The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Afghanistan veterans, old feelings of frustration and loss surface as the U.S. prepares to end its longest war

U.S. Army soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division wait to disembark from a C-17 cargo plane on May 11, 2013, at Bagram air base, Afghanistan.
U.S. Army soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division wait to disembark from a C-17 cargo plane on May 11, 2013, at Bagram air base, Afghanistan. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
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As the U.S. military shut down scores of remote outposts and patrol bases across southern Afghanistan 10 years ago, the Taliban planted a white flag on a former U.S. position that had been bulldozed, claiming the turf as its own and taunting the withdrawing Americans.

Marine Lance Cpl. Ramon Kaipat removed the flag and was killed instantly when an improvised bomb hidden beneath it exploded, said Peter Lucier, another Marine in Kaipat’s unit.

For Lucier, the incident, more than any other event in his seven-month tour, captured the bloody futility of the war. Kaipat, 22, died on April 11, 2012, standing on ground that U.S. commanders were no longer interested in holding.

Lucier recalled Kaipat’s death as he heard the news that President Biden intends to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of terrorist attacks that launched the United States into combat in that country. Lucier, now a law student in St. Louis, has long advocated for withdrawal, but the decision left him with no sense of satisfaction.

Clint Lorance was convicted of second-degree murder in Afghanistan and pardoned by President Trump. His troops are still haunted by his crimes. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

“I thought I’d be happy. It doesn’t feel like a win,” he said. “It’s just really empty.”

Nearly 800,000 people served in Afghanistan in the U.S. military, and many of them are reflecting anew on what the war achieved and the meaning of their individual parts in it.

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About 2,300 U.S. service members died in the conflict, the longest in American history, and 20,000 more were wounded in action. Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan at least five times, according to data released by the Pentagon. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians also were killed, and the United States spent more than $2 trillion prosecuting the war.

The planned departure has evoked a range of emotions among veterans of the conflict. Some felt withdrawal was inevitable, the frustrating result of repeated mistakes and missed opportunities. The rebuilding of Afghanistan and the establishment of good governance seem as distant as ever. So does the end of violence.

“I think for the people who fought on D-Day, it was probably nice for those who survived to go on vacation in France 30 years later and see what they were looking at,” said Loren Crowe, who deployed to Afghanistan twice as an Army infantry officer. “We’re not going to get that, and that’s fine. That doesn’t make it a meaningless experience. But it also doesn’t do very much to justify the cost that we paid.”

Crowe, of Cambridge, Mass., earned a Silver Star for valor in 2008 in eastern Konar province and was shot there in 2012. He said he couldn’t see how the U.S. military could stay but is concerned about what withdrawal means for Afghan civilians, especially if the Taliban returns to power and rules with the brutality it exhibited in the 1990s.

“There are 40 million people in that country,” Crowe said. “They’re going to bear all the costs of this decision.”

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Crowe said he began to have doubts about U.S. policy as he was serving in Afghanistan. Having less and less sense of what the United States was trying to achieve, he said, he began focusing his tour, to the extent that he could, on protecting the soldiers under his command.

Amber Chase, of El Paso, served three deployments in Afghanistan as a mortuary affairs soldier. Her tasks included receiving the remains of the war dead, and she prepared hundreds of bodies for the last trip home.

Chase, who is pursuing a nursing degree, received Biden’s announcement with some bitterness.

“It makes every life we lost over there pointless,” Chase said.

Tyler Burdick was on a mountain in Utah training to compete in snowboarding in next year’s Winter Paralympics when he heard about the Biden administration’s plans. Burdick lost both legs below the knee after surviving an explosion in Marja, Helmand province, in 2010. He was injured in the back of an armored vehicle just days before he was to return home.

Burdick, who provided medical treatment to Marines as a Navy hospital corpsman, said he approved amputation four years later, as the hardware implanted to stabilize his legs began to fail and his pain increased. He had planned to pursue a career as a Navy SEAL before he was injured.

Burdick, 40, said he thinks it is “long overdue” that the United States withdraw and that “we’ve outstayed our usefulness there — if we even had any to begin with.”

But he remains proud of those with whom he served and stays in touch with them.

“It’s frustrating that we weren’t able to accomplish as much as we set out to do,” Burdick said, citing Marja’s return to Taliban control after the Marines withdrew. “It means a lot of guys got hurt and a lot of guys got killed, and it was all for nothing — and that’s hard. That’s something that I have to live with and deal with. We all do.”

Ronald Moeller, a retired civilian intelligence officer who served 12 tours in Afghanistan, said he “really doesn’t like” the Biden administration but agrees with the president’s decision to withdraw. But he’s also concerned that U.S. history in Afghanistan will quickly be forgotten and that necessary lessons from how the war was fought will not be learned.

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Moeller, who lives in South Dakota, cited the confusion surrounding operations he witnessed in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, where missions often were launched without any understanding of the people who were there and what previous American units had or had not done.

“It was sort of headlong rushing into, I don’t want to say failure, but from one mistake to another,” he said.

No U.S. service member has been killed in combat in Afghanistan since February 2020, but Moeller is concerned that that could come to an end. The Taliban has largely held fire since President Donald Trump signed an agreement last year to withdraw U.S. troops by this May, but it is not assured that the militants will continue to do so, Moeller said.

Jordan Weaver, a Marine veteran who fought in Marja in 2010, said that his most difficult memories of Afghanistan come back to him most strongly on days such as Wednesday, when the war is in the news.

He recalled an ambush in which the Taliban opened fired from nearby trees, and he took a step backward and fell on his back. He could see a machine gun blazing when he looked between his legs and couldn’t get up.

Weaver, 32, now a systems administrator in Fort Myers, Fla., said he lay frozen “like a turtle” for about 30 seconds before scrambling behind a wall as his fellow Marines returned fire.

“You could see the bullets kicking up dirt, and the only thing I could think of is, ‘I’m going to die right here,’ ” he said. “The worst part about it was immediately having to put it behind you and get your bearings.”

“Some days, you’re able to work through, and maybe you only think about it once,” he added. “Other days, it’s all you can think about.”