A year after the Taliban takeover, U.S. veterans worry about the Afghan people
Updated August 22, 2022 at 5:23 AM ET
America's longest war came to a disturbing and violent end last August after 20 years of armed conflict. The hasty withdrawal left many Afghans feeling abandoned and afraid, which still weighs heavy on the hearts of veterans.
The last pair of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan left Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport one minute before midnight on Aug. 30, 2021. The country was turned over to its new rulers, the Taliban, which took over the country after President Biden announced he would honor the agreement to pull the remaining troops out of the country by the end of August.
One year later, veterans who served in Afghanistan continue to wrestle with their experiences overseas.
Afghanistan's success was a shared responsibility
When Timothy Berry, a former Army officer who served with 101st Airborne, watched Kabul descend into chaos last summer he was hardly surprised. He had spent 10 months on the ground in Afghanistan in 2015, working with locals and Afghan officials. Berry said he saw a country plagued by corruption, with a disorganized military and a lack of national identity.
As much as the United States wanted to see Afghanistan succeed, the Afghan people needed to want it more.
"They get a vote here and they have some responsibility to bear," Berry said. "Fault can go in many different directions, but ultimately the responsibility was gonna be always with the people of that particular country."
But that didn't make witnessing America's hasty withdrawal any easier. Images of desperate Afghans clinging to planes leaving the tarmac only to fall to their death were seen the world over.
The footage was heartbreaking, but Berry wasn't surprised that some Afghans went to such lengths to escape. The majority of the people in the crowds scrambling for a way out of the country were from the areas around Kabul, he explained, many of whom were entirely dependent upon the United States to survive.
"Of course they were probably very upset when the United States said that we were going to leave, because that was their livelihood," Berry said. "Their ability to function, the economy, was basically dependent upon us actually being there."
It can be difficult to talk about Afghanistan
Christy Barry said it's hard to talk about what happened in Afghanistan to those who have never been there. She deployed there twice, once with the Army and once as a civilian adviser, working with the same group of Afghans on both occasions and building lasting relationships along the way.
She believed the Afghan people had a shot at a new way of life, but accomplishing that would take time. Barry said she had hoped that the younger generation of Afghans would help guide the nation into the future with a new set of ideals.
"To see what we had and what we were doing, and then just to see it all fall apart, it's kind of the death of a dream in a way," she said.
Some of the people she knew in Afghanistan still reach out to her for help. She does what she can, sending care packages of food to families who have nowhere else to turn. When it comesto helping them escape the country, however, there's not much she can do.
She struggles with the thought that in some ways she's a failure.
"I try to live my life and I try and be happy, but it is always in the back of my mind – always," Barry said. "I just feel sort of lost with what to tell them with regard to evacuation."
When conversation shifts from the withdrawal to the war in general, she finds it hard to believe that the more than 2,300 U.S. servicemembers who were killed in Afghanistan didn't die in vain.
The importance of little victories
It's hard to categorize America's war in Afghanistan as a victory, especially since the Taliban didn't even wait until U.S. forces left before taking the country back. But whether America's two decades and more than $2 trillion invested in Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror was a waste of time and money, that varies from one veteran to another.
"Was it all for nothing? Yes and no," former Army reservist and counterintelligence agent Shaun So said. He spent a year in Afghanistan in 2005 working with locals and forward reconnaissance units. It's hard to say whether the big-picture mission was a success or not because there's no clear answer to what that mission was, he said.
He often thinks about the impact he had on the children. He recalled the overwhelming support from the American people in the form of care packages. Those packages often contained items he already had access to, such as batteries, beef jerky and other things that could be purchased on base.
Instead of luxuries like beef jerky and energy drinks, So asked people to send toys and school supplies for the children in nearby villages. The littlest things, such as pens, pencils and stuffed animals, meant the world to the young Afghans, which made some sense of success to So.
But it was a team effort, he said, a direct reflection of the compassion the American people felt for the Afghan population.
"Improving one child, for example, with having a pen and pencil they didn't have, to see a smile or some sort of hope, that was always worth it," So said. "You break it down, little, smaller chunks. Was that one day better than the previous? You have to sort of accept that that little bit of improvement was worth it all."
There's more work to be done
The news coming out of Afghanistan dwindled in the weeks and months that followed the fall of Kabul. And as predicted, many people's concerns for the Afghan people too began to fade with time. The same cannot be said for many veterans.
To this day, Kael Weston has an alert set on his computer to flag news about the situation there. He spent about three years in Afghanistan while working for the U.S. State Department with Marines on the ground.
Weston told NPR that last year's hasty withdrawal is a poor reflection of what the nation believes it should stand for, "which is a competent, caring United States of America. And I think what a year ago reflected was the opposite of that, the incompetence, and it didn't seem like we really cared as much as perhaps we should have."
Like Barry, he also continues to receive messages from Afghans he worked with seeking help. And though America's war in Afghanistan may be over, he hopes the U.S. can redirect its efforts to continue to help the Afghan people.
"I think there's a lot to be done, and I hope that the U.N. and our government working through some of the international organizations can try and help keep a focus on the humanitarian side," Weston said.
He sees the end of August not as an anniversary, but more of a reminder of the nation's failures and the toll it's taken on the Afghan population. Weston also hopes that politicians, policymakers and the American people can learn from the 20-year war to avoid unnecessary conflicts in the future.
"They're very easy to start and very hard to end. And I think Afghanistan is the biggest example of that," he said. "It went on for 20 years, and on the front end, people were predicting it would be short and over soon."
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