Afghanistan war veterans are devastated by Taliban gains

'It just makes me mad', says retired US lieutenant colonel

US soldiers stand at attention as they pay their respects to a fallen soldier in eastern Afghanistan on July 10, 2011. AFP
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Twenty years of blood, sweat, death and destruction has culminated in the Taliban’s breathtaking recapture of Afghanistan.

It is a bitter pill for the nearly one million Americans who served in Afghanistan and the hundreds of thousands of veterans from other countries who joined the US in their two-decade war.

“It just makes me mad,” said John Baird, a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army, who served in Kandahar between September 2012 and July 2013.

Mr Baird, 59, was the provost marshal of Kandahar for nearly a year, a position that is equal to chief of police.

When he thinks of his time in Afghanistan, his first thought is “stupidity", he told The National.

“It was almost like another Vietnam to me," Mr Baird said. "We didn't seem like we were going to win this war.”

Despite the Taliban’s rapid gains over the past several days, the administration of US President Joe Biden has maintained its commitment to have all US troops out of Afghanistan by August 31.

Mr Baird said that was a mistake.

“To me, right now would be the time to attack," he said. "I realise the Biden administration wants out but the Biden administration is making a bunch of mistakes. Right now is the time to attack."

That appears to be unlikely. On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared on US TV defending the Biden administration's handling of the US withdrawal and assigned blame to the Afghan government and military.

“We had invested, over four administrations, billions of dollars, along with the international community in the Afghan security and defence forces, building a modern military with the most sophisticated equipment, 300,000 forces strong with an air force the Taliban didn't have, '' Mr Blinken told CNN.

“And the fact of the matter is, we've seen that that force has been unable to defend the country. And that has happened more quickly than we anticipated.”

While the speed of the Taliban’s takeover has startled many, it has also left some veterans dejected and wondering whether it was worth it.

“It's just surprising how fast this has unfolded,” said retired Canadian major general David Fraser, who led the Nato mission in Afghanistan’s south in 2006.

“[It happened with] spectacular speed and [is] illustrative of the weakness of the Afghan government versus the determination by the Taliban leadership, and how connected the Taliban leadership are with all the tribes.”

Mr Fraser called the past few days “gut-wrenching". Today, his thoughts are on the men and women who served under him and especially those who never made it home.

“It's opened up many memories for the 40,000 Canadians who served there, the 158 men and women who had their lives taken," he told The National.

"There are probably families asking the question, 'Was it worth it?'”

That is the question Josh Makuch is asking himself. The retired captain in the Canadian Armed Forces served as a rifle platoon commander in Kandahar in 2009.

“It really does beg the question of what was the point of all this,” Mr Makuch told The National. “It feels terrible.”

The hardest part for him is knowing that Afghans who risked their lives to help him and his fellow soldiers face a dangerous and uncertain future in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

“The end result is that there are people that supported us that are going to stay there, and they are probably going to be executed. So I feel deeply sad and disappointed about that,” Mr Makuch said.

The Canadian government has pledged to take in 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan, but has yet to offer a clear explanation as to how they intend to get the Afghans who worked with Canadian soldiers to safety.

“We will continue to work to get as many Afghan interpreters out as quickly as possible as long as the security situation holds,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday.

But Mr Makuch said the government had months to get the interpreters out before the situation unravelled and failed to do so.

While the past few days have been difficult for many veterans, some are finding solace in knowing that at last the US will finally be out of Afghanistan.

“I feel very confident that it's time for our troops to come home,” said Fausto Parra, a veteran who served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2003. Mr Parra is now a transition assistance adviser for other veterans.

He said it was time to focus on veterans' “well-being and their health".

Mr Parra believed the US succeeded in its ultimate mission, which was to eliminate Osama bin Laden.

“In my personal opinion, being that both wars were in my generation, we feel accomplished and successful because we were able to eliminate both our targets, which was at the time bin Laden, and then second, the focus on Saddam Hussein,” he told The National.

As the US rushes to get its remaining embassy staff to safety, for many the past few days have been reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975.

And now, a whole new generation of American, Canadian and international veterans are left to wonder: “What was the point?”

Updated: August 16, 2021, 6:15 AM