After Tours in Afghanistan, U.S. Veterans Weigh Peace With the Taliban

After Tours in Afghanistan, U.S. Veterans Weigh Peace With the Taliban

On Saturday, the United States and the Taliban signed a historic peace agreement, theoretically bringing to an end the nearly two-decades-long conflict in Afghanistan that killed more than more than 2,400 American service members. As officials prepare to implement the terms of that deal, American veterans who served in the country are left to grapple with the provisions that may result in more uncertainty than stability for the people of Afghanistan they once fought to protect.

Since 2001, an estimated 600,000 American troops rotated through Afghanistan, during which time their mission was largely focused on trying to push the Taliban out of the country and install government leaders and services in parts of the country that had long been controlled by the insurgent group. But as the years rolled on, the American military failed to achieve this end goal and was forced to recalibrate the terms of victory, until negotiating with the Taliban seemed to be the only viable option.

Now, under the current agreement, the United States will withdraw the 12,000 service members currently in the country over the next 14 months and leave the conditions of a more permanent peace to be worked out by Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives — a move that leaves some Afghan war veterans wary.

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“It’s just this classic case of American good intentions and how it fell apart completely,” said Drew Pham, an Army veteran who deployed to Wardak Province in 2010. Pham worries that the withdrawal of combat troops will be followed by more reductions in financial aid and other diplomatic support that could hasten the fall of the Afghan government — in similar ways to how Saigon fell in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. “My Afghan friends say that they’re just so tired of the war, and tired of being afraid,” said Pham, whose grandfather, a South Vietnamese army colonel, died in a re-education camp after the Vietnam War. “If this peace deal is what they need, of course I support it, but I also feel this deep melancholy about it.”

Pham also expressed deep concerns about the people she developed a bond with while serving — a feeling shared by many other veterans who worked closely with interpreters who were critical to helping American service members communicate with their Afghan counterparts and the locals where they were based.

Marc Silvestri, an Army veteran who served in the eastern part of the country in 2008 and 2009, said he hopes that the peace agreement will not derail his former interpreter from moving to the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa program. For the past five years, Silvestri worked to secure a visa for his Afghan colleague, who was assigned to Silvestri’s unit while he was deployed along the border with Pakistan. Silvestri hopes to welcome him to America in just over a month. At least one American human rights group, International Refugee Assistance Project, has warned that the withdrawal of U.S. forces could put some Afghans who live in vulnerable areas and are still waiting for a visa at additional risk of being targeted by the Taliban.

Silvestri was fighting “literally every day” in a combat outpost called Lowell, situated in a low spot beneath steep mountains in Nuristan Province. After the next rotation of soldiers there suffered heavy casualties, American troops were pulled out of that base. “I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth since then,” Silvestri said. “As the body count on both sides are rising, you’ve got to start asking if there is an end to this.” Now he feels that the United States will withdraw too quickly and fears that Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorists. “I see Iraq happening all over again,” he said, referring to the resurgence of the Islamic State after the United States withdrew. “What happens when we pull out for good?”

As part of the deal, the Taliban have agreed to prevent Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a staging ground for future attacks and have committed loosely to protecting civil and women’s rights. But some veterans question whether the Taliban will keep their promises once the United States has fully withdrawn.

“It could be very easy for the Taliban to say all the things that we want to hear in order to get us down to a zero or a very low troop presence,” said Jeremy Butler, a former Navy officer who runs the veterans service organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “Probably with the assumption that the U.S. and the president would be not particularly inclined to reinvest servicemen and women back into the country.”

A third of IAVA’s veteran members deployed to Afghanistan at least once, according to Butler, and some have five or more combat deployments there. Many of the veterans he spoke with in recent days were especially concerned that the peace deal was signed before the Afghan government had agreed on how to share power with the Taliban after U.S. forces leave. “We want to end the engagement in Afghanistan,” Butler said. “We just want it to be done the right way.”

There’s been a growing consensus among veterans groups in Washington that a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is long overdue. Last year, Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group, made ending the post-Sept. 11 wars a legislative priority — a policy agenda it shared with more progressive veterans groups on the left, like VoteVets and Common Defense.

“Anecdotally, when you talk to veterans and service members about going to Afghanistan again and again and again, the response that you get is that people are tired,” said Nate Anderson, the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America. “People are tired of fighting this war that has no clear objective and that has no end in sight.”

Anderson, who deployed twice to Afghanistan as a Green Beret, added that the agreement signed over the weekend was a step in the right direction, but he added that the deal should not be considered a substitute to a full withdrawal of American forces from the country.

For other veterans, the idea of negotiating with the Taliban was unsettling, given the group’s history of human rights abuses. Lydia Davey, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006, said she was ambivalent when she first heard the news, but then she thought more about the stories about life under the Taliban. Davey recalled one of her Afghan colleagues telling her that he had been arrested and beaten with electrical cords after the Taliban raided a wedding and arrested all of the men for listening to secular music at the reception.

“I wonder if the peace we’ve negotiated for is worthy of its name,” Davey said. “There’s nothing responsible about withdrawing and hoping a terrorist organization behaves itself.”

The terms of the deal represent perhaps the best possible terms the United States could exact after years of combat had failed to defeat the Taliban.

“We could’ve ended the war 16 years ago,” said Andrew Milburn, who joined the Marine Corps before 2001 and deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, training Afghan commandos in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Milburn then spent several years training Marine Raiders for deployments to that country before retiring as a colonel. He saw the mission there change greatly over that time.

In 2002 and 2003, with the Taliban driven from power and not yet settled into havens in Pakistan, Milburn says the United States should have invested heavily into getting Afghan security forces able to secure the country. Instead, the White House diverted those resources to prepare for an invasion of Iraq.

The steady stream of American casualties in Afghanistan since then is especially tragic, he said, because the United States did not realize the losses of lives and the money spent were sunk costs. “The more that we poured into it, the more we felt compelled to stay to justify that cost,” Milburn said.

That sense of loss — of fighting in a war that felt unwinnable even at the time — was palpable to some veterans who have moved on from it. William Treseder, who served in Sangin in 2010 and 2011 as a Marine civil affairs sergeant, chose to not follow the news of the peace agreement at all. “I’m doing my best to put that whole chapter behind me,” he said.

Treseder arrived in Afghanistan nearly a decade ago as a believer in the counterinsurgency mission there — to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the enemy throughout Helmand Province. But he came to see that was unlikely to happen.

“I came to realize what it really meant to say it was a political solution, not a military solution” that would end the war in Afghanistan,” Treseder said. “I don’t think it was ever really explained to the American people how hard that is and how long it takes.”

“I think about the people I served with,” he added. “I don’t think about the war itself.”

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