Disclaimer: To protect the privacy of the subjects of this article, the names of the interviewees have been changed.
AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITES — “It was a very atypical afternoon soccer game.” Will remembers the hushed tones in the voices of parents on the sidelines. It was unusually quiet and “parents weren’t really cheering.” The typical excitement around youth sports was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the game had almost been cancelled after the league organizers had learned that two planes had hit the Twin Towers in New York City.
“I was seven years old when that happened,” Will recalls. September 11th was a turning point for the country as the US national security apparatus quickly refocused on a ‘war on terror.’ Almost twenty years later, Will would find himself serving in that war in the country where it began – Afghanistan.
“No one can flip a light switch to turn nation destroyers into nation builders.”
But well before Will would don a uniform other than a jersey, 9/11 was already dramatically altering the course of life for soldiers like Max. “Being in the Army from 1999-2009, September 11th affected my whole existence.” Max remembers how everything changed in the Army on 9/11: “There was initial disbelief, then the whole Army went on alert.” In 2002, Max’s deployment to Afghanistan began. He was shipped to the Middle East, where he would spend multiple tours between Afghanistan and Iraq. And although he saw firsthand the efficacy of the US military, over time the problems of the US long-term strategy in the region became apparent.
“No opponents of US military ever last long in a toe-to-toe fight,” Max says, noting the superiority of American firepower and training. Max witnessed firsthand that superiority during his months in Afghanistan. But as the years passed, he grew to see a fundamental flaw in the operations in which he was fighting. “Armies are designed to destroy societies,” he tells me. “That does not include training for building new nations or to occupy for endless periods of time.”
As the US mission gradually broadened from counterterrorism to nation building, the military struggled to build effective institutions. “We install Martian bureaucracies,” says Max. Eventually, he realized how hard it is to install a legitimate government from the top down: “The leaders we chose to put in charge of whole countries are remote as Martians to the populations they govern over.” All this was made harder by the heavy reliance that America placed on soldiers and the military, which Max saw could not create a democracy using the barrel of a gun. As the forever wars dragged on, Max kept seeing the military -which could succeed at defeating enemy combatants- fail to foster nation building, generating resentment among the population which new US-backed institutions were supposed to govern. “No one can flip a light switch to turn nation destroyers into nation builders.”
Years of failed nation building wore Max’s attitude down into pessimism. “I have become more cynical over time because sometimes I believe it was a waste, but I was in the Army and had an absence of choice…once you have a uniform on and a gun in your hand all questions have been taken from you, there are only orders.” But, in 2009, Max took off that uniform and returned to civilian life. America, however, passed the war in Afghanistan to future generations of soldiers.
“I did not see a way that it could decisively end.”
Even as Will joined the US Army in 2016, he did not think that Afghanistan would remain an issue long enough to become part of his career. “I certainly didn’t assess that I would be partaking in it,” he tells me. Yet Will ultimately deployed to Afghanistan twice between 2019 and 2020 as a military intelligence officer. There, he assumed the still unfinished task of building a strong Afghan state. And as he worked alongside Afghan soldiers, Will began developing solidarity with his “Afghan brethren.”
Working under the common goal of defeating the Taliban helped strengthen that brotherhood. Will is grateful that he got to work with the Afghan military and “respected that they wanted Afghanistan to be a peaceful place.”
That brotherhood was strong, “but we were often just stressed” by the difficulty of the mission, Will tells me. The same obstacles that existed during Max’s service again bogged down the US mission to support the nascent Afghan state. Transporting military supplies between bases put the Afghan military and the US at odds with the geography of Afghanistan itself: “Moving men, equipment, and supplies across Afghanistan is an inherently difficult thing.” Mountainous terrain made Afghan cities disconnected and hard to support.
Afghan security forces also struggled with chronic corruption, making the maintenance of a military harder. Soldiers and police went without pay and food while higher officials lined their pockets. For his part, Will had “personal reservations” about the systemic issues plaguing the Afghan military. Still, he “would have thought there would have been more ownership” to address those issues and deliver supplies, food, and pay without constant US support.
On top of all that, Will did not see many prospects for a definitive victory in the US nation-building effort. “What I quickly came to realize was that the conflict itself – I did not see a way that it could decisively end.” Corruption and geography made it hard to fight the Taliban in the long-term, and Will did not see a way that the Afghan government could reach a peace deal with the Taliban. “I had a difficult time seeing that there was enough common ground” to negotiate an end to the Afghan civil war, Will says.
Will left Afghanistan in November of 2020, nine months after then President Donald Trump agreed to a deal with the Taliban to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. Although the Biden administration postponed the withdrawal date, it followed through with the Trump deal, leaving Afghanistan at the end of last month.
“It does break my heart.”
As he watched the scenes of chaos from Hamid Karzai International Airport, where he had once walked on the tarmac, Will was disheartened by the result of America’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. “It definitely is hard to watch,” he tells me. “It does break my heart.”
Max’s reaction to the fall of Kabul was somewhat more cynical. “My first reaction is how could they f*** up leaving a place so bad.” Max was highly disappointed in how President Biden handled the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. “To do a touchdown dance when they clearly fumbled the ball shows an uncharacteristic hubris,” Max says, noting President Biden’s staunch defense of his withdrawal strategy. He feels that Biden should have been more prepared for the risks of a Taliban advance to Kabul. “This is one of those situations where ignorance is inexcusable. Not with all the military and intelligence capabilities and assets” of the US military.
Although Will was also unhappy with the way America ended its longest war, he does not see how a further US presence was sustainable. “I don’t think [the conflict with] Afghanistan could have gone on forever,” Will says. He thinks there was little potential for positive change and recognizes that the war was becoming more unpopular as it dragged on.
But regardless of the outcome and what could have been done differently, the US war there is over. Max and Will’s deployments bookended America’s longest war; they saw the war in Afghanistan during its first and final years. Now, America must also face the fallout of Afghanistan, as scores of refugees who evacuated from Kabul must be resettled across America and its NATO allies. And of course, the US faces the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
As the country faces that anniversary, many questions remain unanswered: What, if any, lessons has America learned from its ‘forever wars’? How will the US withdrawal affect counterterrorism in the Middle East? And, of course, what will happen to the Afghan people, who now live under the rule of the Taliban
Americans like Will and Max no longer serve in America’s longest war. But two decades after 9/11, the story of Afghanistan remains incomplete.
Senior Aidan M. Smith-Fagen majors in political science and international relations at LMU.