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Michael Pooler is a veteran of the Afghan war and retired from the Maine Army National Guard as a colonel in 2019. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and currently a graduate student in the Policy, Planning and Management program at the Muskie School at the University of Southern Maine.
Like many veterans of that war, I feel conflicted over how the goals of the war in Afghanistan changed over almost 20 years, my role and the public’s role in it and I feel anger over how it ended.
The strategic goals of the war, as determined by our civilian leadership, morphed from defeating the Taliban and denying a safe haven for al-Qaeda, to protecting women’s rights, creating a democratic state, and building a nation. The idea of an Afghan nation was created by the West. Most Afghans have no concept of being “Afghan.” They identify as Pashtun, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras or other groups, and then as part of various tribes within each ethnic group.
Also, today’s Afghanistan has no history of a strong democratic central government from the capital, Kabul. This revelation is nothing new; it was known in the foreign policy and military community well before we went to war, and available to the public and Congress.
As the civilian leadership from various administrations changed the goals, senior Army leaders tried to develop new ways and means to accomplish these goals. All the while rotating new U.S. military leaders and troops into Afghanistan every year, leading to inconsistent ways to accomplish our goals.
The Afghan Army was developed to protect their citizens and the central government. Since there is no tradition of a strong central government and with widespread corruption, the Afghan military had no allegiance to them. They fought because it was a job. Also, like American service members, the Afghans are proud people and fight for the soldiers to their left and right, even if the person to the left was from a different tribe.
The State Department was responsible for developing a central government worthy of the Afghan military sacrifice. Due to the history of the region, the State Department, much like the U.S. military, was also handed a no-win situation.
I take pride in my deployment and bringing all the troops in my unit home. For eight months in 2008, I led a 15-man training team that trained a 400-man Afghan army infantry battalion during combat operations. They fought well, became better planners and executed many of their own operations, as we provided limited support. We averaged one humanitarian assistance visit to various villages every three weeks. Eventually, village elders brought their women and children to us for medical attention, demonstrating trust in us.
The videos of the chaotic withdrawal of our troops and our Afghan supporters has awakened the American public to a war many had long forgotten. The public needs to take a hard look at its role in the war.
In sending service members to war, the public has a duty to remain engaged in the political process until all service members come home. Ask questions when administrations change the reasons why your military continues to fight. If you disagree, demand Congress ask hard questions of the military and senior civilian leaders. At least demand Congress debate every few years about sending your military to war.
Like me, many veterans are angry over how this war ended. We left Bagram Airfield at night, without telling our Afghan partners. It appears we had no plan for an orderly withdrawal from Hamid Karzai International Airport.
There were few hearings in Congress to determine if former President Donald Trump’s plan for a May 1, 2021, withdrawal deadline was sound, and limited inquiries about President Joe Biden’s withdrawal plan.
Some say we should let the military run the wars, but that allows the civilians in the executive and legislative branches to shirk their oversight responsibilities. The civilian overseers of the military may be wrong, which is why it is incumbent on the public to demand better justifications for military interventions.
The best way the public and Congress can thank service members is to carry out their duty by being an informed citizen and by holding our leaders accountable.