We were winning when I left: Afghanistan
When I was a kid, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Vietnam: We were winning when I left.”
I didn’t understand what that meant back then, but I do now.
Sangin, Afghanistan, was a hell hole. However, the devil dogs of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines were right at home. Despite the danger, we walked the streets every day.
Over a decade of losing gunfights meant the enemy had mostly taken to placing IEDs at night, and the occasional random burst of automatic fire. Their cheaply made bombs still maimed us, but we took our pound of flesh with night vision, thermals, and drones. Intelligence driven raids would decapitate the head of an enemy cell, but another would eventually take its place. Regardless, the stretches between calamity slowly began growing, and the region was stabilizing.
My last few months in Afghanistan were spent in an embedded training team. Eight Americans lived with nearly fifty Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers. We taught them how to sweep for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and accompanied them on patrols. Our job was to call the bomb techs when our ANA spotted an IED, or a medical evacuation when they found one the hard way. When that happened, it was also our job to make sure they didn’t take out their rage on innocent locals. The goal was to foster allies, not create more insurgents.
Stepping outside the wire with only 3 other Marines made me realize how incredibly spoiled I was earlier that deployment, and in Iraq. Trusting your life to a group is far easier when you know they are instilled with lethality and tactical excellence.
Admittedly, a few of the Afghan soldiers were locked on. Most were not, far from it in fact. They routinely showed up to patrol drunk, missing issued gear or simply disappeared after getting a paycheck. Other times, they would outright refuse to patrol because the city was dangerous, or they were too tired.
Despite constant let downs, we had given them every advantage possible. Considering the gear, training, and support, they out classed their enemy in all measurable ways. Unless a local commander had given way to corruption and embezzled funds meant for his soldiers. This was commonplace, and our American commanders seemed to ignore it, or feared any chastening would simply cause a mass exodus of a force who just simply did not care.
ANA units were often sent to different regions than where they were recruited from. The idea was to avoid nepotism, or similar complications, but what this resulted in was ANA soldiers saying they did not care about their assigned sector because, “It is not my home.” This was baffling because it was akin to a California Highway Patrol officer from San Diego claiming they do not care about crime in Los Angeles.
When my unit was finally sent home, I knew I did everything I could to leave Sangin a better place. The ANA had a firm hold on the region, but I felt uneasy thinking about the future.
Beyond the absence of a national identity, Afghan soldiers frequently lacked the intangible factors that were hallmarks of the American warrior. Their actions time and time again proved they did not place the same value on honor, courage, and commitment.
In 2017, my fears became a reality when news broke that the Taliban had recaptured Sangin. Part of me was gutted, but another part was not surprised.
Over the years, hundreds of intelligence reports, news articles, and witness testimonials were published claiming the ANA were not capable of independent operations. Unfortunately, this was repeatedly proven correct and would directly contribute to the downfall of the country.
Few times in history has a defending force possessed such an advantage over an adversary as the Afghan Army held over the Taliban. Only one of these factions possessed an Air Force, yet they still crumbled. My heart breaks for those Afghan soldiers who genuinely tried to fight back while their comrades dropped their weapons and fled from an inferior force. Another tear is shed for those who joined to protect their home from extremists, and were abandoned by corrupt leaders or killed during insider attacks.
For two decades, American, and allied, troops were asked to make unthinkable sacrifices in Afghanistan. These volunteers exceeded every expectation. Yet, their leaders failed them by ignoring cautionary tales, and lacking any semblance of a cohesive long term strategy.
However, there are a few things to be proud of. The blood spilled by the American warfighter purchased many years of opportunity for those looking to flee a looming oppressor. Education was provided to an entire generation of young women that might have otherwise never had the chance. Hopefully this sparked the embers that will lead to lasting change in the ancient region.
It bears consideration that the advancements in gear, and warfighting technology, over the last 20 years has transformed the face of the US military, and better prepared us for future conflicts.
Although, these amount to small consolations when we accept the fact it has been a year since Afghanistan fell. A year since dozens of our brothers and sisters were injured and killed trying to facilitate the disastrously planned withdrawal. In addition to the needless bloodshed, we must acknowledge the morale injury caused by the realization our leaders squandered our lives.
On a lighter note, my friends and I joke that at least we got a few great books out of the war, and Hollywood got to make a lot of money on our stories. Plus, we did get to kill a lot of bad guys. Iraq seems to be doing alright these days. So, that's something too I suppose. If you don’t find that at least somewhat funny, I guess you just had to be there.
Looking forward, the American people are witnessing a new generation taking their place alongside the Vietnam veterans. Consummate professionals who watched their efforts amount to disaster because of bureaucratic mismanagement. All I can say now when asked about Afghanistan is, “We were winning when I left.”