Looking Back On 20 Years At War In Afghanistan

Veterans reflect on the mission that America ignored — and that many of them are still paying for.

The United States’ mission in Afghanistan was supposed to be straightforward.

Osama bin Laden and his followers did the unthinkable on Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking passenger jets and killing thousands in attacks on buildings that symbolized American power. The public overwhelmingly supported invading Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban movement had sheltered bin Laden.

The initial strike was quick. Yet American troops and their allies stayed in Afghanistan for another 20 years, even though president after president said it was time to leave ― and the Taliban regained ground while U.S.-backed forces remained shaky.

On April 14, President Joe Biden finally announced that the U.S. would end its military presence in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.

“I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” Biden said in a speech from the White House Treaty Room — the same place where President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war in 2001. “I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.”

The United States has now completed around 12% of the withdrawal, the Defense Department said in a statement this week.

HuffPost spoke to veterans of the war, including non-Americans who supported the U.S. campaign. They shared their complicated feelings about the end of the war, their doubts about the value of the effort, the friends they made (and sometimes lost) and how it felt to risk their lives for a project that Americans largely seemed to forget.

Peter Lucier
Peter Lucier
Courtesy Peter Lucier

‘We learned how to fight a war that nobody cared about.’

Peter Lucier, 31, served as a Marine infantryman in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. He lives in St. Louis and is a law student at Saint Louis University School of Law. Since leaving the military in 2013, Lucier has written about his experiences and is active with the progressive veterans group Common Defense, which advocated for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. The news about withdrawal came two days after the nine-year anniversary of his friend’s death in Afghanistan.

It’s supposedly over, and I wasn’t happy. I didn’t cry until later. I just was empty. And if anything, I felt almost angry. It seemed like the announcement was coming not as a result of a watershed moment. It’s cliche, but it was definitely not with a bang, but with a whimper. There wasn’t a moment of reckoning. ...

I remember there was this colonel who had talked to us right when we got into country. And he said, “I want you to remember that not a single thing you do out here is worth the life of a single Marine.”

It felt like that’s the kind of thing that you hear at a safety brief before a training exercise. Like, “Hey, remember, this is just training. Nothing that we do is like worth someone dying over. So if something’s unsafe, just stop it.” But this is war. The thing that we’re doing is supposed to be worth the life of a Marine, because if it’s not, then what are we doing here? Are we just running out the clock? Are we just sitting here, waiting to go home and trying to not die? ...

I feel like the business of government, whether that was Pentagon brass or senior-level calls, was a campaign of dishonesty and half-truths that was allowed to continue because no one cared. Because of public apathy, because of the “low cost” of the war ― an acceptable number of casualties, a relatively low footprint.

We learned how to fight a war that nobody cared about. Maybe that’s the legacy. We learned how to keep a war going for 20 years without aggravating the average voter enough to do something about it. The legacy is America now can get away with long-term violence and military action in other places and put it on the shoulders of an incredibly small group of people.

Esti Lamonaca
Esti Lamonaca
Courtesy Esti Lamonaca

‘There’s nothing that civilians can say that is comparable to war.’

Esti Lamonaca, 30, is a native New Yorker who vividly remembers the 9/11 attacks. Lamonaca served in Afghanistan, attached to Special Forces task forces as an intelligence analyst from 2015 to 2016 before leaving the military as a sergeant and pursuing a degree in anthropology with minors in community organizing and women and gender studies. They are the national lead organizer at Common Defense.

I proudly wore my Afghanistan vet hat [the week of the withdrawal announcement] because I felt this sense of relief and this euphoria. ... Wearing my hat around, I never expect anyone to say anything to me because I don’t assume that people know what it means, but I did get stopped by one much older African American person saying they were extremely happy the U.S. was withdrawing. This person teared up when they were thanking me.

It really does help a lot of us who are struggling with PTSD, knowing that no one is going to have to suffer there anymore. ... We did not win the war by any means, but we won the fight for what truly needed to happen right now and was long overdue.

I did not stop crying all week. I walked around, went on runs and cried. I thought about every single person that I lost there and lost back at home and I prayed for them to hopefully be at peace now. I literally re-lived every single day, things that I have suppressed. I saw Afghan women looking at me with stoic faces that didn’t want us there. I saw kids throwing rocks at us but also hugging us, looking at us as if this was normal. I saw my friends crying out for help. ...

There is a quote-unquote normal way to be in the world, and when veterans share our stories a lot of times people will gasp or feel so bad for us. They just don’t understand, and it makes us feel even more alienated just by sharing our stories. Don’t try to relate to us, either ― there’s nothing that civilians can say that is comparable to war unless they’ve been there themselves.

