The lessons of Afghanistan are usually learned too late

The lessons of Afghanistan are usually learned too late
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In 2008, several other members of Congress and I visited a group of Marines in a desolate part of the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. They were deployed near a river on the outskirts of a town called Musa Qala (“Fortress of Moses”). It featured vast stretches of moonscaped terrain; barren rock formations; dust everywhere.  

There – 13 years ago – I learned from one Marine how the war in Afghanistan would end. I saw his prediction play out in horrifying reality over the past two weeks.

The most valuable intelligence I received about Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t come from classified briefings or testimony in congressional committee chambers. It came from warfighters deployed in remote areas of the military theater; in forward operating bases marked by sandbags and makeshift watchtowers.

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I’ve visited these places more than a dozen times. In most cases, the interactions were minded by senior officers and, therefore, tempered in their candor. They were polite but not especially revealing. Military leaders, it seemed to me, thought that anything we needed to know could be conveyed in carefully scrubbed PowerPoints over coffee or tea. 

But once in a while, there was a revelatory exchange from someone whose only agenda was to keep the soldier next to him or her alive. 

It happened in Musa Qala. I found myself in a quiet discussion with a warfighter from my home state of New York who was preparing for imminent battle against the Taliban across the river, up the road, in the town. The question (after the usual queries about health, family, supplies, etc.) was this: “What does victory look like?”

He didn’t respond immediately. For a while he just gazed towards the nearby town and seemed to be chewing on his answer; or wondering whether he should answer at all. Then, finally, he told me everything I ever needed to know about the war in Afghanistan and how – or if – it would end. I’ll paraphrase. 

Musa Qala, he told me, was on the other side of the river. It consisted mostly of mud-bricked dwellings and businesses. Two years earlier, the Taliban had come to town, killed its leader and imposed its rule. British forces responded and chased Taliban fighters to nearby sanctuaries. Then the Taliban returned, and Danish troops were called in. Then British forces, again. Then a truce was declared at the end of 2006. Then, within months the Taliban attacked and reoccupied Musa Qala. Then in late 2007 the British led yet another attack and forced a Taliban retreat, until they returned again. Then the Americans were deployed, which is what put that Marine in a forward operating base that day in 2008. 

Sitting at a mud-caked table, the warfighter told me that his unit would fight in Musa Qala within days and likely kill a bunch of Taliban. The survivors “will retreat up there” he said, pointing to some distant hills. The Americans would secure the women’s health clinic, which we had built, strengthen the local police and support good and transparent governance.

Then, he said (again, paraphrasing): But sir, at some point we’ll be redeployed to another town a hundred clicks away. As soon as we’re gone, the Taliban will come back, blow up the maternity ward, threaten the police and kill any leader who resists them. Then we’ll return, or the Brits or someone else, and this will keep going on and on. 

Sobered by his assessment, I asked him an admittedly inappropriate question: “Based on that, should we be staying here?”

He properly answered, “That’s why they pay you the big bucks, sir. To figure it out.”

There are many hard and legitimate questions to ask about the circumstances that unfolded so tragically when we left Afghanistan on Monday. We have heard them from cable TV pundits, partisans and everyday Americans who want to understand. 

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Most of all, we grieve for the 13 U.S. service members who lost their lives, perhaps taking some solace in the knowledge that they contributed to the largest airlift in U.S. history — the evacuation of 120,000 men, women and children in 17 days.

But at the core of it all is the lesson I learned that day in 2008. It was taught to me by a Marine who was willing to sacrifice his life over a small town he’d probably never heard of growing up in America; and knowing that as heroic as he was, he was fighting in a never-ending cycle that would not turn out well.

I do not know what happened to that young Marine. God, I hope he’s okay. I think of him often and even wondered last week whether it was possible he was there at the Abbey Gate trying to rescue Afghan lives. Probably not, because our talk was over a decade ago — one decade in a two-decade war that saw American warfighters and diplomats coming and going, fighting and dying, enemies occupying and retreating and occupying again. 

Which brings me to another lesson I learned during that trip. I had brought along Steven Tanner’s book “Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban.” In it is a quote by an Afghan tribal leader that has stayed with me: “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood. We will never be content with a master.” The statement was made to a British official…over 200 years ago.

The timeless lessons of Afghanistan are usually learned too late. 

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. Israel'Design-build' contracts key to infrastructure success 5 reasons why this week's political war is different from all others Anthrax was the COVID-19 of 2001 MORE represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.