By: Brigham Bechtel
Histories of America’s actions in Afghanistan will be written for years to come, but members of the Steady State are focused on the human cost being tallied in the present while supporting those members of the national security community in so many roles who answered the nation’s call. Since the Taliban enabled our enemies who brought down landmarks of our culture some twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of America’s daughters and sons moved to the sound of the guns in a war that over time fell from the headlines of the day. Not every action those men and women took was covered in glory nor heroic. Still, many hundreds of their accomplishments brought honor to the nation, praise for the heroes, and changed the lives of Afghans. These days are not the time for that accounting even as many give in to the temptation to express their pent-up opinions that they believe will prove their prescience and analytic prowess.
The terror of the Taliban victory is fresh for many while the toll of dead and lost is incomplete, but heavy on all sides. In recent days we observed the manifestations of human fear our adversaries the Taliban cause among the people they aspire to govern even as we recall our own casualties whose sacrifices deserve to be remembered. The images of frightened Afghans risking their lives to cling to a departing aircraft rather than facing the retribution of the Taliban were astounding and horrifying and maddening. The Taliban have a well-documented record of brutality and barbarism from their last turn at governing Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghans have reason to fear. Some of these Afghans were allies who fought with America, cared for Americans, and aided Americans with information and background into this difficult land. These allies helped American efforts to rebuild the country with projects like schools, roads, and public service projects. They escorted our diplomats to vital meetings with local Shuras. They advised our Provincial Reconstruction Teams with insights into vital cultural questions and local disputes. Their help to America made them prominent in their community and known to those who would now revenge themselves. Tens of thousands of Afghans fought for their nation over these last twenty years often, but not always, in the company of US forces. Brown University estimates more than 69,000 members of the Afghan security forces were lost over the last twenty years, thousands of Afghan civilians killed, while millions were displaced to avoid the fighting.
We know our nation’s losses are irreplaceable and irretrievable. Our losses in blood and treasure changed our nation forever. Thousands of our young men and women with all the potential for their creativity and contributions to our collective future lost forever. Tens of thousands maimed. Hundreds of thousands had their futures and health altered forever. All their families have a different future now than they imagined for themselves before their shared service. Our country’s treasure was spent in pursuit of stability. It was expended on projects meant to improve Afghanistan. It was spent on books, equipment, and materials. It was spent on ammunition, spare parts, and new designs. It was spent on bandages and medevacs. It was spent on retrofits and new capabilities. We spent national capital, integrity, and energy on maintaining allies and explaining our positions to the world and difficult audiences.
We of the Steady State believe there will come a time to total all these costs and we support those just and necessary efforts to understand our record in Afghanistan in due course, but now is the time for the nation to lift up those who served while working to provide for our allies. Bringing our veterans — from all elements of the national security community — all the way home and honoring their service across all the years is vital to healing. Ensuring understanding for the stress and sometimes traumatic nature of service in places like Afghanistan is a bare minimum. This is a time to educate our neighbors and families about the difference between the policy community and those tasked to execute or support policy in difficult circumstances. It is also time to bring our Afghan allies to safe havens and guard them against the vengeance of extremists and terrorists as part of a debt we owe them for the risks they took on our behalf. We can do this and provide for them while we vet their claims against our debt. We owe this to them for the risks we convinced them to take for our shared goal of a better Afghanistan. We owe this to them for their service beside our people.
The invoice for our time in Afghanistan will be paid out to posterity after the full accounting is presented. The nation can build credit for the future now with the right support to our Steady State professionals who faithfully carried out their mission and the Afghans who have been their allies during the last two decades.