As the Taliban marched triumphantly into Kabul, I watched from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, a tiny U.S. military base in East Africa. I have deployed around the world to fight terrorism during my Navy and Marine Corps career, but I have not served in Afghanistan. So, why does this feel worse than watching the Islamic State (ISIS) roll through Iraq in 2014 or witnessing al-Shabaab’s campaign of murder in Somalia?
My reaction to the events in Kabul is more visceral than it should be—or so I kept telling myself before I realized it was because Afghanistan is the “alpha and the omega” of a campaign with no clear resolution or silver lining. In the pit of my stomach, I know that today represents, at best, some bitter closure to an American conflict defined by shifting missions and politics. At worst, it represents a significant setback in an ongoing struggle, negating the gains made up to this point. I keep watching U.S. military helicopters shuttle personnel away from our embassy as photographers jockey for the best angle to capture a “Fall of Saigon” moment.
In 2003, I enlisted in the Marine Corps, shortly after the invasion of Iraq. My strongest memory from boot camp is the five minutes that recruits had to cheer and commiserate after Saddam Hussein had been captured. I was elated, but also a little worried. I had put off college, and tentative plans to become a Navy officer, to join the Marines and “get some” in the GWOT. My country was at war, and it seemed to me that enlisting was not only a duty but also the briefest of opportunities to participate in a real war. I was worried it would be over before I had a chance to go overseas.
By 2005, I was deployed to Iraq and attached to the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) Battalion as a radioman, HUMVEE driver, and designated civil affairs representative (a distributor of money to civilians who lost property or livestock in the course of fighting). I spent most of a year with the grunts of 1st LAR in Al Anbar province: living in the dirt, patrolling, fighting, hurling Beanie Babies into crowds of children, and helping where I could. I spent my 21st birthday there and was awarded one Beck’s non-alcoholic beer. I remember a special fondness for the young children who took selfies with us—the seven- and eight-year-olds who would be prime targets for rape and murder during the onslaught of ISIS a decade later. I remember one: a little girl named Soha who I gave some mittens to in the middle of winter (Iraq gets quite cold in winter). I try not to think about her too much because it is hard to reconcile what I was fighting for in Iraq with what happened there after I left. I am proud of my service, but the rise of ISIS within the power vacuum left by the U.S. departure seemed so avoidable.
Afghanistan was supposed to be my next destination, but in 2006 the U.S. military wanted seasoned veterans to become officers in preparation for the “Long War,” and I was sent straight from Iraq to the U.S. Naval Academy. My fellow veterans and I were thrilled at the opportunity, though many of us struggled with the transition from war zones to the spit-and-polish of the Academy. There was no warrior transition program in those days; we simply went on to the next job and dealt with what we got. Most washed out, but I managed to hang on despite accruing more demerits than either John McCain or Charlie Wilson (a point of pride in some circles, but hardly worth the trouble). A minor riot occurred on campus when Osama Bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs during my senior year. The leader of Al Qaeda—the bogeyman of Afghanistan—was dead. I graduated in 2011, and commissioned as a Navy officer, at a time when my classmates and I believed the GWOT would never end. Being overseas in perpetuity was simply the cost of security; the new Gordian knot was in managing the Long War and supporting our allies in their fight for freedom and security.
The politics of the war had changed while I was at the Naval Academy, and “budget sequestration” meant I would go to graduate school instead of active duty. After my Navy service, I went to Washington, D.C. and worked for the State Department, then a think tank, Congress, and eventually became a political operative. Seeing how policy is made makes one understand how difficult it is to manage a war within a strong (or messy) democracy such as the United States. There is an impression outside the Beltway that everyone inside it may be yelling at each other but at least they are on the same page. In reality, everyone has different constituencies, priorities, and agendas. That is a price of democracy, but it has a debilitating effect on any national effort that is controversial and/or requires more than four years to complete.
In 2020, I deployed to East Africa, where U.S. forces support the Somali people in their fight against al-Shabaab—a jihadist group that has pledged allegiance to whatever is left of al-Qaeda. I am immensely proud to be here, regardless of how the mission may change or what Somalia may look like in the future. There are many children here who remind me of Soha, and I hope things work out for them. It is satisfying to support people who are fighting for the right to live in peace, even when the United States cannot perform such missions everywhere, even when the people are imperfect, and even when the mission itself is imperfect.
The fall of Kabul has garnered mixed reactions from my veteran friends and colleagues. Some thought the withdrawal was long overdue, and some thought our presence should be long-term (like our continued presence in Germany, Japan, Korea, and Italy). I can see both sides, but my overwhelming sense is one of sadness and disappointment. I am disappointed because the United States has fewer strategic options than it did a month ago, and those options were purchased at such a high cost. I am saddened because Afghanistan has so many young girls like Soha.
I was 16 years old on 9/11. Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like for 36-year-old me to travel back to that morning and tell my teenage self that America would go to war against terrorism, eventually kill Osama Bin Laden, and succeed in preventing another 9/11-style attack from happening for at least 20 years—and that I would play a role in that effort. I know I would be proud of myself and the leaders who have protected our nation for the past 20 years.
I also worry now about what the 56-year-old version of me might have to say about all of this.