Was it worth it?
After two decades of midnight watches and gut-twisting patrols down bomb-riddled roads, after all the deaths and bloodshed and lost years, that was the one inescapable question on Wednesday among many of the 800,000 Americans who have served in Afghanistan since 2001.
“There’s no easy answer, no victory dance, no ‘we were right and they were wrong,’” said Jason Dempsey, 49, who deployed twice to Afghanistan as an Army officer to train the Afghan forces who are now fighting a losing battle against the Taliban. For military leaders, Mr. Dempsey said, “the end of the war should only bring a collective feeling of guilt and introspection.”
Across the country, when the news broke that President Biden planned to withdraw virtually all United States troops from the country by Sept. 11 and end the longest war in American history, messages flashed on phones and veterans called old squadmates, some relieved and some on the edge of tears.
Few wanted the war to continue. But finally ending it posed questions that some have pondered for years without easy answers: How is it possible for the United States to win almost every battle and still lose the war? How could the countless sacrifices and small victories leave Afghanistan with no better promise of peace than it had a generation ago? What does leaving say about the value of the nearly 2,400 Americans who were killed? And what does it say about the nation as a whole?
“It’s confusing, it’s complicated,” said Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Ackerman arrived in Afghanistan for his first tour there in 2008, believing he had missed the war. He would soon be involved in a surge that sent more than 100,000 troops to the country.
Now a writer, Mr. Ackerman said he and many others had been forced to make their own individual peace with the war a long time ago. “A lot of us have tried to move on, and when we saw the news, it wasn’t a huge surprise,” he said. “The people who have served on the ground are the last people you need to tell that the war is going to end in tears.”
But that acceptance did not take the sting out of the news, he said. “For years I sat across from Afghans in shuras and looked them in the eye, and told them to ally themselves with America,” he recalled. “That was the first thing I thought about when I heard the news. What about these people who trusted us? Will this be seen as a great betrayal? How will the world now see us a nation and a people?”
Even veterans who see the end as a relief say that pulling troops from Afghanistan does not mean the United States should take its focus off counterterrorism.
Tony Mayne was there at the beginning. As a 25-year-old Ranger, he parachuted into the night over Kandahar Province five weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Many saw the routing of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the months that followed as a decisive victory, but military leaders found it necessary to continue sending soldiers like Mr. Mayne, who deployed three more times for counterterror missions as the Taliban returned in force.
Mr. Mayne, now 44, said the effort in Afghanistan was worthwhile. The world is full of violent extremists, he said: Better to fight them in places like Iraq and Afghanistan than let them attack the United States.
Some veterans who lost brothers and sisters in arms want the United States to stay until “all the terrorists are wiped out,” Mr. Mayne said, while others see a need for a different approach to the conflict. “Everyone has such a personal experience in Afghanistan that it cannot necessarily predict how a person will react to news of the withdrawal,” he said, “because of the scars that a lot of folks have left over there.”
Many veterans feel betrayed that a war they poured so much effort into had still been lost. One commanding general after another told the nation that progress was being made, and that the effort was turning a corner. Cynical troops noted that so many corners were turned that they were either going in circles or had wandered into a maze.
“It seemed like a lost cause when I got there — the leaders were talking about winning hearts and minds, but that’s not what we were doing,” said James Alexander, who was an Army private serving at a tiny infantry outpost in Kandahar near the height of the troop surge in 2012.
A few months into the tour, his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, massacred 16 villagers. “After that, I knew it was done — that we could never make progress, and this war would just keep chewing up people for as long as we fed it.”
Still, he said, the news of the end came as a disappointment. “We really did try to make a difference,” he said, “and now I’m afraid we are damning a generation of Afghans to nothing.”
Many veterans say they have to weigh feelings of guilt at abandoning allies against the prospect of more bloodshed.
“I didn’t even know how to feel — I had to text other vets I know for a gut check because it’s so confusing,” Ashleigh Byrnes, 37, said. She served as a field journalist for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan in 2009. Even during those more optimistic days, she said, it was clear that the training of Afghan troops was faltering and the U.S. effort was “a dark endless tunnel that wouldn’t end well.”
Ms. Byrnes now works for Disabled American Veterans, and sees people every day who were wounded in war. She said she thought pulling out was a hard choice, but the right choice.
“It’s tough to not get a little bit emotional when I think about it,” she said, apologizing as she held back tears. “We made a promise to the Afghan people. But this can’t be our perpetual reality. We have to stop. I have children now, and I can’t imagine this war still going on when they are old enough to join.”
Several veterans noted that Afghanistan was already engulfed in war before American forces invaded, and will probably still be after they are gone.
Brian Castner, 43, was an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal expert who defused roadside bombs, and has since written several books about the war. He said ordering the pullout by Sept. 11, 2021, means little in practical terms.
“But in terms of story, it’s genius,” he said. “The Biden administration figured out a way to give the withdrawal meaning: Do it on the anniversary of 9/11, remind people why we were there — say we stayed for 20 years, then chose to leave. Tell them we did our part, put your chin up.
“It’s a myth,” he said, “but at least it’s something.”
An end, even if long overdue and perhaps contrived, can still have real power, said Thomas Burke, who was 20 and a lance corporal at a firebase in a small Afghan village in 2009. He later went to Yale Divinity School and is now an assistant pastor in Massachusetts.
During the war, generals often brought visiting dignitaries to his village to show the progress being made, he said, but small victories there were often followed by bloody losses. Friends were killed, Mr. Burke said, and he once had to pick up the pieces of village children who were dismembered by a rocket-propelled grenade. Eventually the American troops pulled out. The village is in Taliban hands now.
“Was it worth it? I could answer both ways,” he said. “Good people devoted their lives to this project, and a lot of them were destroyed. There has been so much suffering by the Afghan people. In that sense, it’s not worth it.
“But for individuals, there are experiences and realizations from Afghanistan that will always shape their lives,” he continued. “We think about them every day. They are who we are. And I can’t say that doesn’t have real value. There are experiences I treasure, people I love who I met there.”
If nothing else, he said, it is worth it to have an end. “It is important to have ceremony and rituals, times when we mark and remember things,” Mr. Burke said. “That’s what this is: We need an end. An end is how you grieve. We haven’t had a chance to do that yet.”