I hope that every single troop member that comes home knows that they’re valid, and I really, really hope that the media considers taking on stories from people who actually bore witness. Just because the war is over doesn’t mean that any sort of Afghanistan vet is over the war.

Najeeb Aminyar
Najeeb Aminyar
Courtesy Najeeb Aminyar

‘It will be total chaos and a graveyard.’

Najeeb Aminyar, 30, worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in Kabul as an interpreter between 2010 and 2014. He moved to America on a Special Immigrant Visa, but nearly all his family remains in Afghanistan. He has earned associate and bachelor’s degrees and is now a law student at Texas A&M University. He also volunteers to help other Afghans on SIVs with the group No One Left Behind.

Even though I am not there, I am not in danger, I was terrified by this news, because I feel for hundreds and thousands of others who are at great risk and are projected to be left behind once the U.S. leaves. The U.S. government still has time: If they want, they can do a lot to ameliorate the situation. They can increase personnel to work on [Special Immigrant Visas] at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. It’s in the thousands ― I would guess somewhere around 10,000 to 15,000 applicants. My parents and siblings are there. My little brother used to work as an interpreter. He was laid off, and his SIV is not even approved yet. He applied in April 2020, and his case is stuck in the bureaucracy.

When I was in Kabul, I felt very afraid for myself and my family. … In the last 20 years, 300 interpreters [and their family members] were killed and I believe the number of people who got injured or their families got kidnapped must reach in the thousands. When I used to go out, I hid my face with a scarf. Close relatives did not know what I did; not even my neighbors or my friends because it was too risky. It was a very limiting and isolating life. The Taliban has their sympathizers everywhere. They could be your neighbor, your friend, your co-worker. So you are really stuck in your home.

I came to the U.S. in 2014. Today, the situation in Afghanistan is 10 times — or maybe more than that — worse. And once the U.S. troops leave, the situation will not even be comparable ― it will be total chaos and a graveyard for people who are known to be affiliated with the U.S. army and coalition forces. If the American people knew what’s going on in Afghanistan and what is being traded in the deal, they would not let Biden’s administration completely withdraw.

The ideal situation would be the U.S. reconsidering their withdrawal, giving at least a year or two to mitigate the situation in Afghanistan and bring both sides to the table, to create a comprehensive peace treaty between them and then have neighboring countries and the other influential countries of the world sign the treaty. They should take responsibility, saying we guarantee that we are not going to let Afghanistan go back to the ’90s, we guarantee that the Taliban will not go rogue again.

I am worried, not only for my family. For me, it’s the entire people.

Timothy Berry
Timothy Berry
Courtesy Timothy Berry

‘I literally have soldiers in my formation who are ... falling into conspiracy theories.’

Timothy Berry, 31, was a captain in the Army and served in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division in 2015. While attending West Point, his classmates elected him class president, just the third time that a Black student was chosen and graduated with that position in the more than 200 years of the school’s history. He now lives in Hudson, New York, and is a graduate student at the NYU Stern School of Business.

At the time, I was noticing ― particularly as someone who’s a Black American ― that there was an erosion of trust in democracy at home. Ferguson was happening, the Black Lives Matter movement was coming to fruition in 2015. ...

Something that was always glaring to me too, even when I got to Afghanistan, is that we were trying to help build this country and then I turned on the television, and you have the police violence at home. You have Donald Trump rising to power and eventually becoming the Republican nominee for president, completely trashing all the institutions that Americans previously trusted. There was a great irony.

I’ll never forget this. I had a conversation with a soldier from Ohio. Somehow we were talking about the Newtown massacre with those children that were killed [at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012]. And he said to me with a straight face, “Sir, that didn’t really happen. That was all fake.” My first reaction was I wanted to get a counseling statement. I kept talking to him and was just realizing, wow ― I literally have soldiers in my formation who are being manipulated or are falling into conspiracy theories and denialism. ...

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done at home. So the withdrawal, even if it is just a symbolic one, is important because it signifies that the United States is doing some work internally to prove that its own democracy is worth it.

Jessica St. John
Jessica St. John
Courtesy Jessica St. John

‘The country is beautiful. I loved it, basically.’

Jessica St. John, 35, joined the Iowa Army National Guard right out of high school and served in Iraq (2007-2008) and Afghanistan (2010-2011). In Afghanistan, she provided security for an agriculture team in Kunar Province. Her experience working with the local population inspired her to get her degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages, and she now teaches English-language learners at Iowa City West High School. She is a member of the progressive group VoteVets. In 2019, she had the opportunity to ask then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden a question about veterans issues at a CNN town hall. She has a service dog, Victor, that helps mitigate symptoms of PTSD.

