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Many countries have closed or scaled back operations at consulates in Afghanistan as the Taliban have scored territorial gains since mid-April, when the U.S. announced its military withdrawal. How does the war in Afghanistan — America's longest war — look to the soldiers that were deployed there, and what do they think of the withdrawal? Three veterans share their experiences with Nick Schifrin.
There is a long history of foreign troops leaving Afghanistan after long and bloody fights. Now the U.S. and its allies have almost completely withdrawn.
Nick Schifrin explores how these decades of war look to veterans who served there.
The United States will soon complete the withdrawal of almost all military forces in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan has been America's longest. The U.S. invaded in October 2001, nearly 20 years ago.
We thought we'd mark the withdrawal by talking with three veterans of the war about their experiences and what was accomplished.
Major Megan Pekol-Evans has been in the military since 2004. In 2013, she led an all-female cultural support team who would speak to mostly Afghan women in villages. She is still in the Army. Former Specialist Isiah James was in Army reconnaissance, surveillance and acquisition team outside of Kandahar City in 2010 to 2011. He also served two tours in Iraq before he went to Afghanistan. He was medically retired in 2013.
And retired Colonel Mike Jason had a 24-year career in the Army. In 2012, he was a battalion commander who worked alongside special operations forces in Northern Afghanistan. He also served two tours in Iraq. He retired in 2019.
Welcome, all three of you, to the "NewsHour."
Major Pekol-Evans, let me start with you.
When you would speak to Afghan women, did they give you the intelligence that you were looking for? And, looking back, do you believe you were doing something good?
Maj. Megan Pekol-Evans:
We were gathering information, atmospherics from the women. They needed help with support for medical facilities. They didn't — it's not like America, where there's a Walgreens down the street. There's not a Walgreens. There's not an urgent care that they can go to.
So that was one of the things that my team would specifically do. We had a clinic. The people from the village would come in, specifically women and children, some men, and we would actually give them care. We have gone into the actual villages to do presence patrols. And that was one of the other things we would do, engage, get the information, but also provide medical care to them.
The women and villages were always very receptive to us. They were sometimes not so much. And, of course, that was that if it was more kinetic or not. But, majority of the times that we went in, they were very receptive to everything we were doing.
Isiah James, for you, you were on the front lines. And it was a much more kinetic experience in Kandahar.
And, of course, you will remember that your commanders talked about winning the war by winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Were you ever trained to do that? And do you think that you succeeded at that mission?
Spc. Isiah James:
My mission was very kinetic. I'm an infantryman by training, have been my whole nine years in the military.
No, we were never taught to win hearts and minds. You can't really turn a grunt off, so to speak. We were taught to put, bluntly, two in the heart and one in the mind with our shooting drills. So, we were never taught that know. They teach us how to kill, kill, kill. But then, at the flip of a switch, you're told to go out there and to be nice to people who you have seen as a target your whole entire deployment.
It was a hard transition to not look at everything as a threat. Every motorbike was an IED. Every pile of trash on the road was an IED. Every person giving you the evil eye, so to speak, at the market was waiting to target you. So, it was a very hard juxtaposition to be an infantryman on patrol every day, but then to know that your mission was to basically win hearts and minds and try to placate the situation.
And do you think you did good? Do you think you succeeded?
Well, there's a saying in infantry: Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die.
So, I don't know if we did good, but I know I made it home alive. And as most of my guys made it home alive, it's good. So…
Mike Jason, you saw an interesting mix of special operations, what we call black ops, the guys who go in at night to try and kill senior Taliban commanders, and white ops, the people who will go into villages and work with tribal elders.
That was about 11 years after the initial invasion. Did that work? Do you think your mission succeeded?
Col. Mike Jason:
I mean, like everything else in Afghanistan, as you know, it's all in the nuance. It's all in shades of gray.
I saw what looked like progress. You know, you had the black ops sort of kind of clearing the space for us to do our operations, while the white was working in the villages doing things that we had learned in Vietnam 30, 40 years earlier. So, we brought those tactics back, really started working with the people in small villages, with the cultural support teams that Megan worked on.
We all are working together on this stuff in very remote, isolated places. And you could see it. You could see it could work, except the silent voice inside my head in 2012, said, Mike, man, too little, too late. Like, why are we doing this now?
And, immediately, while we were doing it, we already knew — we knew in '12 the surge is going to come to an end, and we were starting to talk about transition and taking things down.
Megan Pekol-Evans, I wonder, at this point, if you think the U.S. should have stayed 20 years?
I think we did good work, and I'm proud of what we were able to do in this time. You know, I took an oath to support and defend our Constitution. And inherent with that oath, it's to support those leaders appointed over me, right?
