Aug. 24—Two decades after the U.S.-led "Operation Enduring Freedom" sent Taliban forces scrambling, hundreds of Minnesota-based soldiers will see the final weeks of U.S. presence in Afghanistan firsthand against the backdrop of a Taliban resurgence.
Minnesota National Guard's Task Force 1-194 — the 1st Battalion, 194th Armor Regiment — was already stationed in the Middle East when it was rerouted around Aug. 12 to help secure evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan. In March, 1,100 soldiers associated with Task Force 1-194 had deployed to Iraq and Kuwait for a nine-month mission as part of "Operation Spartan Shield." The unit includes battalions from Camp Ripley, St. Cloud, Sauk Centre and Brainerd, among other statewide locations.
In a written statement, officials with the Minnesota National Guard said the soldiers are now supporting "Operation Allies Refuge" in Kabul, which is also providing humanitarian assistance to U.S. citizens, special immigrant visa holders and their families. The unit posts information online at facebook.com/194Armor.
MINNESOTA NATIONAL GUARD DEPLOYED
During a Pentagon news conference on Aug. 18, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that in the previous six days, the Minnesota National Guard troops had been deployed to Afghanistan alongside two U.S. Marine battalions to help on the ground. Milley said some 20 U.S. military units comprising 4,500 troops were on location to assist with the airport evacuation.
Some 16,000 people were reportedly flown out of Kabul, the country's capital city, on Monday alone.
Among those deployed this month to ensure their safe passage was state Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, who serves as a major in the Minnesota Army National Guard.
Duckworth, who enlisted at age 17, served in Kuwait and Iraq from 2011 to 2012 as a platoon leader. His wife is due to give birth to their third child in November.
"It's an honor to serve our state in times of need and I'm proud to wear the uniform when our country calls," said Duckworth, in a written statement released by the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus on Aug. 20.
'THEY PULLED EVERYONE OUT'
In mid-August, as news broke that major cities in Afghanistan were falling to the Taliban, Stars and Stripes reporter J.P. Lawrence hurried to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, where it quickly became clear that he would have hours — not days — to pack up his stuff.
"They pulled everyone out," said Lawrence, 31, a former Minnesota National Guard sergeant who grew up outside Redwood Falls, Minn.
His thoughts now turn to the Afghan co-workers, friends and acquaintances left behind.
"I've just been trying to figure out how to get some people I know out of there," said Lawrence, who is staying in an apartment near the military publication's European bureau in Germany. "I feel like I should be taking a breath for getting out of there, but I don't actually feel like I can take a breath right now."
Lawrence fled Kabul on Aug. 15, and he's already seen evidence of the Taliban's tightening grasp on culture and public identity. "It's certainly not what anyone in the U.S. wanted," he said. "It's not what any westernized Afghans wanted. I was just talking to someone whose art gallery got trashed. Maybe they can (reopen) someday when the country is cool with art."
X-ray technician Linwood Ellsworth of Eagan served in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007. It wasn't always a pleasant experience, and watching on television the Taliban's gradual takeover of the country he was once sent to protect hasn't brightened his perspective.
"That war left me with memories I will never forget," said Ellsworth, who always got the sense the Americans weren't wanted by the Afghan people he provided dry food and other supplies to as a supply specialist. "Trillions of dollars wasted. The way we left Afghanistan made us look weak on the world stage. Despite our technology and superior weaponry, we were defeated by farmers. But ... war is a racket."
FOUR PRESIDENTS, 1 WITHDRAWAL
For some of those soldiers who served in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only to return home to a nation that had largely lost track and moved on, the land-locked South Asian country of 38 million people represents one of America's most visible military failures.
Jim Doten, a licensed geologist, nevertheless remains proud of the work he did a decade ago attempting to boost the village economy in some of the poorest corners of rural Afghanistan.
As part of a Minnesota National Guard agri-business unit, Doten helped cultivate grapes, almonds and honeybees deep within mountain valleys all but controlled by the Taliban. The hope was economic growth would upstage extremism.
"Despite (the U.S.) being there 20 years, they're still in the process of building up institutions that cross tribal boundaries," said Doten, who now works for the Minneapolis Health Department. "It needs to be nurtured and maintained and supported. That's my personal opinion."
Biden announced a major drawdown of U.S. troops in April, with the goal of achieving a full exit by September. The Taliban seized control of major cities, including Kabul, in the the course of 11 days.
"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build," said Biden on July 8. "And it's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."