A cold accounting might tally the costs in blood, treasure and time against the benefits to Afghanistan’s development and security or the reduction of al-Qaida’s capabilities. A historian’s perspective, a strategist’s assessment of alternatives and time, above all else, will tell.
Rather, consider a more familiar and human frame: sport. Two boxers stand in the ring. Ten athletes race for the gold medal. A thousand enter the marathon. Was it worth it only for the winner? Would you appear for the Olympics even if you knew in advance you would lose?
The value of the individual veteran’s experience in Afghanistan is not dependent on the outcome of a battle, the shifts in a policy or the determinations of a historian. To quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “It’s not the critic that counts … the credit belongs to the man [sic] in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” The game changes you, regardless of the result.
Nowadays, I live in the suburbs of Washington DC. The eggbeater whirr of a helicopter is a routine accompaniment to the other sounds of our suburban neighborhood, close by a local hospital. Nearly 20 years ago, leading a platoon of 25 American mountain infantry in Afghanistan, I could have told you the distance, firepower and model of a helicopter from its signature melody in a matter of seconds.
Reflecting on President Biden’s announcement about the end, for now, of American troops in Afghanistan, these hospital helicopters carry me back.
There was the double-rotored Chinook that deposited our advance party in Gardez, a peaceful city at the time.
Chinooks on the Tarmac. Photograph: Craig M Mullaney
A nearby mountain pass reminded us that hadn’t always been the case. Two decades earlier, a large Soviet force was pinned down and decimated by Afghan mujahideen. Their hasty fighting positions remained by the roadside. In Gardez, our platoon was the muscle to protect a reconstruction team of diplomats and development workers. There were textbooks and school supplies to liberate from former Taliban warehouses, endless councils with local elders, and mostly uneventful patrols along roads bounded by tall fields of marijuana and hashish drying in the relentless sun. On one mission we helped army veterinarians vaccinate what must have been a thousand livestock: goats, sheep and camels streaming towards our tent from all points of the compass.
Even then it was clear a generation or more would pass before Afghanistan’s economic and political development would catch up with the lofty communiques of the US and our Nato allies. This was an order of magnitude more challenging than the reconstruction of Japan and Germany after the second world war.
There was the dragonfly silhouette of an Apache attack helicopter, call sign “Widow maker”, as it banked against the midday sun near Khand Narai pass.
A US Ah-64 Apache helicopter manoeuvres over the mountains in the district of Manugay, Afghanistan. Photograph: Reuters
Soon after arriving in Afghanistan, we had relocated closer to the jagged mountain border with Pakistan. The Apache released its missiles on my target, an enemy sniper who moments earlier fatally punctured Chris’s chest. Hours before, we had scrambled in response to another unit ambushed near the Pakistan border. Chris had driven in my Humvee. We’d never have reached the firefight without his navigation. With the sniper dead, we stumbled to safer ground, carrying Chris on a stretcher. Slippery with blood, I struggled to keep a grip. It was a lonely and cold drive home.
Every week, it seemed, more and more “insurgents” – the catch-all label for Taliban, al-Qaida and other people shooting at us – were emboldened to leave their sanctuary inside Pakistan and walk across the largely unmonitored border into Afghanistan. We could plainly see what policymakers at the time wouldn’t acknowledge: the Taliban, and their allies, were gaining strength.
What we hadn’t realized yet was how the game had changed. We were still measuring success by our head-to-head encounters. They knew it was a political contest. To discredit the Afghanistan government in the eyes of local villagers, our adversaries didn’t need to compete in the election or construct new roads and clinics. They only needed to show the government couldn’t keep those villagers safe. In one brazen move, they beheaded all the police at a local outpost. One act of terror silenced a hundred potential collaborators. Across a large province, half the size of Switzerland, an American force in the hundreds was insufficient for the task. It always would be.
There was the Blackhawk medevac helicopter with its red cross markings, attempting a second landing on Losano Ridge.
If I’d had the time, I could have counted each of the bullet holes in its fuselage from its first bold attempt to land in the midst of a 12-hour battle. In what had become a familiar drill, my fellow lieutenant’s platoon had drawn fire near the border that morning and we arrived soon after with reinforcements. As one of my men crested a hill to my flank, an ambush erupted from what sounded like every direction. Evan, age 19, was shot and killed in the opening act. Four of his buddies pulled him up a steep hillside, under withering machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades, to the landing zone we marked for the Blackhawk. I remember the skids lifting off the ground, evading incoming fire. The helicopter raced north with Evan. Maybe 40, maybe 60 insurgents were killed by the time we rumbled home that September night, shivering and shattered. When we said roll call, it was the one name without a response I would never forget.
The ‘Dustoff 64’ medevac crew at Losano from the 717th Medical Company (AA). Photograph: Dave Burnell
There were the helicopters that brought celebrities and public officials for their combat visits. They kept the engines on because the visits were short. There were resupply helicopters laden with ammo, food and mail. Even at the outer perimeter of American firepower we ate frozen king crab legs and steak. Once when the water resupply failed, we made do with diet iced tea. When our replacements began to arrive by helicopter in the spring, we even became a little nostalgic and put on the airs of grizzled old-timers.
I left Afghanistan in 2004, but Afghanistan never left me. I remember the smile when we helped an elderly woman carried to our clinic on her husband’s back. I remember the solidarity of our platoon as we returned to patrol after Evan and Chris died. I remember the laughter of a bonfire skit and the stink of one sergeant’s boots. I can recall almost every moment of some battles, but hardly any of others. On some days it’s a worn photo that reminds; on others, the sounds of a helicopter.
I do not regret trading early career opportunities for a uniform. I do not begrudge the policy mistakes echelons above my reality. I no longer mourn those who did not return. Instead, I celebrate how they lived with integrity and courage. I cherish our band of brothers. I try to pass on what I learned to my children, students and colleagues.
Yes, it mattered. We played and it counted. For us.