My Lesson from Afghanistan: Our Politics Loses Wars
“I think it may be time to call it quits on this war.” I wrote those words from a metal building where I slept on the Camp Bastion airfield in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It was October 2013, and earlier that day, a senior Taliban commander stood in handcuffs 20 feet from the cockpit of my V-22 “Osprey,” but we returned to base without him. It was the low point of my deployment.
Twice a week during this deployment, we would fly two Ospreys with escorts to an airfield just southwest of the embattled town of Marjah, where some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place three years earlier. Our mission was to respond when a surveillance aircraft over the desert to the south detected a vehicle along one of the “rat lines” Taliban smugglers used to ferry people and supplies across the border with Pakistan. We would insert a combined force of British SAS and Afghan Special Forces to inspect the vehicle and detain smugglers or enemy combatants.
Many of these missions involved discovering an abandoned vehicle or, worse, a goat farmer delivering his animals to town. You could imagine the excitement when they found a steering column full of passports and identified one passenger as a senior Taliban commander. But this was 2013, during the “Transition” phase of the war, where the Afghan chain of command was supposed to take the lead. The Afghan Special Forces with us were not able to gain approval from the correct decision maker to detain these men and instead were instructed to release them.
We had evidence and positive identification, but the six Afghans with us, who we were supposed to turn this mission over to, did not have the authority they needed. This sort of dysfunction is on global display now as the capitol of Helmand Province fell along with the others this past week. To defend the nation of Afghanistan, a construct of British colonialism in the first place, the populous would need to agree on what the nation of Afghanistan is. Rank and file Afghans, however, would identify with an ethnic group before they would claim a national identity, and the Taliban tells a compelling story to some of these groups.
To have a strong national will, there must be a common vision. A common, consistent vision is hard to come by in America too. Our vision for what success looks like in Afghanistan shifted over time, for example. We started dropping bombs in October 2001 and building bases in November 2001 to destroy Al-Qaeda, find Bin Laden, and break the country loose from the Taliban government harboring them. A month ago, Americans held on to the notion we installed and trained an Afghan military and government capable of keeping the Taliban at bay. Now the best we can hope for is to avoid another attack on U.S. soil launched from a training camp in Taliban territory.
We should take this as our lesson from the past 20 years which we should have learned when Saigon was becoming Ho Chi Minh City 45 years ago: it takes a nation to fight and win a war, not just a military. A popular refrain in military circles over the past 20 years is “America is not at war. The military is at war; America is at the mall.” While the nature of our democratic republic rightly suggests we air our disagreements about whether to fight, once we commit troops the entire nation and its politicians should clearly define and unwaveringly support this effort until its won or lost whether it be 5 years, 20 years, or a 100 years later.
This is the gravity of what war is. To be successful in the future, we must be hesitant to engage but deliberate, fierce, and steadfast once committed. Our political winds may change direction every 2 to 4 years, but we cannot afford for our foreign policy to do the same.
As we watch our embassy in Kabul evacuate and the Taliban take control, the predominant feeling I share with fellow veterans of this war, many with much more harrowing experiences than my own, is sadness. Acknowledging this deep sadness of apparent squandered effort ought to be the priority over political point scoring and positioning. Politicians and pundits are just as likely to damage our ability to learn anything from this fiasco as they were to doom the outcome from the beginning.
Pitcock, a US Marine Corps veteran and member of the principled conservative organization, Principles First, owns a a small business in Houston and resides in Nacogdoches. Twitter: @jlouispitcock