Editor’s Note: This story was written to meet a press deadline. Situations in Afghanistan are fluid and some of the details may have changed.
It was a war that began nearly a generation ago with nearly unanimous support, 90 percent in some polling. President George W. Bush sold a nation in October 2001 on the idea that invading Afghanistan would begin the healing of the 9/11 attacks. It would disrupt Afghanistan as a terrorist base, he said, and as a bonus, lead us to the 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden. In theory, it seemed perfect.
But twenty years later, the Taliban, the medieval, malicious target of the invasion, and for a time, often rebuffed by a 21st century American and allied forces, returned and with surgical precision, marched through the country taking province by province---often with no resistance---until it now controls everything Americans thought they had secured in this decades-long war.
With the Taliban firmly secure in the capital and Kabul’s Airport in a chaotic undertow with Americans and anyone else with a passport and the means to leave scrambling to board a flight, this twenty year war is unofficially lost. At home, supporters are mad, wondering what happened; detractors not surprised.
Cable news images of an overwhelmed airport trying to process numbers near hyperbolic estimates are surreal. Tarmacs were flooded with Afghanistan nationals and untold numbers of others literally clinging to airplanes ferrying out the fortunate few. Four miles away at the American Embassy, workers were frantically shredding sensitive information and destroying computers. Whomever may have had a scintilla of optimism about this war, should be by now disabused of any such notion. The State Department has assured families that all Americans will be returned home safely.
Perhaps also not surprised is top military brass who harbored lingering suspicions that no matter how well trained or armed, that Afghanistan soldiers and police would not stand up in their country’s greatest moment of need. Today, any doubts they may have had or shared, are confirmed. The Taliban’s march across the land was both unmet and, sadly, confirmed.
In the two decades arming and training Afghan forces to defend their country, the loss of nearly 2,400 American lives, the wounding of another 20,000, some maimed for life and 60,000 Afghan casualties, and an estimated two trillion dollars spent on the war, it has come to this; grist for pundits and historians to debate what exactly went wrong.
As this debate begins, so too begin the questions about the fate of this nation now mired in chaos. What will the Taliban, a quasi-governmental force ruled by 15th Century warlords and equally as ancient mores and folkways---many almost too abstract to decipher---do to young and old men deemed friendly to U.S. forces? What will happen to girls and young women who, during the war, were allowed an education and personal choices? Rape and the taking of child brides is not unheard of in Afghanistan. Where will the next target of exported terror be? How will this, perhaps, pre-ordained outcome reflect on the world stage---China has already recognized the Taliban Afghanistan’s legitimate government. Closer to home, there are other, more basic questions, too.
“What did we accomplish,” wondered former Puebloan and state legislator, Gilbert Romero. “We trained these soldiers to stand up to the Taliban. They’re not even giving the same kind of resistance that American soldiers gave.” Romero’s nephew, Daniel Aaron Romero, a Colorado National Guardsman, died from enemy fire in Kabul in October 2002. He was the first Colorado casualty of the war and the first deployed National Guardsman to die in Afghanistan. Romero recalls the vivid memory of his nephew’s Lafayette memorial. “The thing that stuck out when we came out of the church and proceeded in the motorcade on South Boulder Road,” he said, “was seeing literally thousands of people lined up…everybody was there.” The memorial preceded the formal military internment at Fort Logan National Cemetery because Romero’s late brother and father of the younger Romero, Mike, had served as Lafayette’s Mayor. “You didn’t know how the community would react. The expression of sympathy was unbelievable.”
Across Colorado and the country, similar outpourings of grief and sympathy have also played out. At Fort Carson, an El Paso County Army Post that has deployed thousands of troops to Afghanistan, the names of 405 soldiers are also memorialized, including the name of Cortez, Colorado, native Sgt. 1st Class Will Lindsay, killed in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province March 22, 2019. Lindsay, whose family runs one of the oldest flower shops in the town of 8,500, was a decorated Army veteran. Among his medals were Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantr Badge and more. He had also deployed to both Iraq, America’s other Middle East war, and Afghanistan numerous times. His life, like Romero’s, touched deeply those he knew and thousands of others he never met.
“As you can imagine,” said former Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek, when you live in a small community, everyone knows everyone…especially when it’s a young person who has their whole life ahead of them.” For his memorial, held at the town’s amphitheater, the fire and police turned out, the high school band performed, and flags were lowered to half-staff.
Republicans, now scrambling for facetime and their party’s attention for 2024’s presidential nomination, are placing blame for the end-of-war debacle on President Biden. Ex-president Trump has also joined in the attack on Biden, though he himself negotiated---ultimately and fruitlessly---with the Taliban in his last months in office.
Just a week ago as Afghanistan was ceding the nation to a new government, the twice-impeached and defeated presidential candidate tweeted, “if I were now president, the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal…it would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal.” Trump’s brag is unsubstantiated. While he spoke to Taliban leadership over the phone and through interpreters, he secured no such agreement either on paper or promise.
In early Fall, the nation will mark the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Afghanistan war. In weeks afterward, American families will begin their own memorial march remembering the young men and women who went to war but never came home.
America becomes the second superpower whose resolve and resources reached the same end in Afghanistan. In the late 20th century, Russia, then still the Soviet Union, pulled up and left the country after a decade of occupation, leaving it to the same guerrilla force that now controls it. As chaos percolates in Afghanistan today, the refrain, of ‘our enemies have the watches, but we have the time,’ echoes across the landscape.