The first time I deployed to Afghanistan, in 2013, it already felt like the end of a war. Stepping off the C-17, I crowded into a passenger terminal at Bagram Airfield, where a cheesy welcome video that defied satire played on flat-screen TVs. Many bases were already downsizing. And while my attitude as a 26-year-old lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy might have been described as eager, those on their fifth, sixth or seventh deployments more often comported themselves with a learned skepticism. It's only war, their demeanors said. Nothing to get worked up over.
We'll never say America won this war. But the existing deal, signed in haste by the former administration, guarantees we'll lose it.
Of course, the war persisted, often out of mind for most Americans. I deployed there a second time in 2014, and in the years that have followed — as I progressed in the military and eventually made the transition to civilian life to become a journalist — even I sometimes found it hard to remember. Sporadic headlines would remind me: Oh, right, Afghanistan.
The latest reminder came Sunday, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's surprise visit to the country, as the Biden administration grapples with how to lower the curtain on America's longest war.
Based on a deal signed last year by the Trump administration and the Taliban, all foreign military, including roughly 2,500 American service members, are set to withdraw from the country by May 1. President Joe Biden isn't sure whether to go through with it, though. Austin told reporters that the new administration's energy is "focused on doing what is necessary to bring about a responsible end" to the conflict — but he said Biden "has not made a decision or made any announcements on when he'll decide to remove the troops."
As part of the Trump administration's deal, the Taliban consented to talks with the NATO-backed Afghan government and said it would deny allowing the country to be used as a platform for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Since then, though, the Taliban has, in fact, escalated attacks on the government and maintained its terrorist ties.
The U.S. invasion in 2001 was premised on removing the Taliban from power. Yet the group is stronger now than it has been in many years, and in recent months it has surrounded several key cities. On the heels of the coalition's departure, experts warn, the government the U.S has devoted two decades to standing up could quickly fall.
And so, Biden is left with three options: Follow through with the deal agreed upon by his predecessor and risk the country's reverting fully to Taliban control. Nullify the deal and risk America's continued ensnarement in a country that has now vexed four presidents. Or extend the withdrawal timeline and try to renegotiate with the Taliban — for a different deal that better serves the U.S. and Afghan governments' interests — but risk a resurgence of attacks on U.S. service members.
"That was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president, worked out," Biden told ABC News last week in his clearest comments yet about the subject. The May 1 deadline, he said, would be "tough." On Thursday, NBC News reported that the administration might shift the withdrawal to November, although it's not clear the Taliban will consent to any renegotiations.
There are credible, good-faith arguments that even one more day is too long in a war so mired in American misunderstanding and neglect. What will America achieve with more time, this thinking goes, that it failed to achieve in two decades?
Many of these arguments are premised, at least in part, on an imperative to "bring home the troops." As a former troop myself, though, and a frequent critic of forever war at that, I believe extending the deadline under a new president is the best of the bad options. If I were still in uniform today, I'd readily accept a few months more in Afghanistan to end the war right.
Early in that first deployment, I fit every stereotype of a junior officer: earnest and naive, with a paperback journalistic history of the country always stuffed into my side cargo pocket. But that optimism was shattered quickly by the "Catch-22" realities around me. Bases were downsizing — so why were government contractors still hammering away at new, unneeded construction? We were shifting combat operations to Afghan security units we'd spent years training — so why were our relationships with those units always so bad, bordering on nonexistent? It was hardly the stuff of inspiration.
My co-workers, on the other hand, often were inspiring. Some of the finest people I've met are ones I served with in Afghanistan, and if I worked hard during those deployments it was often for them; indeed, they also worked hard for one another. When I look back on those deployments today, my best memories are of getting to know those people. Over meals. In work's interstitial moments. And, after a rocket knocked out base power one evening, sitting on top of a bunker and watching the sun set over the mountains.
Over two decades, hundreds of thousands of Americans served in Afghanistan. That their hard work was ultimately made moot by incoherent strategy and lukewarm commitment to the war in Washington is disgraceful. We'll never say America won this war. But the existing deal, signed in haste by the former administration, guarantees we'll lose it.
In this critical final moment, a careful exit — a bit more time to shore up the transition from a military mission to a diplomatic one, to reassure the beleaguered Afghan government and to clarify the terms of a prospective peace with the Taliban — can avoid further squandering all those Americans' contributions.
That's not to mention the international troops who filled out the American-led coalition. Nor, most critically, the Afghan people, who have endured horrors most Americans will never understand. Much of that was caused by the U.S.: civilian casualties from airstrikes, for example. But many Afghans, recalling brutal rule by the Taliban — the severe oppression of women, especially — were once willing to give the U.S. and a new Afghan government a chance. To those people, to all Afghans, we owe better than an indifferent rush out the door.
Some would find any extension foolish, and I get it; we've been here before, only for new strategies and best intentions to fall ever short. What success Biden might find with a few extra months I admit I don't know. But given the choice — to honor the sacrifices of those before me and in a last-ditch to make good on the trust we asked of Afghans — I'm sure I'm not the only veteran who would raise my hand one last time to find out.