After my service, I went to the University of Northern Iowa. I went to school for TESOL, which is teaching English to speakers of other languages. Actually, what inspired that was my work in Afghanistan, working with the local population. ...

In Iraq, I was on a super base and you didn’t get to see anything but sand and fences. When I was in Afghanistan, I was in a remote place on [Forward Operating Base Camp Wright]. The country is beautiful. I loved it, basically. I don’t even know how to put it into words.

I kind of become obsessed with the culture. I liked to read a lot of books and find out more about why Afghanistan was the way it was. Working with the local population was also really intriguing. ...

I was reading the news online [when I heard about the withdrawal decision], and I just sort of thought, “Thank god.” To me, both wars were kind of a waste of resources ― people’s lives, money and time. Because we were there so long, we did so to speak, win the hearts and minds. But I think as far as what we were actually doing over there, it could’ve been done covertly, with special forces and different groups. I don’t think we needed to deploy as many people as we did. ...

I do feel for those interpreters and people that worked with us. They’re not safe there. They do need a pathway to be able to go anywhere, whether it’s the United States or Canada or wherever they would feel comfortable.

Sam Rogers
Sam Rogers
Courtesy Sam Rogers

‘My oldest daughter is 11. Another 10 years of this, she’d have enough time to go there twice.’

Sam Rogers, 34, enlisted in 2004 and deployed to Afghanistan three times ― twice in uniform and once as a civilian. He now lives in Milwaukee and works with Concerned Veterans for America, an organization opposed to extensive U.S. military entanglements abroad and supported by the well-funded conservative Koch network.

My first tour was the 2009-10 Kandahar surge under President Obama. It was probably some of the worst conflict sustained there. My unit lost 42 soldiers and had over 300 amputees.

It was disbelief [when the news broke]. I truly did not think that we would be able to leave… I expected we would leave a large Special Forces contingent or something. I’m someone who’s probably more right of center. I shared the video of [Biden’s] speech; I pulled over on the freeway to listen to it. I was thrilled that he was so explicit in his commitment to withdraw all troops and to end this conflict. I’m excited that we could see an end to the funerals. I’m tired of the funerals.

Connecting the futility of a campaign to the sacrifice and valor of individuals is one of the reasons we got trapped in this for so long. I’m glad that the younger generations of Americans don’t have to endure that. My oldest daughter is 11. Another 10 years of this, she’d have enough time to go there twice. Both myself and my wife are military, so there’s a very strong chance that our kids will follow in our footsteps. If they’re going to be at risk, I want it to be for something that’s demonstrably worth it.

My third deployment was as a civilian intelligence officer. It really solidified that there was no grand strategy, there was no master plan ― these things that I just assumed or hoped existed above me, as an enlisted guy, didn’t.

As a conservative … I’ve started traveling around and meeting with conservative groups and saying, “I’m sure you all are extremely unhappy with President Biden for a variety of reasons, but this should not be one of them. This is the place where we should be bigger, we should be supporting something meaningful, something that explicitly supports the troops.” And that’s been received very positively so far.

Dunja Neukam
Dunja Neukam
Courtesy Dunja Neukam

‘To say it wasn’t worth it is a slap in the face.’

After the 9/11 attacks, the NATO alliance invoked its mutual defense clause for the first time ever ― calling on the United States’ global partners to support the mission against al Qaeda, including in Afghanistan. Countries like Germany sent thousands of troops to join the American effort. They are now withdrawing forces along with the U.S. Starting in 2002, Dunja Neukam served four tours in Afghanistan as part of the German deployment. She now volunteers with the veterans group Bund Deutscher EinsatzVeteranen and lives in Koblenz, Germany.

The withdrawal is a logical answer because ... they missed the point to create a better way for this country. I think the date is the wrong way: to pick 9/11 to withdraw from Afghanistan is a horrible date and a slap in the face of every killed and injured soldier, because the meaning is it started with 9/11, with the attack on the twin towers, and it ended in a war that we lose.

The first time I was in Afghanistan, I thought, “OK, we will bring freedom to this country, we will bring education, we will bring wealth.” We saw a lot of poor people with no medicine, nothing. We saw a lot of beaten females. We saw depression. I thought it will be better ... but after an attack on our bus [when a suicide bomber killed four German soldiers in 2003], everything goes wrong. On my fourth mission, in 2010, I thought, this will be a long, long mission. We need more international help, we need to build the economy and education, but I don’t know where all the money has gone.

