Was it worth all the sacrifice? That is the unanswered question that a generation of American soldiers is asking itself in the face of the Taliban’s rise to power and the destruction of the model of Western society they tried to build in Afghanistan.
Some 800,000 young Americans have fought in the Afghan war since it began after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
According to the Pentagon, 2,352 have lost their lives and more than 20,000 were wounded, although the numbers could be higher due to the difficulty of accounting for suicides and mental health problems.
Chris Velazquez is one of the names behind the numbers. He was in Afghanistan’s Helmand province between March and December 2009, but upon his return, he left the Marines and for nearly a decade was dealing with the fear and anxiety of post-traumatic stress syndrome, fueled by narcotic abuse.
Over the years, he realized that his experience in Afghanistan was a “waste of life and time” not only because of the damage he suffered, but because he believes the U.S. failed to understand Afghanistan and occupied the territory for nearly 20 years trying unsuccessfully to build a nation.
Regretful and disillusioned American soldiers
“Many people, many war veterans believe that behind it there would be like a ‘big plan’ about what was going on, but they didn’t realize that, in reality, behind it all there was just a group of people trying to make guesses,” reflects the soldier in a conversation with the EFE agency.
He considers that Washington was never clear about its mission and, therefore, he is not surprised by the chaos surrounding the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan collaborators.
Jeremiah Knowles, who was a “19-year-old boy” when in 2008 he began working as an intelligence analyst at the Camp Phoenix military base in eastern Kabul, famous for being one of the Taliban’s favorite targets for suicide bombings, is of the same opinion.
He hardly ever left the base, but on one occasion he was ordered to go to a village to gather intelligence.
He told the locals he was going to “check their eyesight,” but in reality, he was doing retinal exams and taking their fingerprints to enter them into a database that Washington used to identify Afghans in case they were arrested.
“Any assistance to the civilian population was done to serve U.S. interests,” Knowles said.
Failure in Afghanistan
Others, however, have a different view and believe the war had two sides: a positive one with the weakening of Al-Qaeda and a negative one with a trail of deaths.
On Facebook, Lt. Gen. James “Jim” Slife, head of the Air Force Special Operations Command, considered that he experienced “ups and downs,” with triumphant moments like the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and other bitter ones like the “countless” soldiers he sent to the battlefield who, in some cases, never returned.
“Like many, I struggle to make sense of it all,” the lieutenant general, who between 2002 and 2011 was “in and out” of Afghanistan constantly, confessed a few days ago.
Slife is not alone among senior American military commanders who devoted much of their careers to the war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. Secretary of Defense himself, Lloyd J. Austin III, who led soldiers on the battlefield from 2003 to 2005, recently acknowledged at a press conference that the fall of Kabul to the Taliban is “very personal” to him.
“This is a war that I fought in, that I led. I know the country. I know the people and I know the people who fought alongside us,” Austin said.
Nearly 6,000 U.S. military personnel remain in Afghanistan to secure the Kabul airport and allow U.S. citizens and their Afghan collaborators to flee.
In total, along with the U.S., 51 other countries – including NATO partners and allies – have been involved in the war in Afghanistan.
In addition to American lives, the war has left 66,000 Afghan military and police dead, as well as some 47,200 civilians dead and another 2.5 million who have had to flee their homes, according to data from the UN and Brown University, dedicated to researching the costs of the conflict.