Opinion: I served in Afghanistan. Our politics loses wars.
by Justin Louis Pitcock
“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 who we desperately wanted to erase from the battlefield stood in handcuffs 20 feet from the cockpit of my V-22 “Osprey.” But we returned to base without him. He went free — free to continue planning to kill my friends. It was the low point of my deployment. As the flight lead, I could’ve made the decision to spend more resources and put more people at risk to try and detain the Taliban commander, but I felt the cost wasn’t worth the looming possibility of still having to let him go while risking more lives. The way I felt when we let him walk free is a version of what a lot of veterans of this war are feeling now as we watch the Taliban takeover.
War is a powerful and blunt tool with which to impose our national will. The weight of the decision to take military action should be felt and considered by every leader, elected official, and citizen. When the nation largely agreed on retaliation against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001, we met some key criteria of the Powell Doctrine. We had a clear threat to national interest in Al Qaeda, a defined objective in defeating the Taliban, and broad support at home and abroad. However, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force used to ignite this conflict in Afghanistan gave the president broad powers and no clear and attainable objective. By the time I arrived in 2013, our former objectives had been met years earlier and we were now spending blood and treasure to prop up a foreign government and military.
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 land our tiltrotor aircraft, 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 we 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. A group of vehicles were speeding across the open desert toward us less than 10 miles away and the escorts were running low on fuel. I made the call to leave.
We had evidence and positive identification, but the six accompanying Afghans 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 evidenced by the fall of the capitol of Helmand Provincealong with the others this past week. To defend the nation of Afghanistan, a construct of British colonialism in the first place, the populace would need to agree on what the nation of Afghanistan is. The Durand line, drawn by Sir Mortimer Durand of the British-Indian government in 1893, split Pashtun territory through its heart between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is no wonder a major Taliban source of strength is in Pashtun country, where their message of religious purity and evil foreign powers lands in fertile soil. Other borders with Persia and Russia in the late 1800s were also drawn by colonial or regional powers rather than by the folks who lived inside them. Rank and file Afghans, whether Pashtun, Punjabi or otherwise, would identify with an ethnic group before they would claim a national identity, and the Taliban tells a compelling story to 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. Both South Vietnam and the United States were bitterly divided about the war with North Vietnam. Now Americans are not so much divided about war as we are disinterested until a collapse or catastrophe grabs the headlines. 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 to the end — whether it be five years, 20 years, or 100 years later.
This is the gravity of what war is. To be successful in the future, we must take the Powell Doctrine to heart and be hesitant to engage, but deliberate, fierce, and steadfast once committed. In contrast to the way this war in Afghanistan is ending, a clearly defined objective would include some form of a timetable or event trigger. We cannot grant warfighting power without a clear objective as was done with the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. If we forced Congress to vote more regularly on specific actions, and specifically declare war — something we haven’t done since World War II — for major conflicts, it would bring reality a little closer and force our representatives to feel the weight of these decisions on their shoulders. It would also create “buy-in.” Instead of easily scoring political points when the enemy strikes a blow, a senator who voted for the war would be more likely to take a longer view and encourage support. Our elected officials and every citizen needs to be part of the decision to commit troops with a clear, obtainable mission. Philosophically, I have trouble with conscription, but practically there is no better way for the country to experience the impact of war than to have our brothers and sisters fight in it. A national call to service, though not only military service, is a good idea. Young Americans from all walks of life working alongside one another to serve something bigger than themselves would instill the national spirit we want to pass down, and can be done at local and state levels too. We need to think about maintaining a strong connection between our decision-makers and the 18-year-old with a rifle so the burden of war is shared by every social and economic class. This is how we make prudent decisions we can see all the way through. Our political winds may change direction every two to four years, but we cannot afford for our foreign policy to do the same.
I was a freshman at Texas A&M on 9/11. I was angry at what happened like everyone else and wanted to join the effort to fight the Taliban and find Bin Laden. At 18, I was gung-ho about the Global War on Terror in all its theaters and a big supporter of President George W. Bush. I went to both his inaugurations. I am proud of my service and even prouder of those with whom I served because we were professional and did what we were asked to do well. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were largely defeated in 2002, then nearly two decades passed. I see clearly now how failing to define and support an attainable objective doomed our efforts. In 2013, I thought our mission in staying was to avoid what happened last week. Instead, eight more years of blood and treasure were wasted.
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