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Why we need to leave Afghanistan – it’s time to get out!

By Don Parnell

The United States has been in Afghanistan for nineteen years. Over 2,300 troops have been killed and over 20,000 wounded during this timeframe. The CIA accompanied by US military Special Forces units went into northern Afghanistan weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Afghanistan is a country that many have tried to conquer, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British and the Russians to mention a few, but few have succeeded.  The United States went into Afghanistan with good intentions and the support of the free world.  Usama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda (AQ) had been given refuge in this country by the Taliban.  The attacks of 9/11 changed the world and US Special Operations forces went into Afghanistan to root out AQ and deny them the ability to operate and maintain a safe haven.  We successfully accomplished this task a number of years ago unfortunately that mission morphed into rebuilding a country. 

For most of the 20th century most of Afghanistan was still living in the 18th century.  It was as though the 20th century had just “leaped over” the entire country and didn’t look back. I can remember in the early days of 2001 when coming into a small village in Uruzgan province how the local Afghans were totally infatuated with us.  They had never seen anyone who didn’t look like them.  With all our tac gear strapped on we must have looked like “martians”.  They would ask to touch and rub our skin and were fascinated by everything we did, to include how we went to the “bathroom”.  Taking a look around a village one would have had a difficult time finding any by-product of the 20th century.  Usually you came across five things:  A well that was dug by an NGO; plastics in the pails and buckets; an AK-47 weapon; sometimes a vehicle and the polyester material in the clothes they wore.  That was about it.  It was the land that time had forgotten!

It has now been nine-teen years and it’s time to end our country’s longest war. I mean who goes to war for nine-teen years! No one!  Don’t get me wrong, I understand most of the reasons on why we should stay and to continue to rebuild Afghanistan. I can sympathize with the Afghans but I also realize that it has just been too long.  Nine-teen years is almost an entire generation, if we haven’t accomplished the mission in this timeframe — it will never be accomplished.  I assessed back in 2001 when we first went into this most desolate of countries, that it was totally hopeless. If given a hundred years, the USA  would not be able to rebuild Afghanistan into a viable country.  It is just not feasible.  

No one wants to say this and no one wants to admit it, but it is the truth.  It sounds arrogant, brash, and condescending but it is the truth.  The truth sometimes is hard to stomach but many who have served in this country know what I’m talking about.  Trying to negotiate with the Taliban is like “making a deal with the devil” and we all know it but will not admit it.  How many past and current commanders of US forces in Afghanistan have said “we just need a little more time to build the Afghan Security forces’ ‘ or we are “close to making a deal with Taliban”. They have been saying this for years and yet it never really happens.  

It has been a campaign that has been fought in one year increments.  Nineteen one year increments to be exact!  Every year a new Commander takes over with optimism and forbearance and every year our we end up in the same place.  We have had some of the most brilliant US military leaders in our country’s history “tackle” this problem set and all have failed to some degree.  It is now time to cut our losses and leave!  The recent ceasefire violations by the US Forces and/or the Taliban is just another round of finger pointing that has been going on for years.  The Taliban had one very distinctive advantage that we the United States can never overcome.  They have TIME yes TIME on their side.  

They are not going anywhere and have the patience of a sloth.  They know it, we know it and everything else is just a waste of time and money.  The billions of dollars that we have wasted in Afghanistan make me sick thinking about it.  The missed opportunities, the incompetence of our policy makers who never really understood the problem and tried to apply a western solution to an Afghan problem.  The lives lost or destroyed or changed are countless on both the US and Afghan side.  We now have a second generation of military men/women serving in Afghanistan and walking over the same ground their fathers and mothers did, 15 plus years earlier.  

I personally have sacrificed years of time away from my family to operate in this “god forsaken land”.  I have a personal stake in Afghanistan shared by many though journeys started earlier than most.  I have had friends and colleagues killed or gravely wounded.  I’ve had to make death notifications to the families of our fallen warriors, telling them that their husband, father, son or brother was not coming home (believe me there is nothing more horrible than having to do that).  I’ve seen the horrors of amputated limbs and seen too many of my buddies come home missing legs and arms, or more.  I have dealt with the mass casualties of dying and seriously wounded servicemen (US Military and CIA) and struggled to keep these men alive.  

