When Chris Wood, an Afghanistan veteran in Farmington, first heard about the Biden administration’s plans to pull out all American troops, he couldn’t stop himself from yelling at the TV.
“We still haven’t accomplished the job, and we’re trying to leave before it’s done,” Wood said.
Meg VanNess, a Durango local who deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, remains unconvinced the United States will actually make it happen this year.
Chris Burgess, who served a year in Afghanistan, heard the news while at a veterans breakfast at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Durango. His initial impression: “It’s about time,” he said.
President Joe Biden has committed to withdrawing all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that precipitated the war. After the mid-April announcement, the news ricocheted around the country, leaving unanswered questions in its wake. By April 25, the drawdown began.
“We’re finally getting out of there,” Burgess said. “There’s consequences for that, but I think it’s time.”
The war in Afghanistan, called Operation Enduring Freedom, is the United States’ longest war. It started as a fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and evolved into an effort to install a Western-style democracy, women’s rights and public facilities, such as hospitals and schools.
Two decades later, its cost has reached at least $2.26 trillion, according to an April report from Brown University’s Costs of War project.
About 241,000 people died as a direct result of the war, according to the report. The deaths included humanitarian aid workers, journalists, opposition fighters, civilians, national military and 2,442 military service members.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump committed to withdrawing all troops by May 1 during peace talks with the Taliban. There are 2,500 to 3,500 remaining troops who will return home within months under Biden’s drawdown plan.
Local veterans were broadly reluctant to talk about the withdrawal. Veterans who declined to speak on the record said they don’t want to be perceived as speaking against their country. One person did not feel comfortable talking about strategy. Another said the whole experience is too personal.
Some said they don’t think Afghanistan will ever see peace. They expressed a desire to keep troops in the region to avoid losing two decades of “blood, sweat, tears, lives and money.”
The three Afghanistan veterans who spoke on the record shared a range of hopes and concerns, but they had one thing in common: uncertainty.
Wood left the military after 22 years, retiring as a gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan when it was attacked by the Taliban in 2012. It was the largest loss of equipment since the Vietnam War, he said.
“I know if people asked me specifically about what I did or didn’t do ... if they don’t already know what happened, I don’t want to talk about it because it takes me to a bad place,” Wood said.
He is concerned the Taliban and Islamic State will take over the region.
The Afghan government was not involved in American-Taliban peace talks under the Trump administration. Now, the Taliban seem to have the upper hand in negotiations with the Afghan government, according to news reports.
Any progress made on women’s rights could be at risk with the American withdraw of troops, according to an April National Intelligence Council report. Under Taliban rule, girls could not attend school and women could not work outside the home or be in public without a male relative.
The sense of uncertainty is shared by the Afghan people – students, farmers and government employees are facing unclear futures, according to The New York Times.
“Honestly, it makes me angry,” Wood said. “I knew several of my military brothers that ended up getting killed over there. I know the families are going to be really ... I don’t know if it’s angry or disappointed. ... If we’re just going to pack up and go without that goal being accomplished, what did all those people die for?”
Burgess was in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005 as an infantry mortarman with the 3rd Battalion/3rd Marine India Company Weapons Platoon.
He understands concerns that terrorist cells could pop up again, but he has “zero concerns” about the withdrawal. The United States will always have a foothold somewhere in Afghanistan and can use technological resources to keep an eye on the country without having troops on the ground, he said.
“The (Afghan) people are pretty great. They want to live their lives just like we do,” he said. “Our job was to train them up and get them to be self-sufficient. They may or may not do that, but this is their chance to do it on their own.”
VanNess spent 21 years in the U.S. Army before retiring in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel. She deployed to Afghanistan in 2005. There she acted as the liaison for the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led Afghanistan military mission, during the country’s first parliamentary election in three decades.
Her concern: What if Americans consider the mission in Afghanistan to be a military failure or lost war?
“When you enlist, you agree to a term of service, but you ultimately don’t choose where, when or if you deploy,” VanNess said. “Servicemen and women must trust that the president, the Congress and other policymakers will only use the military for what are ultimately worthwhile goals.”
Burgess hoped troops can come home sooner rather than later. VanNess and Wood said they hoped veterans would be appreciated and honored when they arrived.
“My hope is that Afghans will be able to continue to build a sustainable government that works for them and does not require military force to endure and prosper,” VanNess said. “I hope that our servicemen and women who deployed and served in the region are proud of themselves. I am personally very proud to have been part of our all-volunteer military.”
This story has been updated to correct Chris Wood’s military rank and the name of his aircraft.