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‘It’s horrible to watch:’ US veterans on seeing Afghanistan fall to the Taliban | Afghanistan

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June Spence remembers when she lost hope in the US military intervention in Afghanistan. Originally from Augusta, Georgia, Spence graduated from high school in 2009, during the economic recession. “You couldn’t find a job, so the Army was a pretty safe bet,” she said. “I grew up seeing American casualties on TV. And seeing all those welcome-home videos on YouTube, how great it was to be celebrated as a hero when you came back.” She had wanted to see the world.

Spence was stationed in a rural part of Kandahar Province in 2012. She was 21 years old. One day she saw three young boys, no older than 14, whom she recognized – they were brothers with whom she had often played before, mock-fights with pebbles and slingshots. They were pushing a wheelbarrow covered with a tarp. Inside, she found components for building IEDs.

“I caught three children transporting weapons of war and acting like we were all friends,” she said. “That’s homegrown ideological fanaticism. How do you win against something like that?”

2008: US Army soliders from 1-506 Infantry Division set out on a patrol in Paktika province, situated along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
2008: US Army soldiers from 1-506 Infantry Division set out on a patrol in Paktika province, situated along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Photograph: David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

Since the Taliban seized Kabul last week after 20 years of US intervention, Spence has been consoling her friends – many of whom are now raising money to help evacuate the Afghan interpreters and support personnel they worked with.

For most American veterans, there are many feelings – loss, devastation, anger – but not surprise.

At the time of the US invasion, Afghanistan had already been beset by armed conflict for two decades. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; in response, their cold war rivals – primarily the US and Pakistan – began to provide support to groups of anti-communist guerrillas known as mujahideen, many of them religious extremists who claimed to fight in the name of Islam.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, civil war ignited between mujahideen factions, each backed by various foreign powers. Eventually, a new militia group called the Taliban, led by a former mujahideen fighter, seized control of Afghanistan and enacted a regime of violent totalitarianism. This came to an end in 2001, when the US invaded the country.

Said Sabir Ibrahimi is a non-resident fellow at NYU’s Center for International Cooperation. He was a teenager in 2002, part of a wave of Afghan refugees who were able to return home.

“It depends who you ask, but the majority of Afghans welcomed the US invasion,” he said. “They were tired of that tyrant regime. I hated my life as a refugee in Pakistan. I was so happy I could go back to my country.”

But the Taliban soon reorganized and launched an insurgency.

Laura Jedeed, United States Army veteran: ‘It was obvious that we needed to understand the tribal structure.’
Laura Jedeed, US Army veteran: ‘It was obvious that we needed to understand the tribal structure.’ Photograph: Desiree Rios/The Guardian

Laura Jedeed joined the US Army in 2005, the same year Sabir Ibrahimi heard a suicide bomb explosion for the first time. Jedeed had just turned 18.

“I really believed in it,” she said. “I thought we were bringing freedom and democracy to people who wanted it. I wasn’t expecting us to have so little idea of what the culture was. Once I got there, it was obvious that we needed to understand the tribal structure, but nobody knew how the tribes were organized. And this was 2008, this was year seven. That was the first time I was like, this doesn’t seem right.”

Jedeed, now 34, grew up in a small town near Colorado Springs, Colorado. She is of Syrian descent, and she initially saw the military as an opportunity to learn Arabic.

“I thought it was a chance to learn more about where I came from – and it was. The Army taught me Arabic. And then they sent me to Afghanistan, where they don’t speak Arabic at all.”

At the crossroads of Central and South Asia, Afghanistan is a multiethnic, multilingual nation. Around 40% of Afghans are Pashtun, the largest ethnic group, and speak Pashto as a native language; across the country, most Afghans also speak Dari, or Afghan Farsi, which is about as similar to the Farsi spoken in Iran as American English is to British English. (Afghans, of course, will insist that Dari is the real Farsi, and the Iranian version is a deviation.)

