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The War in Afghanistan: Perspectives from U.S. Veterans

This event looked back on nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan from the perspective of the Americans that fought it.

Date & Time

Tuesday
Dec. 15, 2020
1:30pm – 3:00pm ET

Overview

Nineteen years after U.S. forces entered Afghanistan, America is drawing down. Only 2,500 troops will remain when President-Elect Biden takes office in January. But the conflict in Afghanistan continues to rage, even after the recent launch of a fragile peace process between the Afghan state and the Taliban. This event looks back on nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan from the perspective of the Americans that fought it. Five U.S. veterans reflected on their experiences in Afghanistan, discussed whether their views of the war have changed over time, and offered thoughts on current withdrawal plans and the peace process.

Selected Quotes

Robin Fontes

“I would say my views haven’t really changed so much as evolved, in terms of the roles of the Afghan government in what we should expect from them, and what they should expect from us. Over time, we saw progress in many areas, but more at the tactical level than at the strategic or government level. As we tried to hold some of the commanders’ feet to the fire at the core and below level, we did not get as much movement at the national level whether it be ministries or the president’s office. A lot of it was due to the constant turnover of personnel on our side, and the Afghans’ knowledge to know where they can push us (while we did not know where we could push them). The Afghans’ tolerance for risk was much higher than the tolerance for risk of the US, which hurt the ability of the US to make substantial progress. The US was also unfamiliar with culture and regional dynamics. Afghanistan is a very connected society in terms of tribal linkages and alliances, which US was not as aware of. Our lack of connectedness allowed them to secure their powerbases, when we needed the power to be more dissipated throughout the country.”

“I believe that the war on Afghanistan was and is a noble cause. I agree there is a lack of regional strategy, and the changing of US policy over time was not helpful to making greater gains in Afghanistan. That is result of the way our political system works, and it is difficult to control. The lack of transparency is frustrating, but I also see it as a necessity in order to give us a little more strength in our negotiations with the Taliban. I think it is important to let the press know why being more transparent with the public at the moment is detrimental to the peace process. We should look forward. I do not agree with a quick withdrawal down to 2,500 troops by the end of this year. But I do think increasing the number of troops is not a good idea, and part of helping the Afghan government to grow is to let them make the adjustment to the US not being there. They have been as good a partner as they could have  been, and we need to keep supporting Afghanistan at the 2,500 troops level. Our legacy will be what happens a year or two down the road, and whether some kind of power-sharing agreement stands or not.”

Olivia Garrard

“While I was serving, the idea was to keep pushing it and taking it to the Taliban, to give a stable enough platform to negotiate for the peace process. At the time, that made sense to me. I appreciated that not only was I getting local guidance, but it was connected to the larger political situation. The only way to accomplish something was to have some sort of political goal that we could translate given our tactical means that we were willing to put forward. Continuing to provide pressure that would give us a stable platform to negotiate,  seemed a very reasonable strategy while I was there.”

James LaPorta

“The official line for staying in Afghanistan, is that we are preventing a return to pre-9/11 conditions. And that we are preventing a return to Afghanistan being used as a base to launch future terrorist attacks. I cannot speak to whether we should stay or go, but I will offer analysis. Earlier this year, I was thinking about President Trump running for re-election and what would he tout when he went on the campaign trail. I really started to dig deep into Vietnam and Peace Accords. A lot of people I talked to turned me to idea of ‘decent interval.’ Henry Kissinger and Nixon had decided that Vietnam was lost, but we wanted to make sure that Vietnam was not lost during Nixon’s campaign and on his watch. If the Vietnam war was lost on the next guy’s watch that is fine, as long as it did not end on ours. So the idea was, to go out on election campaign and be able to say you are bringing troops home from war. But also to leave enough troops there to ensure Vietnam doesn’t fall to Communism on your watch. Decent interval as a strategy was touted as something that Obama should have done, and what Trump should do. The idea is to withdraw troops but keep enough there so the country does not completely fall into chaos, but if it does fall into chaos, then it happens on the next administration’s watch.”

“We know less about the Afghan war than at any point in history. We no longer get Afghan casualty reports. We no longer get enemy initiated attack reports. All that is classified now, and it is all tied to the peace negotiations in Doha. Journalists from the Bush to the Obama administrations used to get all that data, and what the daily Afghan casualty reports are. We do not get that anymore, which is all tied to the peace process. This is also a parallel with the Vietnam War, where the same thing began happening and journalists did not get daily reports later on. There are similar parallels between the Afghan peace process and Vietnam peace process.”