And I have faith in them that they made the right decision each time to stay, and then next this time to withdraw.
Isiah James, was the war in Afghanistan worth fighting for Afghanistan and for U.S. national security?
For 20 years? No, absolutely not.
I have been deployed three times as an infantryman. My first deployment, we lost 32 brothers and sisters. My second deployment, we lost eight. My third deployment, we lost 11. How many of those mothers and fathers are weeping for their children to this day?
Once you got Osama bin Laden, that was our mission set. There's an Afghan proverb that the villagers would tell us all the time. And it says, you may have the watches, but we have the time. Afghanistan is known as the empire killer. Alexander the Great marched elephants in there and lost. The Russians sent a million men and lost. America spent 20 years, trillions of dollars and countless treasure and human lives, and we're pulling out.
We have to learn from history. We cannot go in there and expect to give somebody a gift at the tip of a sword.
Mike Jason, I see you acknowledging that history. You know it well.
You made a point earlier, which is that the U.S. did not fight one 20-year war. The U.S. fought 20 one-years, meaning people were deployed only for one year. What was the impact of that?
We were there for 20 years. But Mike was there for 10 months. And to the locals and to our partners and we worked with, they were always ready for, who's the next gringo that's coming along?
And, I mean, we talk about 9/11. I was a captain. I remember it vividly. We knew we were going to go into war. This country had to respond. We had to eradicate al-Qaida. We had to — we had to get rid of the space that they were operating in. And we could not allow what was happening to come out of Afghanistan again. And then we had to bring bin Laden to justice.
But I think, in looking back, we can all agree we never really had a definitive strategy. And we can disagree on whether we should come out or take all of our forces out, or how much we should leave behind.
But you know what? At least right now, we finally have a definitive policy. And we have not had that.
Megan Pekol-Evans, do you think about those women who you met in Western Afghanistan, and are you worried about them?
Oh, I think about them probably almost several times a day.
We really were out there trying to help them help themselves. And so with the women, they had in — they had district women's affairs representatives. And so we had established a very good relationship with the one in Herat Province, Shindand District.
And so, with her, we were able to build such a good network with the women in the local village, and we established this running meeting where we were able to find out security issues. We were — again, they were getting ready to vote, right, in 2013. So we are able to talk to them about the elections. We were able to connect with them about infrastructure issues in their area.
And the intent with all that, right, was to help them help themselves. And we did. And they were grateful for that.
Isiah James, forgive me for asking a personal question, but when you remember your memories from Afghanistan, I wonder if you think about that phrase, help them help themselves, or if you have a different kind of memory?
Well, history is replete with that phrase, help them help themselves. It never turns out the way that it sounds, right?
It's when the pilgrims helped the indigenous people who lived there help themselves. It's when missionaries went to countries in Africa to help those people help themselves. It never turns out the way that it sounds. It sounds very lofty, but it doesn't really turn out that way.
My memories of Afghanistan, I have good memories, but, as you said at the beginning of the segment, my job was literally to be out in front of the main force, finding targets and executing on those targets when we got orders.
So, I don't know if we helped them help themselves. But all I know, I'm a grunt. I'm a door kicker. I'm a — as my patrol sergeant would say, I'm a barrel-chested freedom fighter. So we didn't make decisions at the operational or strategic level.
But I know, at the tactical level, on the ground, it didn't look like that. All I know is that we were sent there to do a job. And 20 years on, is that job even done? Did we — like Mike said, did we even have a strategy? It was 20 different strategies.
Was this was this war ever worth it? You know, what I think about some of the memories from Afghanistan, a lot of them are haunting, a lot of them are bad. I'm still in therapy to this day because of that. I still — I'm still dealing with the PTSD. I'm still dealing with the night terrors and the traumas. And I'm 34 years old.
And I retired medically at 27 because I got hit by too many IEDs.
Mike Jason, we have been talking here in Washington a lot about all those Afghan interpreters, all of the Afghans who facilitated the U.S. war.
Do you believe that the U.S. should evacuate them?
I think, right now, we're talking about — the high number is about 70,000, when you start including families and children. There's an absolute, unambiguous moral responsibility by this country to help those who signed up and turned in and were out there with us, whether it's Isiah's interpreter or my interpreters or even some of the Afghan security forces, Megan's people, all the folks that we worked with.
So, we will ask again our allies and other operations in future conflicts to sign up and be part of this effort and work with the United States. And it is — our credibility is on the line. We owe it to them to get them out as quickly as we can.
Mike Jason, Isiah James, Major Megan Pekol-Evans, thank you very much to all of you.
Thanks for having us.
Watch the Full Episode
Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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