When I later had to tell him that one of his men had been killed, I saw this perpetually stoic man’s eyes redden and water, just as my lieutenant’s had a few moments before when I told him the same news about one of his marines. Our men fought and died together, building partnerships over decades across battalion after battalion.
In the village I sat at shuras, or meetings, debating the problems facing the Afghan people. We learned one another’s names and faces. On patrols, we’d visit compounds to follow up on a well we’d helped build, only to be invited in for chai. I looked at children, the young boys rowdy and smiling, the girls with curious eyes not yet covered by a burka, and I wondered what kind of life they dreamt about and whether our work would someday help them realize it.
In 2015, a few years after my tour of duty, the Taliban overran the district where I’d served. I have no way of knowing what happened to the army commander or the children who’d followed us on patrol begging for pencils. But I’m certain that the American troops still deployed are our last hope of leaving the rest of the country with a fighting chance to hold out against Taliban rule, which remains as oppressive today as it was in 2001. We owe the Afghan soldiers and people and the U.S. troops still deployed the support and respect needed to finally end this war.
Every single man and woman who fought in the Afghan campaign would sleep easier, or tell their story to their children with more pride, or stand before the graves of long-dead friends with less heartbreak, if the war were to end in victory—but I know that’s not possible. We can still, however, end this war with honor.
Jim Golby and Peter Feaver: It matters if Americans call Afghanistan a defeat
As we reduce our footprint, the risk grows greater to the few troops who remain. Our retreat must be done thoughtfully and systematically to minimize bloodshed in a war we no longer intend to win. And yet the president is managing it with careless disregard for the 12,000 service members currently deployed, by eroding the trust developed with our Afghan allies over decades, and by betraying the sacrifices that so many of us made during this costly American tragedy. Instead, he should note the standard of care that the soldiers he leads devote to their fallen comrades.
In Afghanistan, when an improvised explosive device killed marines in my company, the blast often tore apart their body. After a Navy corpsman made a heroic but futile attempt to save their life, a medic on a casualty-evacuation helicopter took custody of the body, the next in a long line of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who solemnly delivered the remains home to their family. But our job on the ground still wasn’t over.
Despite the danger from Taliban fighters and other IEDs, a squad would search the scene to try to collect additional body parts. We didn’t always succeed. One man’s ring finger with his wedding band was never found and returned to his widow. But honoring their sacrifice demanded follow-through and every possible effort to the end.
When the president treats the conclusion of this war as unimportant, his behavior squanders whatever honor the men and women currently deployed may yet salvage from this terrible ordeal. They’re risking their life for the same cause as all of us who served: peace. More than 2,300 Americans have been killed in action; in these final moments of the war, we cannot let their sacrifices be in vain.