I have fought in two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, as a Marine, and covered a third war, Syria, as a journalist. I’ve seen friends killed and wounded — been wounded myself — and in all three places witnessed the costs of American miscalculation and hubris. In all that time, across the battlefields of my generation, from Fallujah to the Korengal Valley to Kobane, I have never witnessed a more shameful U.S. failure than that of this week.
President Biden’s address to the nation Wednesday featured two statements that were, at best, self-serving interpretations of events, but I would categorize them as falsehoods. First, the president said he and his national security team “have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every constituency — and contingency — including the rapid collapse we’re seeing now.” Not only did the administration not have plans in place for every contingency, it did not have plans in place for what any casual observer of the withdrawal might consider all but certain to occur contingencies such as an emergency evacuation of our Afghan partners trapped in the country and under grave threat from the Taliban. Beginning in April, a bipartisan group of more 30 members of Congress, led by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Jason Crow (D-Colo.), both veterans, petitioned the president for meetings at the White House and a plan for how to evacuate key Afghan personnel. Their requests were met with silence.
And then the president said this: “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.” The Afghan military has consistently, in any one year, sustained more casualties in its fight against the Taliban than we have sustained in all 20 years of our war there. I fought alongside the Afghans. I watched them save American lives. In one instance, when a convoy I was in was ambushed, our Afghan partners were the first to drive back into the kill-zone to pick up wounded Americans. To say they are unwilling to fight because their forces collapsed after we turned our backs on them is a slap in the face not only to our Afghan allies but to Americans — such as me — who mixed our spilled blood with theirs.
Yes, we have faced challenges with the Afghan military. But it is a military we decided to build in our image as opposed to theirs. We made it a nationally recruited force as opposed to a regionally or tribally recruited force. The result was that Afghans typically didn’t fight in their native provinces. The backbone of accountability in Afghanistan — the disciplinary structures that have given them their reputation as fierce fighters — did not translate neatly into the structure we imposed on them. This was a strategic mistake made by us, one that has at times undermined our partnership with them in a counterinsurgency. Despite these challenges, they have fought for two decades beside us against a stubborn Taliban insurgency supported by nations such as Pakistan and Iran.
In recent days I have been surprised by how many people are surprised by their collapse. If the Pakistanis had withdrawn their enduring support to the Taliban and denied them sanctuary within their borders at any point during this 20-year war, it would have been the Taliban, not our Afghan allies, who collapsed swiftly. But we decided it was time for our war in Afghanistan to end. Fair enough. But now, to accuse our Afghan allies of not fighting hard enough, then to use their alleged incompetence as a smokescreen for our own, is the height of arrogance, and dishonor. To abandon an ally is bad enough. To insult an ally from the East Room of the White House as Biden did in his speech creates a lasting moral injury.
And not only to Afghans.
As a boy, I was fascinated with the military. When I was 6 and 7, I pored over a well-worn illustrated history of the Vietnam War. I studied the photos on its pages for hours, the major American conflict of my parents’ generation looming large in my young mind. As a Marine and, later, as a veteran, I met many men who’d fought in Vietnam. I admired them. And yet, I sometimes felt they viewed my generation of all-volunteer veterans with skepticism, as if there must be something wrong with us for freely choosing to return to war again and again. Until this week, I confess I also thought the Vietnam guys were generally more bitter, that maybe they’d been more naive when they went to “their war,” carrying more illusions into it, and so they wound up proportionately more disillusioned at its end.
I was wrong.
The difference between the Vietnam vets and my generation was far simpler: They had seen their war’s last act. The skepticism I often encountered in their eyes, or the edge I detected when we talked about our respective experiences, wasn’t disillusionment; it was pity, for me. They knew my war hadn’t ended. They knew what was coming: betrayal. Of our allies, of our values, and of every American who was asked by this country to make promises to the Afghans only to have our political leaders break them.
Afghanistan is not my war. It’s our war. As much as we’ve heard about Afghans giving up the fight, we should not forget who was the first to leave the battlefield: It was us. Tell the Afghan soldiers who fought until they ran out of ammunition and were then slaughtered by the Taliban in Faryab province that they didn’t fight hard enough, or perhaps tell the same to the Afghan commandos who fought all summer in a desperate battles in Lashkar Gah. And we weren’t fighting only the Taliban in Afghanistan. We were also fighting their Pakistani and Iranian proxies who armed and trained them, as well as the interests of the Chinese and the Russians who in coming days will surely be among the first nations to recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.