I cried a lot about my fallen comrades but to say it wasn’t worth it is a slap in the face. In my heart are two sides: I see comrades and I see the injured and I see the veterans who struggle with PTSD but it’s worth it because I have little examples. We saved a lot of children’s lives with little surgeries, we helped women escape from abusive men because we built a women’s shelter. We built a water pipe. It’s not the whole world, but for these people it’s the whole world and I think that’s the worth of it ... I think a lot of soldiers have these little examples.

We do not have a veterans’ culture like in the U.S. Everything with a touch of war is very difficult in German society. ... They know we were in the war but they close their eyes, so we struggle with a lot of bureaucracy and with the past. We have no veterans homes or centers ― it’s very difficult in Germany. But it will be better.

Blake Feldman
Blake Feldman
Courtesy Blake Feldman

‘If you’re going to send folks there, you have to commit to supporting them.’

Blake Feldman, 41, grew up in New York City and was there on Sept. 11, 2001. He attended Valley Forge Military Academy ― military service runs in his family ― and joined the Army JAG Corps after receiving his law degree. He served in the military for more than nine years ― the majority overseas in Central Europe and Asia ― and was in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. During the last month of his tour, U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. He now resides in Kansas City, Missouri, and works in cybersecurity.

I was in Afghanistan when the first government shutdown happened, and soldiers and their families weren’t getting paid during that several-week period. I’m there with junior soldiers, and I’m worried about how their wives and kids are getting groceries back at home.

That’s unconscionable, that’s the kind of thing that informed my view ― if you’re going to send folks there, you have to commit to supporting them. And that also means making sure they can accomplish the mission and achieve the goals that you’ve asked them to do. You can’t just send them there and then just forget about them or not give them clear objectives. That’s putting people in harm’s way without good reason. ...

Leaving [the military] was a pretty significant decision. In 2014, two important things happened. One, I got notice from the Office of Personnel Management that the identity of everyone who had ever held a security clearance has been compromised. ... That was a pretty significant moment in my life.

At the same time, I got a letter from the federal student loan office that my federal service didn’t qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. ... When I was in Afghanistan in 2010, they didn’t send [the loan letter] to Afghanistan. They sent it to my old address in Tennessee. And because I didn’t get the letter ― because I was deployed ― they just assumed I wasn’t interested in checking some box that my federal service should apply.

So when I realized: One, my identity and the identity of all my friends and family were not secure, even though I was serving, and two, I wasn’t going to be able to use my federal service to pay off my student loans, I just felt like I was in the wrong place. I wasn’t relevant anymore.

Kyle Bibby
Kyle Bibby
Courtesy Kyle Bibby

‘There’s no amount of Special Forces raids that’s going to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan.’

Kyle Bibby, 35, is a former Marine Corps infantry officer who served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 12 and later served as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Obama administration. He co-founded the Black Veterans Project after leaving the military and is the national campaigns manager at Common Defense, which advocated for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

I never once felt that what I was doing in Afghanistan made my community in New Jersey safer. They found Osama bin Laden while I was in Afghanistan, and he was not in Afghanistan, he was in Pakistan. I had a Marine ask me sarcastically, “So, what, are we going home now?” That was 10 years ago.

Folks in Afghanistan are not interested in having a big, predominantly white army from the other side of the world come in and tell them what to do. I had another platoon commander tell me once toward the end of the deployment, “The Taliban do a lot of messed up stuff, but the fact is they can recruit guys that want to fight against invaders.” He could not discount how powerful that is and said if he grew up in Afghanistan, he’s not certain it wouldn’t appeal to him. And that’s what it is about: The U.S. ― we come into situations in such a condescending and arrogant way, thinking if we talk about values that somehow changes the fact that we are invading.

It’s something to be there and see a largely white military force in a very poor, predominantly brown country and not feel some sort of parity with the policing we see in the United States. My time in Afghanistan got me interested in criminal justice and working in low-income African American communities.

We need to have a good-faith effort of actually switching our strategy from one that is incredibly military-based. There’s no amount of Special Forces raids that’s going to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan. People are saying the situation is going to degrade for women. Are a bunch of SF guys kicking in the door and shooting people going to solve that?

People need to be more critical of these generals. ... I am tired of hearing them come forward with another batch of excuses of why they couldn’t get the job done in 20 years. Ultimately, the generals either win or lose a war, and they didn’t win this one.