When I served in Afghanistan, we had to walk single file through Taliban-controlled territory laden with mines, hoping to stay on the thin, invisible path that the point man had cleared with the squad’s lone metal detector. None of us had any illusions about the danger we were in; we knew we had to remain vigilant. “Complacency kills” was a common mantra. America is in one of the most vulnerable phases of the war in Afghanistan—with a resurgent Taliban, few combat forces on the ground, and mostly Afghan allies for protection. And we have a complacent commander in chief.
I served under Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and I trusted that both would uphold their end of the bargain with the military: We go into harm’s way, and they wage the war honorably and responsibly. This president is different. This past week I learned that Donald Trump potentially ignored—or simply did not read—intelligence that Russia had allegedly placed bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan.
According to The New York Times, three marines were murdered last year possibly by Taliban fighters seeking Russian bounties. Yet Trump did nothing, then or now. Failing to act on this new information declares to our enemies that it’s open season on those still deployed and sends a message to U.S. soldiers and our Afghan allies that nobody has their back.
The refusal to protect American soldiers from Russian attempts to murder them is only Trump’s latest dismissal of the dangers facing troops abroad. After Iranian missile strikes against U.S. bases in Iraq earlier this year, he claimed that “we suffered no casualties.” Later, after 100 soldiers were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, he said, “I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I would say, and I can report, it is not very serious.”
This same injury rightly warranted a Purple Heart when I was in Afghanistan. After a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near one of my sergeants, he was left concussed and unable to form coherent sentences for days. Concussions plague many soldiers for years, causing cognitive and emotional impairments. Just as some injuries require amputation, a traumatic brain injury also takes a part of the person it wounds.
When the president downplays the risks to our soldiers or fails to act on new information—or simply doesn’t read the briefings and take our lives seriously—he neglects his crucial duty to counter threats far above the pay grade of the average service member, who is only trying to safely accomplish the mission to which he’s assigned.
Russian bounties are especially dangerous because they drive a wedge between our military and the Afghan people by encouraging treachery in an already-impoverished country. When I was there, almost a decade ago, one of the most challenging threats we faced was attacks by Afghan soldiers and police on coalition forces, known as green-on-blue attacks. Yet because we needed to build trust with our allies, we had no way to mitigate this vulnerability, which the Taliban—now aided by Russia—have long sought to exploit.
The Afghan War is an intimate conflict, built on trust with the Afghan people. My company’s mission was to partner with an Afghan National Army unit on a small patrol base in the northern Helmand River Valley. Then as now, American troops were outnumbered in the deserts and valleys of Afghanistan, in close quarters with an unfamiliar culture. The marines were nervous at first, but we lived and patrolled together with the Afghans. Our goal was to train the Afghan soldiers so that they could take over the fight that both groups knew would eventually be theirs alone.
Many of us developed close relationships while we were there. On Eid-al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, American and Afghan soldiers slaughtered sheep, as is customary, and broke bread together. I found myself up late with the Afghan commander smoking cheap Pine cigarettes and eating melon-size pomegranates cross-legged on his rug-covered dirt floor. He showed me old videos of mujahideen fighting the Soviets during their occupation in the 1980s.
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.
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.