Phil Martin

“The lack of transparency is terrible. It is the last thing that we need as American people, in order to have an educated idea of what is happening in Afghanistan. From a foreign policy perspective, it is no way to do business. The strategy has been unclear and disjointed from the very beginning, over multiple administrations. All the politicians say we will leave, and somehow, we end up staying. There is also this notion of military as a tool. I would love to say there is an alternative perspective on war in Afghanistan. We have a handful of ambassadors, a tiny State Department, a tiny foreign service.  The bottom line is, as far as strategic objectives and success and war go, if we let political campaigns drive public perceptions that is a mistake. Also the military is only one tool of our foreign policy, and to have such a tiny State Department and so few civilians on the ground who can help create a multi-dimensional and thoughtful mission is what we are lacking. We need to improve upon this, and ensure transparency, especially when dealing with an enemy like the Taliban. Terminology is a slight issue too. What the Taliban actually is, and designating them terrorists and insurgents. What is going on and why do they have so much power among tribes, local, warlords. What connects them? Is it an appeal to nationalism, or rural tribal culture, or Islam? We need to stop, collect our thoughts, and develop real strategies.”

“A lot of it goes back to the idea of what does winning look like, and what were we supposed to be doing. One of the things that is most challenging in my opinion, about the special forces, it is an incredibly complex mission, whose difficulty and toughness cannot be exaggerated. I think it is easy for us to sometimes be hard on ourselves and to wonder what we are doing here. During the mission, there are challenges. A war is happening, at night, and the Afghan army is learning how to use their night vision goggles, and learning how to use their weapons, and they have physical challenges, that we as bigger, stronger, tougher Americans do not have. So we are pushing them, teaching them and mentoring them, while also trying to be aware of surroundings, because it is really a war, with people trying to kill us. The ultimate objective was nothing like how we expected it to be. Day after day, was a new surprise and challenge we did not expect.”

“It is complex. Does winning look like us just accomplishing our mission? Does winning look like avenging deaths of Americans? Does winning look like training our Afghan soldiers?”

Adam Weinstein

“USA did not have an understanding of the ethnic and tribal cleavages to navigate. I was not viewing Afghanistan from a sophisticated level, I was viewing it from the ground. Initially when I went to Afghanistan, I thought it was a noble war, and by the end I thought it was futile. It is difficult to imagine how USA could have succeeded, because Afghanistan was never placed in the context of greater US policy and this led to a lot of missed opportunities. There were times when the Taliban might have been willing to negotiate but the Pakistani military establishment wanted them to fight on and get more concessions before they went on to the table. There were a lot of conflicting interests in Afghanistan that allowed the Taliban to continue to fight, and the biggest impediment to success on the battlefield against the Taliban was the cost of an insurgency is less. It is easier for the Taliban to inflict violence than it was for the Afghan national army or coalition. So that made it a very tactical conflict, and that is why I support a withdrawal of troops. USA also enabled corruption in Kabul, and did not have a thorough understanding of tribal feuds that were existing on personal levels on districts, and we were empowering one warlord versus another. It became like a Rubik’s cube, where sometimes a few squares line up, but one square is always missing. I do not think we can line up a Rubik’s cube using military force. At best we can keep it at a simmer, which comes at an enormous cost to civilian life.”

“The legacy of the war is that you cannot silo US foreign policy. You cannot win a counter insurgency in a country bordered by Iran, when you have a dysfunctional relationship with Iran. You cannot win a counter insurgency in a country bordered by Pakistan, if what you expect the Pakistani state to do is go against their own interests. That is not an excuse for some of Pakistan’s malign behavior within Afghanistan, but the fact is the idea that Pakistan was going to be a major non-NATO ally that would be on board with every single strategic US objective in Afghanistan was a fantasy from the beginning. We did not have a regional policy, we had a counterinsurgency policy. We were very good at winning battles, taking back valleys from the Taliban and taking back villages. But we were not very good at winning the war, and that speaks to the difficulties of a counter insurgency campaign, which was existing without any real regional plan and poor relations with neighboring countries that were necessary to stabilize Afghanistan. That would be the legacy to not make those mistakes again.”

“We have to ask ourselves, is it more important to go after a transnational terrorist group like Al-Qaeda that operates all around the world, or is it more important to focus on an inward-looking Taliban movement that might not disavow Al-Qaeda but is not necessarily critical to AL-Qaeda’s advancements? I agree those ties are concerning, but we need to prioritize our counter-terrorism objectives and really ask ourselves whether the Taliban belongs on that list.”

Speakers

Robin Fontes

Former Commander, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan

Olivia Garrard

Active Duty Marine Officer, 2014-2020

James LaPorta

Investigative Reporter, Associated Press

Phil Martin

Writer

Adam Weinstein

Research Fellow, Quincy Institute

Hosted By

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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