“I expected it to be desert,” said Jedeed. “Maybe I was thinking of Iraq. But we flew into Bagram, and it was cold, it was mountainous. It was beautiful.”

Bagram is the site of an ancient city named Kapisi, once a major point on the Silk Road and a destination for Buddhist pilgrimages. Today, it is the site of Bagram airfield, formerly the largest US military base in Afghanistan. It was taken by the Taliban on 15 August.

“It’s horrible to watch,” said Jedeed. “But this was always going to happen, and it’s better that we left now than in two or three or 10 years. I just hope this time we learn the lesson we didn’t learn in Vietnam. I don’t have a lot of hope it’ll happen.”

2013: Afghanistan security forces stand guard after a roadside bomb exploded under an Afghan bus, killing nine in an attack blamed on Taliban militants.
2013: Afghanistan security forces stand guard after a roadside bomb exploded under an Afghan bus, killing nine in an attack blamed on Taliban militants. Photograph: Rahmatullah Alizad/AFP/Getty Images

During Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, his promises included military withdrawal from Iraq as well as renewed focus in Afghanistan. He characterized Iraq as Bush’s folly – but Afghanistan was a justifiable war, a war meant to seek reprisal from the people responsible for the September 11 attacks. During his first year in office, Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Taliban had escalated the severity of their attacks in urban areas, including civilian targets like shopping centers, hotels, cinemas, a luxury hotel in Kabul, a wedding hall in Kandahar. Car bombs, explosive vests, armed gunmen with AK-47s – any Afghan optimism quickly began to fade.

“That’s when a lot of the people in the cities started developing hopelessness,” said Ibrahimi. “But the people in the villages, getting bombed by the Americans and Nato – were as hopeless.”

In 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Hundreds of miles away, at a command center in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Kyle Bibby was the first on his patrol base to see the news. He quickly woke up his fellow Marines to tell them what had happened.

“It was elation,” he said. “And then immediately one of my Marines asked me, ‘Cool, so are we leaving?’ He asked it in a sarcastic way. Because he knew we weren’t leaving.”

Bibby grew up in northern New Jersey, in the New York metropolitan area. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, he applied to the US Naval Academy. He was 16 years old. He was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 2007 and arrived in Afghanistan in 2010.

“I had this kind of dread that the Taliban were just going to wait us out,” said Bibby. “And all these families, all these kids, they’re just going to go back to being under the rule of the Taliban. And we will have just been a blip for them.”

For the past few weeks, he has been watching as his fears came true.

“Every single service member I know who was deployed, we all just watched the map change colors again,” he said. “I knew it would happen. I knew it wouldn’t last. I looked at the map and Helmand was all Taliban-controlled. All the people I worked with are under Taliban control.”

“We were trying to build something in our image without real buy-in or leadership from Afghan people,” said Brittany Ramos DeBarros, 32, of Staten Island, New York. She deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. “Not because there was an unwillingness, but because of our arrogance. The US military is an institution designed to do as much violence as possible. You can’t use it and tweak it a little and act like it’s going to give you a different result.”

Zach Guiliano grew up on Long Island, New York. “9/11 was big for us,” he said. “I remember it. I remember coming home that day and wanting to kill bin Laden.” He was nine years old.

By the time Guiliano arrived at Bagram in 2013, the United States had shifted to focus on a project of “Afghanization”– to gradually reduce American military presence and eventually hand over control to the Afghan government. Afghanization was to apply Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy to Afghanistan.

“Maybe they should’ve thought of a different historical strategy to borrow from,” said Guiliano. “I hate to be the guy that’s like ‘I was right, I saw the writing on the wall,’ but especially over the last few weeks, seeing the news, it’s been a mix of surreal and infuriating.”

