It’s been a hard week.
Like many of you all, I watched videos from the Kabul airport and saw pictures of military planes full of people fleeing. Gut wrenching stuff.
I served in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006.
At that point, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan had been decimated and we were thoroughly into the nation-building part of the war.
I was stationed in a remote desert outpost north of Kandahar with a couple dozen soldiers. Poppies grew against the barricades of our little fort:
We had a company of Afghan soldiers that lived just outside our razor-wire fence in their own area. Part of our job involved training and running missions with them.
We’d do that a few times a week. We’d get into our Humvees with our weapons and head out to a very small village a few hours away and speak with locals through our interpreter:
Most of the missions were humanitarian. Coordinating construction for wells and schools (which we paid for). Veterinarian missions to de-worm goats and sheep.
Here’s our Afghan soldiers handing out solar-powered radios (hugely popular, went fast):
Our little group of American soldiers tried hard to build goodwill everywhere we went. We were always handing stuff out, having tea with the local elders, kicking soccer balls around with the kids.
We were attacked by the Taliban several times. Usually with rockets, sometimes with small-arms fire. I remember once, at night, being outside and suddenly seeing small bright lights fly overhead and being confused for a second. Then the rockets started to land and I realized those small lights had been tracer rounds.
But IEDs were the biggest threat. We were constantly on the lookout for freshly turned dirt near the road and drove off-road as much as possible. I was usually the driver on our missions and I still remember what it felt like to drive across a narrow bridge or some other chokepoint where you knew an IED would be unavoidable if it detonated. We all just held our breath and I drove as fast as possible.
Soldiers were hurt and killed, including a close friend of mine the week we were set to leave.
And then I boarded a helicopter and went home.
After I left, I was never able to get a good sense of how things were actually going. We heard the same cautious optimism from our leaders for years, but it was hard to read much into that. There was visible progress and visible failure. President George Bush used to talk about an Afghanistan that could govern and defend itself. How close were we? How many more years would it take?
And now we know. Despite a massive effort, we never even came close.
Trump’s deal with the Taliban in 2018 created certainty that we would, in fact, be leaving. As a result, the Taliban largely stopped attacking our troops. They were waiting.
We proceeded with our exit because we had already given Afghanistan everything we could. We poured $90 billion into the Afghan military and stayed for an entire generation — at a loss of nearly 2,500 American servicemembers.
The Afghan army numbered close to 300,000, at least on paper. They had certainly shown a willingness to fight, having already lost 66,000 soldiers in the last 20 years.
Afghanistan has 34 provinces. On August 6th, the Taliban captured their first provincial capital. This wasn’t a huge shock because the province was nestled between Iran and Pakistan, farther from the national capital of Kabul than any other province. It was the lowest-hanging piece of fruit for the Taliban. That said, it was taken with virtually no resistance, which in retrospect was a sign of things to come.
In the next two days, the Taliban captured four more provincial capitals.
In the next five days, another 10 provincial capitals fell.
In the next three days, it was over. The national capital of Kabul fell, the president fled.
That’s nine days from the first province to the rest.
While a sizable number of elite Afghan soldiers put up a fight — and may now be regrouping in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul — what we saw from the army regulars was near-instant capitulation. The bulk of the Afghan army wasn’t defeated — it evaporated.
It’s hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those Afghan soldiers and to understand their calculations — but it isn’t hard to see what their ultimate decision was, and that was essentially to walk off the battlefield en masse.
Now the mission is evacuation. Americans still in Afghanistan, interpreters and their families, and others who are at extreme risk — like 250 female judges who were still serving until this week — must be flown out of the country immediately.
Here are three major mistakes that have hindered the evacuation mission:
The first was the previous administration’s decision to sharply reduce the processing of Special Immigrant Visas. That’s a program that was created specifically for Afghans and Iraqis who helped us and it’s supposed to be an expedited process to get them safely out of the country. It involves an administrative review that is arduous and bureaucratic even when it’s functioning — but Trump blocked almost all requests.
When Biden took over, the wait-list had 17,000 Afghans on it. That wasn’t an oversight, that was Trump lumping these people in with his broader anti-immigration message and not caring about the consequences. (Incidentally, after seeing recent events, he put out a statement saying that Afghans who assisted the U.S. “should be allowed to seek refuge.”)
That said, fixing the SIV process should have been a much higher priority for the current administration. That was our second mistake. Yes, the evaporation of the Afghan army was a shock. But we plan for unlikely contingencies all the time. That should have been one. There was no reason not to expedite the process by bringing the applicants to a U.S. territory, like Guam, and allowing the rest of the application process to occur there. That’s exactly what we did in 1975 when we left Vietnam. The governor of Guam even indicated that the island was prepared to accept them.
That should have happened back in April, but it absolutely should have happened once we saw the Taliban making swift gains across the country in early July. We’ve hit the gas on the process now and we’re evacuating several thousand people per day. That’s progress, but it shows we could have sped things up much sooner.
Third, we should not have given away the Bagram airfield before the evacuation mission was complete. If we were going to need to conduct a rapid, large-scale evacuation, we were going to need Bagram, which was our largest base and the most fortified airfield. We left it in early July, and now we have to rely on the airport in Kabul to conduct evacuation operations. It’s much harder to defend and more limited in terms of air traffic given that it only has one runway while the airfield at Bagram has two.
Now we have no choice but to conduct our evacuation mission under extreme pressure. That’s a bad situation to be in and a tough mission, but it’s a mission that we have an obligation to carry out. We don’t get to call it a day and walk away from these people who helped us, many of whom will surely die if we don’t make the decision to save them.
We owe them as a nation — but I owe them personally. Every time we ran a mission, I was putting my life in the hands of my interpreter. Our interpreter was at greater risk than any of us because the Taliban knew that if you take out the interpreter, it makes the whole unit ineffective.
And he never, ever let me down. Every mission, every moment, he was always by my side. I moved, he moved. When we were in a village and a group of men suddenly started walking towards our team, he would step forward and start speaking as quickly and calmly as he could. And this is the guy we’re going to cut loose? Unacceptable.
The same goes for that interpreter’s family. My interpreter’s wife and children became targets as soon as he ran his first mission with us. They took that risk together, as a family, so our obligation extends to them as a family.
Getting those folks out is the right thing to do, but it’s also in our national interest. If we don’t get them out, what’s going to happen the next time we need to ask locals in a foreign country to help us? How are those locals going to look at our soldiers when we ask them to trust us?
And to the 16 House Republicans who voted against the bill to speed up the visa applications, there is no possible defense for that. To do that deliberately — knowing what it could lead to for those who helped us — is unconscionable.
We’re already hearing some generic anti-refugee sentiment from some of these folks. I’d remind them of our history with respect to Vietnam.
After we left Vietnam, we had a policy geared specifically to Vietnamese refugees. We helped people who otherwise would have been killed.
We don’t regret that decision — we’re proud of it.
One of those people who we saved became my next-door neighbor when I was a kid. He was a former officer for the South Vietnamese Army — who probably would have been killed if he hadn’t gotten out — and by some amazing act of grace he and his wife landed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
His son became one of my best friends. We grew up together. I never fully appreciated his family’s story until I was in college. He had the opportunity to live a wonderful life because our country decided to keep its commitments to those who had fought with us.
As it turns out, we couldn’t bring democracy to Afghanistan — but we can decide to keep our commitments to those who fought for it with us.
That is now the mission, and we must not fail.
- Jeff Jackson