By Mandy Miles, Jim McCarthy and Sara Matthis

They were there. On the ground. In Afghanistan. The veterans and active duty service members interviewed below saw what was happening in real life, in real time, a half a world away. They knew what was going wrong — and what was going well. But folks in Washington rarely asked them. 

They befriended many Afghans. They buried best friends. They woke many mornings covered in three inches of dust, dirt and sand. They heard the horrors of prior Taliban rule and fought to resist its return.

For 20 years, American military personnel — and other foreign soldiers — fought a war in, but not against, Afghanistan. The enemy was always the Taliban, a militant sect of extremist Muslims known for allowing terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda to operate in areas the Taliban controls. 

“Most of the Taliban aren’t even from Afghanistan,” said retired Army Colonel Abe Conn, who served three one-year tours in Afghanistan and has lived in Key West for more than a decade. “The Afghan people are some of the nicest, most sincere, trusting people in the world.”

American troops protected the Afghan people. They built schools and supplied orphanages. They constructed power plants. They trained the Afghan army. They kept the Taliban at bay. 

But this war was untenable — and expensive. President Barack Obama started downsizing America’s boot print on the ground there. Then President Donald Trump negotiated an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, promising them that American troops would be out of Afghanistan this year. And making the Taliban promise to minimize violence and more importantly, prohibit terrorist groups from targeting America within its borders. 

American troops knew we weren’t winning the war. They knew the Afghans’ ability to go it alone was limited and they knew the financial faucet that poured $2 trillion into the effort wasn’t sustainable. 

But many agree, the end of America’s involvement over the past month was ill-planned and potentially lethal to Afghan allies — soldiers’ interpreters and friends who are left behind. The speed with which the Taliban reclaimed Afghanistan cities was alarming to many, but not surprising to those who had been there; those who had warned the politicians of the Taliban’s continuing presence and increasing strength, as well as the vulnerabilities of the Afghan military and government.

“I don’t believe the Taliban have changed,” Conn said. “They’ve been told to stand down and have been threatened with death if they kill anyone while America pulls out. But in six to eight months, it’ll be back to business as usual under the Taliban. And that’s what’s so heartbreaking.”

The Keys Weekly asked several veterans of the war in Afghanistan and some still serving how they felt about the American withdrawal and the future of Afghanistan. Their comments are below. 

(Editor’s note: The names of those still in active duty have been omitted at their request.)

“It’s tough to stomach. I lost a couple classmates over there. I actually put one in Arlington in 2007. It’s unfortunate we spent 20 years with loss of life to American soldiers, and as soon as we pulled out, the trained Afghani National Army, the police and other agencies there lasted 10 days. It’s tough to stomach that when people have given life, limb and eyesight over there in the tens of thousands. 

I personally can tell you that we changed a lot of lives. When you look at Afghanis in the face, the need was there. When I was there in 2005, it was a real surge event because they never voted before. That’s when Hamid Karzai was in. Some polling stations were hit and blown up. Women couldn’t vote. There was pushback on all that stuff. 

We dropped 20,000 pounds of school supplies out of C-130s to a place called Malistan. We put clothes and shoes and stuff on what orphanages there were. We held these babies and kids and they would run up to us. They don’t know war. They don’t know any of that stuff. That was the human side of things.” — Nick Hodge, of Islamorada, U.S. Army, First Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division 

“It’s very disheartening. We’re leaving a lot of very, very good people. My interpreters are going to die. They’ve been turned down twice now for visas. They’ll be killed because they can’t get out of Afghanistan. We were there for 20 years. We could’ve stayed one more year and gotten everyone out. We left them and they’re gonna get slaughtered.” — Abe Conn, retired colonel, U.S. Army, completed three one-year deployments to Afghanistan

“A lot of soldiers have died for that country to be free of Taliban rule. Our military trained Afghanis, and for them to just give it up so easily is heartbreaking. You can’t train grit and determination.” — Senior Master Sergeant, U.S. Air Force

“We all knew it was coming. Everyone that served over there knew it was coming. Though the timeline was a lot sooner than most thought, this is no surprise.” — Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army

“If I hear one more pundit say soldiers died for no f-ing reason….. Every soldier I served with felt they were part of something special, freeing an entire nation under tyranny. The way it looks now, that won’t be happening, but who knows what the future holds. It’s a sad day for America and a sadder day for Afghanistan.” — First Sergeant, U.S. Army

“I can’t say, I just tear up and cry. I lost some good friends, brothers. This is painful. I got no words today.” — Master Sergeant, U.S. Army

“Way more than an embassy evacuation. This is light years beyond a Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO). This is the complete collapse of U.S. resolve. You have already heard ‘pathetic, dismal and weak.’ Our current administration has told the world that the statute of limitations for murdering thousands of U.S. Citizens is 19 years, 11 months, 4 days. By word and deed the Administration has told all the victims of 9/11 and their families, to include the first responders that died that day and those that continue to suffer and die from the effects, all the service members that served, died, were wounded, maimed, continue to suffer and die from the effects and all of their families — ‘You don’t matter.’

Now watch the veteran suicide rate go through the roof.

Pray hard. Think of this. A service member that enlisted or was commissioned in June to September of 2001 is at their retirement mark. That complete 20 years has been wrapped in one way or another around 9/11-Afghanistan and or Iraq. Now, we just quit … ”

— Chris Hoguet of Tavernier, LTC US Army (Ret) deployed in Afghanistan in 2003

“The women!!!! All the gains made for women in that country. Gone, done, overnight. No more! Doctors, business owners, going to college. It’s over. The Taliban will end all their freedoms. Bloodshed to follow for those that disobey.” — Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army

“So, what I am hearing from my friends who have served and are currently deployed, is they all feel bad about the withdrawal, but are really concerned for our Afghan partners who helped Americans, and who were left behind.”

— Derrick Johnson of Marathon, Navy veteran (1994-1998), serving aboard the USS Frank Cable and deployed to Guam, Japan, Korea. 

“This is a perfect example of history repeating itself and politicians do seem to lack an understanding of history. I’ve seen the defeat before and it is caused by a lack of political will. They should have gone in and one their job 19 years ago and gotten out.”  

— John Dick of Marathon, Army veteran (1966-1968), serving in Vietnam.

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