When the twin towers fell, I was a high school senior deep in college applications. The United States Military Academy topped my list. Watching the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold, I knew the Army would be part of the response, though I figured that response would be over by the time I graduated from West Point. Never did I imagine that, eight years later, I would be leading soldiers in a war provoked by that one terrible day.
Yet lead them I did, across Afghanistan, witnessing horrors and enduring losses I still struggle to describe. What I saw there convinced me that the awful scenes we are now witnessing were inevitable — and that President Biden deserves credit for nonetheless braving the fallout to do the right thing by our troops.
I saw early warning signs as a U.S. Army infantry platoon leader on my first mission in Kandahar in 2009. In my very first conversation with a local, a shopkeeper told me: “Lieutenant, I met the previous American lieutenant 12 months prior, I will meet another American lieutenant in 12 months when you leave.” He did not like the Taliban, the shopkeeper told me, but it would be in Afghanistan long after I would — and so he had no choice but to deal with it.
If that first mission diminished my hopes for the United States’ success in Afghanistan, my last dashed them entirely. On Aug. 18, 2009, two days before a national election, I was supposed to partner with Afghan army forces to reconnoiter local polling sites. As I walked across our base that morning, I learned that my Afghan partners had fled overnight. They did not want to risk their lives to protect their own polling sites.
Instead of reconning the polling sites by ourselves, my soldiers and I patrolled some nearby orchards. Within ten hours, Sergeant Troy Tom, a 21-year-old from Shiprock, N.M., was killed by an improvised explosive device. My forward observer, Specialist Jonathan Yanney, 20, of Litchfield, Minn., was also killed by an IED. Several hours later I, too, stepped on an IED trigger. But my bomb was small. Instead of killing me, it only severed both of my legs above the knees.
For 20 years, at a cost of 2,448 American lives and more than 1 trillion taxpayer dollars, we attempted to do what the shopkeeper knew we could not: outlast the Taliban. We built schools and hospitals; we trained, paid and supplied the Afghan military. In exchange, we got an Afghan army that laid down its weapons and government leadership that fled the country. By pursuing this full-scale nation-building effort, rather than a small-scale counterterror operation, we gave up what little advantage we ever had over the Taliban. As they are fond of saying, “[America] may have all the watches, but [the Taliban] have all the time.”
Am I angry that my fellow soldiers gave lives and limbs for an effort that is clearly ending in defeat? Of course. But I am even angrier that our nation’s leaders ignored reality and insisted for two decades that the war was headed in the right direction. Nearly a score of different generals in charge of the war effort, and three presidential administrations, chose to extend an unsustainable status quo rather than acknowledge hard truths. None of them faced any consequences.
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