The second time Javier Mackey visited Afghanistan, a friend of his was ambushed and bled to death in his arms. He saw high-ranking Afghan officers selling military equipment for personal use and local soldiers fleeing in a firefight.
He then began to wonder what the United States could really accomplish by sending thousands of military personnel to a faraway land that never seemed to have lived in peace. It was in 2008.
Mackey, an Army Special Forces soldier, was sent there five more times, was shot twice and, he said, grew more and more in disbelief with each trip, until he ‘he decides that the only sensible thing for the United States to do would be to cut its losses and leave. even if. Yet seeing the rapid and chaotic collapse of the Afghan government in recent days hit it with the intensity of an explosion.
“It’s painful – a pain I thought I got used to,” said Mackey, who retired as a First Class Sergeant in 2018 and now lives in Florida. “I sacrificed a lot, I saw death every year. And the guys I served with, we knew it would probably end that way. But seeing it ending in chaos drives us crazy. I just wish it would end that way. that we have an honorable exit. “
In the 20 years that the Americans have been in Afghanistan, more than 775,000 troops have been sent there, to city-like air bases and outposts surrounded by sandbags on top of isolated mountains. As the Taliban invaded Kabul on Sunday, wiping out any gains made, veterans said in interviews they watched with a mixture of sadness, anger and relief.
Some were grateful that the U.S. engagement in the country appeared to be over, but they were also disappointed that hard-earned progress was wasted. Others feared for the Afghan friends they had left there. In interviews, text messages and on Facebook, men and women who collectively spent decades in Afghanistan said they were angry because, despite a setback that lasted for years, the United States had failed. failed to leave the country with more dignity.
The angst can be especially harsh because veterans have often worked alongside Afghans for years trying to build a nation, and today, in that nation’s collapse, they see the faces of friends who were swallowed up by anarchy.
“My heart is broken for the people of Afghanistan,” said Ginger Wallace, a retired air force colonel who in 2012 oversaw a program to train low-level Taliban fighters in demining and to work in other services offering an alternative to combat.
At the time, she believed that efforts to stabilize Afghanistan were successful and that American troops would one day leave the country in a better place. But his optimism slowly eroded as the Taliban gained traction. “It’s heartbreaking. I hate to see it end like this, but we don’t know what else could have been done,” she said, from her home in Louisville, Kentucky. “Do we think the US military should stay and fight the Taliban when the Afghan army doesn’t?
Wallace met his wife, Janet Holliday, while he was in Afghanistan. The two watch the news every morning, but on Monday, as scenes of confusion unfolded at Kabul airport, Holliday, a retired army colonel, switched to the kitchen chain.
“It was too hard to watch,” she said, apologizing as she was annoyed. “I can’t help but think it was such a mess. I can’t even think how, after so much blood and money, it all turned out like this.”
More than in any other war in US history, Americans have been very isolated from the fighting in Afghanistan. There was neither recruitment nor mass mobilization. Less than 1% of the country served, and a disproportionate number of troops came from rural areas to the south and west, far from places of power.
But veterans have said in interviews over the years that they are aware of the challenges of war, perhaps more so than the rest of the country. They saw first-hand the deep-rooted traditional cultures, tribal alliances, and endemic corruption that have consistently blocked U.S. efforts. Mackey agreed with President Joe Biden’s decision to step down, but considered how the process was handled in a negligent and unprofessional manner.
“We train for contingencies. The way it was handled was just irresponsible,” Mackey said. “We didn’t want to have another Vietnam, we wanted to do better.”
Jake Wood was 25 when he was sent to a forgotten corner of Afghanistan in 2008. There he, a Navy sniper, began to see how much of a difference there was between the statements. optimistic American leaders and the reality of serving with Afghans on the ground.
Villagers in Sangin district, where he served in an outpost, appeared to have little allegiance to the Afghan government in Kabul or the American vision for democracy.
“We had no idea what our mission was, even then,” said Wood, who now leads the national network of veteran volunteers, Team Rubicon. “Were we trying to defeat the Taliban? Were we building a nation? I don’t think we knew that. “
The Afghans he served with seemed to accept uncertainty with a tired fatalism that was alien to young Marines. At one point, he remembers speaking to a young Afghan man, who told him that Afghanistan only knows war, and when the US war ends, there will be another.
“He told me that maybe the Americans would come back,” Wood said. Then he remembered what the Afghan had said: “But if they come back, I don’t know if we will be friends or enemies.
Wood said the veterans he came into contact with felt a mixture of sadness and fury at seeing the fall of Kabul: sadness that the madness, which seemed so evident in the ranks, had taken years and thousands of years. lives for the above rulers to accept. fury that the result of this ignorance and arrogance be broadcast on cable television in a way that would tarnish the reputation of the country and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought. “We already knew we were losing the war,” he said. “But now we’re losing live on TV to the rest of the world. That’s why it’s so difficult.”