Second in a 2-part series
Three veterans of the Bloomington war in Afghanistan and former US Representative Lee Hamilton have said that the US intervention in that country for two decades has achieved certain objectives, although they have recognized that the long-term consequences of the war are unknown.
Meanwhile, an Indiana University professor said the war had been costly, but had not yielded much.
“I would like to think our engagement there was worth it… but I think in some ways the jury is still out,” said Todd Burkhardt, who retired two years ago. of the United States Army after 28 years of service.
Read part 1 here:“Saddened”, “angry”, “disgusted”: local ex-combatants react to withdrawal from Afghanistan
In 2013 and 2014, he was stationed at Camp Commando, about 10 km south of Kabul, and helped train Afghan commandos and special forces that would be deployed throughout Afghanistan to conduct raids on al-Qaida and other enemy forces.
Burkhardt said Afghan special forces have shown a deep commitment to defend their country, uphold the rule of law and ensure safety and security for themselves and their families.
They were determined to help their country succeed and… to legitimize their government.
“I was happy to be a part of it. “
Burkhardt said that many factors contributed to the Afghan government and army being invaded by the Taliban in 11 days – but the Afghan fighters were neither lacking in will nor commitment.
Thousands of Afghan soldiers have been killed fighting the Taliban, he said.
“Their dedication and commitment… has been proven in the blood,” said Burkhardt.
Instead, he said, the capabilities and dedication of Afghan fighters have been undermined by corruption, Taliban propaganda and inadequate infrastructure, such as a limited road network and almost no railroads, which made it difficult to supply even basic items, such as food, balls and boots.
Burkhardt said Afghan soldiers in some remote outposts fought hungry, with limited ammunition, while wearing sneakers. And while they risked their lives, they must have feared that the Taliban fighters would harm their families. And with little support from the Afghan government, they had to deal with Taliban propaganda that it was not worth dying to fight with the United States, because sooner or later the Americans would leave.
“These are important parts of how the (Afghan) army fell apart,” said Burkhardt, who retired from the US military two years ago after 28 years of service and is now director. campus partnerships at Indiana University’s Center for Rural Engagement.
When Bloomington resident Kirk White made his first tour of Afghanistan in 2004 to help Afghans secure his first presidential election, he was optimistic about the rationale and success of the US intervention.
“I felt great hope, like them, for the future of their country, and that set the tone for me in that we were there for the right reasons,” said White, vice-president of external relations at IU Bloomington. .
White’s optimism shone when he was interviewed by The Herald-Times in March 2005 while on leave in the United States
“We are really trying to bring Afghanistan to the point where it will be an active member of the international community,” he said at the time.
History of 2005:“The mission is going well”
But White said his initial optimism faded on his second tour, in 2009-10. At the time, he commanded three bases in Kabul and was disappointed that even the basic challenges he had faced five years earlier, such as vehicle maintenance, had still not been met.
“It was clear to me that the solutions we were proposing were not working,” he said.
White’s 2019 Kuwait Tour:Members of the National Guard, some local, visited Kuwait
Was it worth it?
White and Burkhardt said they believed the US intervention had produced positive results.
For years, parts of the country have remained relatively stable and many children, especially girls, have been allowed to attend school for the first time, White said.
White, Burkhardt and Andrew Bell, who served in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer in the US Air Force, also noted that the United States had not suffered an attack on their national soil since the beginning of war, an achievement that was widely questioned after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Bell, who is now an assistant professor at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at IU Bloomington, said the intervention was also successful in disrupting al-Qaida and preventing Afghanistan from providing the terrorist organization a refuge from which to attack.
And, Bell said, the United States has established a civil society, a more educated class and enabled a generation of Afghans to be raised in relative peace and freedom, which should prevent the Taliban from being able to rule. in the same brutal way they did. years ago.
“We have sown the seeds for a better Afghanistan,” he said.
Bell said the way the withdrawal of U.S. forces has unfolded is a bipartisan failure, started under former President Donald Trump and continued under President Joe Biden. But Bell also put some of the blame on the American public’s feet.
When the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 without preconditions, the American public showed little to no interest, he said.
“That’s when this disaster started,” he said.
Bell said he fully understands the pessimism of veterans and their families and their doubts whether their sacrifices have been for nothing.
“This isn’t the ending we wanted,” he said, “(but) it wasn’t a wasted intervention.”
However, Abdulkader Sinno, associate professor at Hamilton Lugar School, said the war had killed thousands of US service members, injured tens of thousands, killed tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians, cost billions of dollars in borrowed money and was gone. Afghanistan in roughly the same location as 20 years ago.
Al-Qaida had around 2,000 members in 2001, but now numbers in the tens of thousands and operates in many more countries than 20 years ago, Sinno said.
“What have we accomplished? He asked.
In some ways, Afghanistan is now in a worse situation than before, he said. Many people who gained in education thanks to the American intervention fled or flee the country to go to Europe or America. In recent months, Afghans have formed the largest contingent among the world’s refugees, Sinno said.
On the website “The Conversation”, Sinno also wrote that he feared the Taliban regime could plunge the country back into civil war, which for the Afghan people would mean “more exploitation, heartbreaking poverty, deaths and suffering “.
Lessons and lingering dangers
White, Burkhardt and Bell said the US military accomplished its original mission – disrupting Al-Qaeda – in part because it was clearly defined. However, when the mission crept into something much bigger and looser, things started to fall apart.
Establishing lasting peace and freedom in Afghanistan has proven to be too difficult, uncertain, time consuming and costly, veterans said.
“We did not recognize the limits of our capabilities,” Bell said.
Hamilton, one of the two Hoosier statesmen for whom the school Sinno and Bell teach is named after, told the Herald-Times that the war should reinforce the lesson that America must be careful to state clearly the objectives of international commitments and should only pursue them if they are in the national interest.
Hamilton, who served as deputy chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said he was not in favor of going to Afghanistan because he did not believe that the US national interest demanded.
America had a narrow national interest in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for attacks on the United States and its allies, he said, but this could have been accomplished largely, if not entirely, only by air power.
“I think we need to be a lot more careful in what we say and do with regard to the US national interest,” Hamilton said. “We get ourselves in trouble if we somehow slip into commitments and don’t address this fundamental issue early on. There is a tendency not to answer them… to not have a stubborn, realistic and pragmatic view of what the American national interest demands. “
He urged policy makers to analyze not only the war in Afghanistan through this lens, but all future engagements.
“Those who want to intervene, it seems to me, have an obligation to bear the burden of persuasion as to what they mean by intervention and what they hope to accomplish by it (and) what they’re willing to spend, ”Hamilton said. noted. “Before you go on a large scale, for God’s sake, do (a) analysis of the consequences and the resources needed. “
America had no interest in building a nation and trying to make Afghanistan a democratic, capitalist country, he said.
“It’s a bridge too far,” he said.
Hamilton said it is important to recognize that the intervention was successful in preventing another attack on the homeland. However, he said, concerns about another attack will remain.
“It’s not something you can stop worrying about,” he said. “This is an ongoing national security problem. “
Boris Ladwig is the municipal government reporter for the Herald-Times. Contact him at [email protected]