US Afghanistan withdrawal angers veterans one year on

Are there any lessons to be learnt from America’s longest war?

A U. S.  Marine with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) escorts a child to his family during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 24, 2021. Reuters
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War is supposed to be a generation-defining event, one that demarcates ages and experiences, befores and afters.

But the two-decade war in Afghanistan does not define a single generation; it spans many, connecting fathers and sons to the same conflict.

More than 800,000 Americans served in Afghanistan and nearly 2,500 died in a conflict that came to a rushed and chaotic end last August, when the final American C-17 plane took off in the dead of night from Hamid Karzai International Airport. This left behind tens of thousands of Afghans who risked their lives to help the Americans and their western allies.

The war lasted so long, it allowed Lawrence Nicholson, a retired lieutenant general in the US Marine Corps, to lead his sons into battle.

“To be able to serve with your son or daughter in a combat zone was really unusual,” explained the 39-year veteran.

While it somewhat eased his wife Debbie’s concerns, Mr Nicholson concedes that his presence likely did little to protect his sons.

“It somehow reassured their mother that oh, yeah, well, Dad's over there, he'll take care of them, which couldn't have been further from the truth because they were doing their own thing every day in different parts of the country.”

Mr Nicholson, who did two tours in Iraq before serving in Afghanistan, led the first large-scale marine movement into the country in 2009. He had 10,000 marines under him in Helmand Province, but that number swelled to about 19,000 during President Barack Obama’s tenure.

At that point, the conflict was already nearly a decade old. However, after early successes against the Taliban, Afghanistan was put on the back burner as the US shifted most of its focus to Iraq, a move some believe was a fatal mistake.

“I think a lot of people will tell you, we took our eye off the ball when we went to Iraq,” Mr Nicholson told The National. “I think things were going very well in Afghanistan early on and I think had we been focused on Afghanistan, we'd be having a very different conversation today.”

While the US efforts in Iraq were ultimately successful, the military's split focus meant that there was a lack of consistency and sustained efforts in Afghanistan, something Mr Nicholson believes eroded Afghan confidence in Americans.

The former Marine Commander used his time in Helmand to encapsulate America's shortcomings. While his marines were in the southern province, they made great strides, including training large scores of Afghan security forces. "But, two years later, we were gone and I think the residual impact of that was really problematic," he said.

Peter Mansoor, a retired US Army Colonel, who helped Gen David Petraeus to plan and lead the successful surge of troops into Iraq in 2007, believes the US was ultimately let down by the Afghan security forces.

“I think what we saw in Afghanistan is we could never find a viable partner among the Afghan people, one that had the support of enough of the Afghan population to overcome the very stiff headwinds that the insurgency posed,” said Mr Mansoor, who is now a professor of military history at The Ohio State University.

Mr Mansoor said according to the counter insurgency field manual, a successful force should have one security person to every 50 people, something that the US was able to achieve in Iraq but not in Afghanistan.

The US and its allies were never able to get the number lower than one in 100 in Afghanistan. “There were about 30 million Afghans and at the height [of the conflict] I think about 300,000 security personnel,” Mr Mansoor told The National. “So it simply wasn't in the cards that the United States, our Nato allies and the Afghans were going to overcome the Taliban insurgency.”

The military historian also cited Pakistan, which provided a safe haven for retreating Taliban to regroup as a major hindrance in the two-decades-long war.

“The Inter-Services Intelligence Agency of the Pakistani government supported segments of the insurgency, making it very difficult to defeat the insurgency because you could defeat them for a time and they would simply go across the border and regenerate and come back,” he said.

In August 2021, when President Joe Biden ordered the complete withdrawal of US forces, every gain made over 20 years evaporated in days.

It was a stunning reversal that will for ever shade the way Americans view the war.

“The legacy of the war in Afghanistan is going to be much like the legacy of the war in Vietnam,” Mr Mansoor said. "Political objectives drive military operations and, if you don't get the politics right, competence on the battlefield will rarely salvage the campaign."

For many veterans, the last year has been a difficult one, wrestling with both the outcome of the war and also scrambling to try to protect the Afghans who helped them along the way.

Retired Lt Gen Lawrence Nicholson is still trying to get people out of the country.

“People vote with their lives when they decide to help the Americans when they want to work with the Americans,” he said. “There's an obligation once somebody puts their life and their family's life on the line to support us. I think we have a moral and ethical obligation to do everything we can to bring them to safety.”

Mr Nicholson said he will not let the sting of defeat cloud what his troops went through and the sacrifices they made.

He lost 93 marines during his time in Afghanistan and, in the year since the war’s end, has sought to reassure the families of the men and women who died under his command.

“It didn't finish the way we would have liked, no one's happy with the outcome,” he said. “But it doesn't diminish in any way the work and the effort of the marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen that were over there during that time.”

It is important to note that while the toll on American soldiers was heavy, it paled in comparison to what the Afghan people went through.

The Brown University Cost of War Project estimates that 241,000 people died in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the 20-year conflict, more than 70,000 of them civilians.

Another damning legacy of America’s “forever war.”

Updated: August 16, 2022, 4:56 AM