Over the two decades the US military has fought in Afghanistan, more than 775,000 US troops have served there, deploying to city-like airbases and sandbag outposts on lonely mountaintops.
And as the Taliban invaded Kabul on Sunday, wiping out all profits, veterans said in interviews they watched with a seething mix of sadness, anger and relief. Some were grateful that America’s involvement with the country seemed to have ended, but were also aghast that hard-won progress was being squandered. Others feared the Afghan friends left behind.
In interviews, text messages and on Facebook, men and women who have spent decades together in Afghanistan expressed anger that the United States failed to leave the country with more dignity despite years of setbacks.
The fear can be especially raw because veterans often worked side by side with Afghans during the years of nation building efforts, and now in that country’s collapse they see the individual faces of friends shrouded in anarchy.
“My heart breaks for the Afghan people,” said Ginger Wallace, a retired Air Force colonel who in 2012 led a program that diverted low-ranking Taliban fighters to clear landmines and get other jobs that offered an alternative to combat. .
At the time, she thought efforts to stabilize Afghanistan were successful and that US troops would one day leave the country in a better place. But her optimism faded as the Taliban gained ground.
“It’s heartbreaking, absolutely. I hate to see it end like this, but you don’t know what else we could have done,” she said in an interview from her home in Louisville, Ky. “Do we have any expectation that American military should stay and fight the Taliban, while the Afghan army does not?”
More than in any other war in the country’s history, Americans are largely isolated from the fighting in Afghanistan. There was no draft or mass mobilization. But veterans have said in interviews over the years that they were clear about the challenges posed by the war. They saw firsthand the entrenched traditional cultures, tribal loyalties, and endemic corruption that continually hampered American efforts.