil war, citing the U.S. troops’ escape in the night.
“The optics aren’t very good. I’m sure the Taliban is really emboldened,” Staff Sgt. Wright said.
Ret. Lt. Blankenship said that it’s not a matter of if Kabul will fall, but when.
“It’s not about massive armies anymore. It’s about how do you fight a non-army like the Taliban with a real, modern-day army?” he said. “…You can’t ever ‘fix’ them.”
The local veterans added that they didn’t agree with the decision to state a specific date of full U.S. troop withdrawal. Ret. Cpl. Montanez said he also didn’t appreciate the date being set on 9/11.
“I don’t think it should be Sept. 11. That’s an anniversary for another event. I don’t agree with that. They should pick another day,” he said.
Others said that setting a specific date gave the Taliban a leg up so they can simply wait until the deadline.
“I think it’s foolish to give a deadline. It makes much more sense to give a time frame (such as) ‘two months earlier’ and ‘two months later,’ ” Lt. Col. Dupont said. “Why tell your adversaries the exact date you’re going to be gone and give them the advantage in intelligence?
“It was a political announcement — Sept. 11 is obviously a very important date, and to use that was going to grab a lot of attention,” he said.
None of the veterans expressed optimism for the Afghan government. Instead, they hope the U.S. will learn from its involvement overseas, which the veterans said, likely didn’t do much but kill some bad guys.
“I served in the Army in Vietnam and Germany, and my hope is that, somehow, if left alone, the people of Afghanistan will find a way to resolve their problems,” Staff Sgt. Thies said. “The Russians gave up after about 10 years, and the U.S. after 20. All that death (Russians, Americans, Afghanis and others) has not led to peace … U.S. forces can’t leave soon enough for me.”
Ret. Lt. Blankenship spoke to the pain and suffering of the veterans who have returned from Afghanistan, saying some men and women had five to six deployments out there, and now they have returned or will return “so discouraged.”
“I would have hated to lose a son or daughter over there. But that’s what America does,” he said. “We have a lot of really good people who believe in great ideals, and we send them off to do the best they can…
“I hope before the next one, whatever happens, wherever it happens, that we would do it like (former Secretary of State) Colin Powell said: ‘If you’re going to own it and break it, figure out a strategy of when you’re getting out.’ We seem to have lost the ability to do that, and it’s discouraging in a lot of ways. We don’t need to lose any more people in that way.”