Jonathan Kelly, 27, United States Army veteran.
Jonathan Kelly, 27, United States Army veteran: ‘We were supposed to be improving the local economy, and that just went out the window.’ Photograph: Desiree Rios/The Guardian

Jon Kelly grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where the September 11 attacks also made a deep impression on his childhood. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant at West Point in 2015 and deployed to Afghanistan the next year. He was at Bagram airfield on Veterans Day, 2016, when a former Taliban fighter detonated a suicide bomb vest.

“My platoon sergeant comes to pick us up with this fleet of pickup trucks,” said Kelly. “We pass by the entry control point and I see every single Afghan local on the base on their hands and knees, with American soldiers, infantrymen, patrolling them up and down. Seeing people get treated like cattle, I realized something was quite off. And the next day, they fired all of them. We were supposed to be improving the local economy, and that just went out the window.”

Two days later, Kelly called his parents. “When you’re deployed, your parents watch the news.” But they had not seen any reports of the bombing. “Where the hell were the journalists over the last 20 years?”

As the conflict dragged on, many news outlets seemed to lose interest. “That’s obnoxiously embarrassing,” said Kyle Bibby. “They’re supposed to be the Fourth Estate.”

In 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as US president. Nothing changed in Afghanistan. “The only thing that changed was the picture on the wall,” said Jon Kelly. “It was all the same. It didn’t matter.”

The Trump administration deployed a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan, but the Taliban was gaining ground. A year later, US diplomats met with Taliban delegates to discuss a peace agreement. Many foreign policy experts saw these talks as a strategy towards brokering peace, but the meeting was not without controversy.

“We felt betrayed,” said Ibrahimi. “You’re negotiating with the Taliban? People like me, we were hoping that we’d have an open society, a progressive society. Those dreams are all shattered now.”

2020: US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha.
Zalmay Khalilzad, US sSpecial representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital, Doha, in 2020. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

In October 2018, Jon Kelly returned to Afghanistan for a second deployment. “I wasn’t doing it for whatever the Army said or whatever the president said. I was just doing it to make sure all my soldiers came back.”

Less than two years later, the United States and the Taliban signed the Doha agreement, creating a timeline for the full withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan. In the following months, as the Americans withdrew, the Taliban offensive intensified. Kabul fell on 15 August.

There is a sense among many veterans that their service – whether to the United States, to the Afghan people or to a nebulous greater good – is not over. Kyle Bibby and June Spence are now organizers with Common Defense, a progressive veterans group. Laura Jedeed studied political science and became an investigative journalist. Brittany Ramos DeBarros is running for the House of Representatives.

It is not over in Afghanistan. On August 26, a bombing followed by an exchange of gunfire resulted in the deaths of at least 169 Afghan civilians and 13 American military personnel.

“It breaks my heart because it really highlights the futility of this war,” said Zach Guiliano. “ISIS-K claims one of the suicide bombers was within five meters of US troops, and despite all the ‘defense’ funding we have, they were dead the moment they were assigned to that gate.” Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K, an Islamic State affiliate and an opponent of both the US and the Taliban, claimed responsibility.

The situation is developing; the conflict will continue.

“The Taliban does not represent Afghanistan,” said Ibrahimi, who now lives in New York. “They only represent a faction. Afghans are like any other people on earth when it comes to seeking freedom, living in a pluralistic society – not necessarily the American model of democracy, but our own freedom, as Afghans.”

For Ibrahimi, there were many failures along the way. The United States, Pakistan, Iran and other foreign powers have used his country as a site for proxy warfare. There was corruption in the Ministry of Interior Affairs, corruption in the Ministry of Defense, corruption throughout. Opium production has transformed Afghanistan into a narco-state. “Blame goes all over the place,” he said.

“This was a failure of our government,” said Kyle Bibby. “Across multiple administrations. The blame is bipartisan. There’s no one who should get off scot-free, except the Afghan people. I was there for eight months, and it changed my life. I cannot imagine what it’s like for them.”

It has been 43 years since the fighting began.

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