To Gold Star parents I would say, your children did not die in vain

To the Editor:
Elizabeth Floyd Mair’s piece, “Guilderland Gold Star fathers lost sons to a war America has now lost,” left my heart broken for the fathers, grateful to and proud of our service men and women, and very disturbed by the headline.

Quite simply, America did not lose the war in Afghanistan! The Afghans lost it. Or more accurately, the Afghans simply followed their culture back to its roots.

When President George W. Bush, bullhorn in hand, stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center and announced to the American people, “…I hear you. And the people who did this will be hearing from all of us very soon!” he framed our military mission in Afghanistan: We would take down Al-Qaeda and bring its leaders to justice.

In an alliance with Afghan warlords, our military personnel scattered the Taliban, sent Al-Qaeda into the caves of Tora Bora, and captured or killed many of its leaders (ultimately, including Osama bin Ladin). We then made a series of mistakes that compromised, not the war, but our efforts to rebuild Afghanistan in our image.

While turning our attention and most of our resources toward Iraq, our secondary, mostly diplomatic mission in Afghanistan became creating a democracy with a stable central government. We helped to create an elected government; we provided billions of dollars for both physical and human infrastructure; we trained, equipped, and even paid Afghanistan’s military. We kept the Taliban at bay.

During the Obama administration, there was talk of getting out. Then-Vice President Joe Biden favored that option. But the military brass suggested a surge (not a great idea when the Taliban had a safe haven in Pakistan).

President Barack Obama decided in favor of the surge — probably a  poor decision in retrospect. President Donald Trump took the opposite tack. He negotiated, and in February 2020 signed, an agreement with the Taliban for an American withdrawal by May 1, 2021.

By the time President Biden took office, the American military force in-country had been reduced by 75 percent. Trump’s mistake was that he excluded the Afghan government — the government we created — from the negotiations with the Taliban.

As a result, Afghan leaders believed they had been thrown under the bus.

At that point, Afghan leaders had two options. After 20 years of military training, and billions of dollars invested in providing the Afghans with weapons, infrastructure, and an American-style government, they could use the 14 months between the framing of the Trump-Taliban agreement and the American pull-out to create a military that could stand on its own against the Taliban.

Afghans know how to fight. They defeated Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the British Army and the Russians. They are time- and battle-tested warriors.

Most Americans expected the Afghans to stand and fight for their new government and its institutions, because that’s what we would do. But Afghans are not Americans.

The institutions and ideals that they are willing to fight and die for are different from those that we would defend with our lives. The Afghans knew that their leaders were corrupt (and so did we). While the Afghans in Kabul and other large cities were becoming educated and liberalized, those in the countryside continued to adhere to their traditional values and culture.

Military intelligence officer and counterterrorism expert Malcolm Nance, who served in Afghanistan during the Bush administration, has openly criticized the U.S. government for ignoring Afghan culture, as we tried and failed to turn them into something that looks like us.

“Afghanistan is not so much a country, as an area,” Nance explains.

The culture is tribal. Its military didn’t understand or respect the concept of a central government.

Arguably, even the central government didn’t understand the concept of a strong central government. As if to emphasize Nance’s claim, The Washington Post has released a scathing rebuke of our government’s muddled (and often dishonestly reported) efforts in Afghanistan. Bush’s secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, didn’t even know what languages were spoken in Afghanistan.

Malcolm Nance adds, “Kabul is not Afghanistan.”

Outside of Kabul, in rural Afghanistan, the people are farmers and goat herders. They worry more about getting their sons married than about the philosophical context of democracy.

Afghans are survivors. When Afghan military leaders thought that the Trump administration had abandoned them, they began making deals with the Taliban (who were already embedded in the towns and villages).

When the regular troops saw what their commanders were doing, they realized that their own chances of survival were not going to be improved by military resistance. Even their president, Ashraf Ghani, left the scene and, instead of creating a counterinsurgency, is living in relative luxury (some say, with our money) in the United Arab Emirates.

To Gold Star parents I would say, your children did not die in vain. They died doing their jobs, accomplishing their mission. They stood for everything we value as Americans.

The failure of our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan was not the failure of our service men and women. It was the failure of our government to understand the culture we were dealing with.

The fact that both Trump and Biden saw no point in letting more of America’s sons and daughters die for a mission that would accomplish little for the United States should be acknowledged and applauded. And we should be grateful that we have a military composed of citizens willing to give their all in service to their country.

We did not lose the war in Afghanistan. We lost the peace.

Gary Kleppel


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