I have seen the bad on the battlefield and on the home front.  I have been humbled by the strength of the families but strengthened by their courage. This is all very real to me.  So when I say we need to get out of Afghanistan, it means something!  My heart and soul was poured into that country.  I had the unique privilege to deploy into Afghanistan eight weeks after 9/11.  I was part of a small US Military and CIA team that was inserted into Afghanistan in early November 2001 with Hamid Karzai.  I thought and to a certain extent still think about the world of Hamid Karzai, he was just given an impossible task to accomplish. To this day he is the second most courageous person in the world, I have been associated with. I have nothing but the greatest respect for him.  Our mistakes in Afghanistan have been many and too many to mention.  Here are a few things the US government just never understood about Afghanistan and our strategy.  Many of these welcome more in-depth discussion beyond the length of this article.

  1. We tried to nationalize a country that doesn’t want to be nationalized.  Over the years we have tried to make Kabul and the Afghan government the centerpiece in our Afghan strategy.  This was/is a huge miscalculation.  The Afghan’s had never trusted their corrupt central government and we were not going to change that.  We needed to create a more decentralized system which focused on the individual provinces and districts.  This is something the Afghans can understand and get behind.
  1. Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic that has been “democratized”. Pastunwali prevails in a vast portion of the country.  Even some non-pashtuns have adapted this form of government or lifestyle which is fundamentally called the common law of the land or “code of life”.  It is entirely based on tribal affiliations.  Any westernized form of government will not work ,with any degree of success.  The Afghan people in general don’t need a democracy, not in our terms. Afghanistan needs a very strong President, someone who can work across tribal boundaries, no easy feat.  Pashtuns and Tajik’s make up about 70% of the population.  Both Karzai and Ghani are Pashto and both struggle to unite the country due to strong resistance from Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbek’s and others who fall along strong tribal lines.  The Provinces and supporting districts need to play a major role in what the government can or will provide.  It has been said a democracy cannot survive with an uneducated public.  Estimates have it that eleven million People are illiterate (43%) but I suspect that figure is much higher.  At least two generations of young educated Afghans have fled the country over the past 15 plus years. There is little hope they will be replaced. 
  1. “Small is better than big.  We have always been seen as an occupying force in Afghanistan. We made the huge mistake of throwing way too many troops into Afghanistan at various times over the years. These surges sounded great and might have accomplished some short terms goal but in the long run it did more harm than good.  Keeping a smaller, more specialized force is a viable option.   One fall back position could be to maintain a small presence which should be armed with the appropriate enablers (ISR, Air Support, Medevac etc…).  This could be a viable compromise but our mission would have to change dramatically focused solely on counter-terrorism, not country building.  We can refocus the mission in the region to deny ISIS/AQ the ability to maintain a “safe haven” and Go small if you want to stay!
  1. The western mindset has been our biggest handicap.  We have collectively tried to instill a western mindset in the Afghans.  We have given them a scale of what is right and what is wrong.  We have defined these terms in a manner an Afghan could never truly understand. The Afghan government is corrupt (by western standards) but much of this is a by-product of  how things work in Afghanistan, their definition of corruption is much different from ours. We have gauged success based on what we think success looks like.  Believe me it looks a lot different with our Afghan colleagues.  This is something that we cannot overcome and shouldn’t try.  Let’s leave the governing of Afghanistan to the Afghans and let them continue to live their lives as they see fit. 

So where does this leave us.  No amount of debate, negotiation or policy will change the fact that Afghanistan cannot or will not be conquered by the modern western world.  They will always win out because they have the one thing that we cannot buy, build or create – TIME! Time waits for no man and it surely doesn’t wait for the United States of America.  The Taliban have all the time in the world.  Thus, it’s time to leave.  

We do need to maintain our diplomatic presence but a vast majority of US Forces need to come home. We can and will mostly likely return to Afghanistan someday.  Using history as a guide it will most likely happen before the end of this century. Critics will say leaving now will impact our ability to come back later yet we have to ask ourselves at what price? No entity in Afghanistan poses an existential threat to our national security. Not one more soldier, sailor, marine or airman’s life is worth us staying any longer in this country.  We don’t need anymore politicians or military leaders to tell us they can fix the problem. It is just not going to happen.   The sooner we understand this — the sooner we can get out!

About the Author

Don Parnell recently retired after a distinguished 24 year career serving as a CIA paramilitary and operations officer. He is also a former United States Marine infantry officer.  Mr. Parnell served in various senior leadership positions within the CIA which included multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Parnell’s commendations include; the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the Distinguished Intelligence Star; the Wazir Akbar Khan Medal, awarded by Afghanistan President Karzai and the Career Intelligence Medal, for distinguished career service. Don is also on the Expert Cadre of Lobo Institute.

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