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Charles Paige / August 24, 2021

Afghanistan: This Veteran’s Perspective

“There’s no way to spin this to make anything about it acceptable.”

As a veteran Marine officer who spent three and a half years in Afghanistan, I’ve fielded my share of “what do you think about the exfil fail” questions this past week. The points below aren’t necessarily the definitive issues relating to the withdrawal, but they’re the ones that resonate the most with me personally.

First, it’s a mess. You can blame it on bad intelligence, bad planning, or the guy who came before you, but there’s no way to spin this to make anything about it acceptable. I don’t care who’s to blame; I care about the people who are caught in the middle of our mess. We made the mess; we owe it to them to clean it up.

Second, I’m having a hard time coming up with strong enough words to describe how wrong it is that it takes years — literally years, even with decorated veterans vouching for and investing considerable time, money, and reputational capital on their behalf — to get people who risked their lives and shared hardships alongside us out of Afghanistan, but we allow hordes of people we have no such connection with us to stream across the border like Black Friday at Walmart. Why would al-Qaida go through the trouble of having a sleeper agent jump through all the Special Immigrant Visa hoops when they can just join the record-breaking number of border crossers and hide in plain sight? Why do we pretend endless screening of our partners — who have already been thoroughly vetted before going to work for us — is going to make us safer? Not all of the masses at HKIA fall into this category, but there are a significant number of individuals and families who have been trying to work within the system for far too long and who are now having to risk their lives — again — to get out.

Third, we’ve collectively lost the ability to analyze risk and weigh cost and benefit (a thesis our (over)reaction to COVID also supports). In this case we unilaterally (i.e., no one — internationally or domestically— w as arguing forcefully for a complete withdrawal) took a relatively low-cost, low-risk option off the table. In exchange, we’ll incur a much higher risk and cost when we do this the next time. And regardless of how much folks scream “never again,” there will be a next time. Except next time we’ll have a much harder time finding folks to partner with because of the way we’ve repeatedly surprised and abandoned our allies.

We invested a lot of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. The results didn’t meet expectations, but we made tangible progress. The decision to withdraw was like driving down the interstate while looking solely in the rearview mirror: it was based almost entirely on decisions — including many mistakes — made years (some a decade or more) ago with apparently little consideration for what might lie ahead. While executed under the guise of protecting our troops and national interests, the effect is going to be the opposite. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill, war is ugly and undesirable, but not as bad as not standing up for what is right and good.

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