Isiah James was stationed in Afghanistan nearly a decade ago. But something the village elders would whisper haunts him to this day.
“They’d look at us and say, ‘You may have the watches, but we have the time,’” says James, 32, a onetime Army infantryman.
After 18 years of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, that waiting game continues, leaving some veterans questioning whether the conflict — and the personal risks they took for their countrymen — were worth it. President Donald Trump, who has complained about wasted “blood and treasure” in Afghanistan and has vowed to pull all U.S. troops, now seems less sure of a full withdrawal.
“Afghanistan is an unwinnable war, an empire killer,” says James, who is now running for a Democratic congressional seat in New York. “Ask Alexander the Great, ask the Russians. America is no different.”
The Trump administration appeared poised to wrap up a conflict that began as a Special Operations campaign shortly after 9/11 and peaked a decade ago with a massive presence of 100,000 troops. It has since become the nation’s second-longest-running war, after Vietnam, costing in excess of $2 trillion.
Last October, U.S. diplomats opened up peace talks with Taliban representatives in Oman, negotiations that had built to once-secret meetings at Camp David. But on Sept. 9, in response to a Taliban attack that killed a U.S. soldier and 11 others, Trump called that dialog “dead.”
The violence has since escalated. On Sept. 16, two Taliban suicide bombers killed 48 people in attacks aimed at disrupting Afghanistan’s Sept. 28 presidential elections, in which President Ashraf Ghani is seeking a second five-year term.
Roughly 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. Some 2,400 U.S. soldiers have died in the war.
“In scholarship circles, there are roughly two camps on this war: one crowd that says ‘This never would have worked, and we should have seen that,’ and the other that says ‘It could have, but we’ve done it all badly,’” says Aaron O’Connell, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, who is a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and served as special assistant to General David Petraeus in Afghanistan.
O’Connell says some of the mistakes made include the withdrawal of troops and aid when the U.S. decided to invade Iraq in 2003, which led then-President Hamid Karzai to “strike corrupt bargains with strongmen that delegitimized his government.” But perhaps the biggest problem was simply establishing a presence as “military occupiers” that fundamentally undermined nation-building efforts, he says.
Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says launching the war was likely an error from the beginning.
“Sticking kids over there without the right training for the job at hand wasn’t right,” says Jones, director of the center’s Transnational Threats Project and author of “In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan.” “It was a mistake to think we could use conventional forces for this mission.”
For those who risked their lives while tasked with improving the quality of life in Afghanistan, questions about wrapping up the war have become more intense as the Trump administration has debated officially ending the conflict.
“It’d be great if Afghanistan were now like Switzerland, a beautiful mountainous place that’s free and peaceful with no Taliban, but it’s not,” says Erik Haass, 43, a management consultant from Chicago and veteran of two Afghan tours as part of the Army’s Chosen Company, which repelled a storied 2008 Taliban attack in the Battle of Wanat.
“I’m glad we got in and I’m proud of what we did,” Haass adds. “But I can also understand that after almost two decades of open conflict, it’s a lot to ask of our military and the American people.”
Poll says: Afghanistan War a mistake
A recent Pew Research Center poll suggests that both the general public and U.S. veterans agree things were not handled well. In a survey conducted last spring, 59 percent of the public and 58 percent of vets said that, when considering cost versus benefit, the Afghanistan War was “not worth fighting.”
“History will indict us to some degree,” says Paul Toolan, a Green Beret who was in Afghanistan half a dozen times between 2003 and 2012 and is now deputy commander at the 1st Special Warfare Training Group in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“Our motto while there was, ‘You can’t want it more than they do,’” says Toolan. “Our biggest problem is we were never able to step far enough back to allow the Afghan infrastructure to stand on its own two feet. But for our national security interests to be assured, the Afghans had to govern themselves. So we got heavily invested.”
For some veterans, the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden should have spelled the end of operations in Afghanistan.
When President George W. Bush initiated Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, 2001, the stated aim was killing bin Laden. On May 2, 2011, that mission finally was accomplished in a nighttime raid on bid Laden’s redoubt in neighboring Pakistan.
Kyle Bibby, 33, of Jersey City, New Jersey, was a Marine stationed in Afghanistan on the day bin Laden died. “Right after that, my first thought was, what the f–k are we still doing here?” says Bibby, now a lead organizer with Common Defense, a New York-based nonprofit with a mission is to draw veterans to progressive causes. “When we didn’t leave, it seemed like we were suddenly OK with an endless war.”
Bibby says he is lucky because he came back “with all my digits and body parts, but a lot of guys died and you have survivor’s guilt, you wonder if their sacrifice was in vain.”
Other Afghanistan War vets say they grapple with the same doubt. Ian Eads, 37, another Chosen Company veteran who did two tours in Afghanistan a decade back, says he would “never trade the experience for anything and I’d never want to do it again.”
Eads, now a police officer in Newport, Kentucky, saw his service as a job, one that sometimes meant killing people and other times meant befriending them. “I remember one Afghan that had a little shop at our base,” he says. “I’d trust him with my kids.”
But when he returned home, his survivor’s guilt sometimes had him contemplating suicide, he says. He has battled valiantly to find purpose and meaning.
“So many people were lost, it was so big a price to pay,” he says quietly. “If it’s going to end, I feel like that’s good. But is it that we’re just giving up, or did we fix it?”
For many vets, another frustration stems from wondering if they’re the only ones thinking about the situation in Afghanistan. Unlike the Vietnam War — which ended in 1975 after 20 years and claimed 57,000 American servicemen — the Afghanistan War is being fought with a volunteer force.
“Because we don’t have a draft, the average American person isn’t impacted by these conflicts, but we need to look at how something like this 18-year war impacts families who are involved,” says Brooklynne Mosley, 35, of Lawrence, Kansas, who is a Democratic political operative in her state. She flew 190 combat sorties mostly over Afghanistan helping refuel Air Force jets from tankers.
“The people in Afghanistan don’t know why we’re there, and most Americans don’t know why we’re there,” says Mosley, whose little brother was 9 months old during 9/11 and now is entering college. “We’re going to have a hard time recruiting for more forever wars. We need to get out of there. We should be focusing our resources here on America and our crumbling infrastructure.”
Mission not accomplished in Afghanistan
Vets caution that the Afghan conflict defies facile pronouncements and easy conclusions. The very nature of both the country’s topography and its history virtually guaranteed that U.S. forces would be facing a difficult mission.
“It’s a difficult region to govern, due to the landscape, with lots of rural townships, so it’s a complicated case,” says Richard Brookshire, 31, of New York City, who is a strategist with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He served in Afghanistan in 2011 as a combat medic who trained other medics.
“As a vet thinking about the potential end of the conflict, it’s just complex,” he says. “The ideologies propelling what’s on the ground won’t disappear because we leave. So, for me and my comrades, it doesn’t feel like we’ve accomplished a mission because it was such a complicated mission.”
Haass, the management consultant from Chicago, felt a patriotic call to action shortly after the Twin Towers fell. He was injured shortly after he was deployed when a mission involving clearing out a basement put a bullet in his hand and knee. He says he has no regrets.
“I seriously don’t think we had a choice, something had to be done after 9/11,” he says. “We made an honest effort at doing the right thing.”
James, the infantryman turned would-be politician, also is proud of his service but daily mourns those lost. “For me, Forever 21 isn’t the name of a store in a mall, it’s friends who ceased to exist after that birthday, brothers I’ll never get back,” he says.
James hopes there will be more national dialog over what happens next in Afghanistan.
“At this point, we’re not going to bomb or shoot our way out of Afghanistan,” he says. “We can only talk our way out.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava