Don Bolduc lost 69 men to the Taliban during the five-plus years he spent as a Special Forces officer in Afghanistan. Now a retired brigadier general, he keeps their dog tags in a memorial in his home office as a constant reminder, he says, of their sacrifice and “of the price for bad policy and strategy.”
Last week’s news from Qatar of progress toward a possible peace deal with the Taliban that would involve a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan served as another sort of reminder: of the likelihood, in Bolduc’s eyes, that his men’s sacrifices were in vain.
“Like it or not, we have lost,” he said. That realization will be hard to take for the soldiers he fought with, according to Bolduc. “It’s going to be a bitter pill,” he said. “They did what they were asked, they did the right thing, and they watched their teammates get maimed, get killed, and because of the failure of our policymakers and our senior military leaders they’re going to have to swallow this pill.”
Bolduc was speaking a few days after U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad said that during six days of talks in Qatar, the United States had reached “agreements in principle” with the Taliban that could see a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan if the Taliban agreed to hold talks with the Afghan government and to not allow terrorist groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State to use Afghanistan as a safe haven. Khalilzad cautioned that “there is still work to be done,” but acknowledged that “we are on the right path” in what appears to be the most promising breakthrough on the diplomatic front since U.S. forces first entered Afghanistan in October 2001.
But as Bolduc’s comments indicate, some retired generals who fought in Afghanistan view the sort of settlement being discussed as nothing short of a defeat.
“The Taliban are the victors,” said a retired general officer who commanded a brigade early in the war. “We just haven’t figured that out yet.”
In December 2001, just weeks after U.S. forces had entered Afghanistan, Taliban leaders offered to surrender, conditional on receiving a general amnesty for themselves and their troops, but the administration of President George W. Bush dismissed the offer. At the time, the Taliban were on the run, pummeled from the sky by U.S. and coalition aircraft and on the ground by the Northern Alliance and U.S. special operations forces. Since then, more than 1,800 U.S. troops have been killed in action in Afghanistan. The war is now stalemated.
Asked what the intervening 17 years of sacrifice in blood and treasure have bought the United States, some former military leaders were at a loss. “It’s a great question,” said retired Maj. Gen. Jeff Schloesser, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan between March 2008 and July 2009. “I really don’t know if I have a good answer for you.”
Several former military officials with extensive experience in Afghanistan agreed that a negotiated end to the conflict is both inevitable and desirable. Where some differ with Bolduc is whether the deal that the Qatar talks seem headed toward is the best the United States can get. Had the U.S. accepted a Taliban surrender in late 2001, “maybe it would have concluded on our terms then,” said the retired general who commanded a brigade early in the war. “Now it’s concluding on the Taliban’s terms.”
That may be inevitable at this point, however, according to Bolduc. “This is basically the only option we have left,” he said. “The Taliban will be able to declare their victory … They’ve outlasted us, and they’ve done it very cleverly.”
Like Bolduc, Schloesser knows exactly how many soldiers he lost there. “I’ve got a lot of skin in that game,” said Schloesser, whose son and daughter later served in Afghanistan. “I lost 184 soldiers there.” But Schloesser said that any peace deal with the Taliban should include a U.S. role as “guarantor” of the peace, along with a residual military force to ensure that the Taliban kept their side of the bargain. “It wouldn’t have to be large,” Schloesser said of his proposed stay-behind force. “It could be a couple of thousand” or fewer special operations forces “with a real capability on the ground,” as well as an 800-soldier Army Security Force Assistance Brigade to help train Afghan security forces, he said.
The United States has “a national interest” in the Afghanistan region, Schloesser said. “If we don’t play a role, other countries that are peer competitors to us will,” he added, citing China as an example.
The retired general who commanded a brigade in Afghanistan early in the war agreed that the United States should insist on leaving behind a residual force of several thousand troops combining a counterterrorism-focused special operations task force and an advisory contingent. Like others, he was concerned that by making clear a desire to withdraw militarily as soon as possible, at the same time that the Taliban are enjoying greater battlefield success, the United States would be handing the initiative to its enemies.
The “tentative deal with the Taliban equals ‘cut and run,’” said the retired general officer, who said he lost 18 soldiers in Afghanistan. “The Taliban are negotiating directly with the U.S. from a position of strength. We have no leverage, and we have betrayed the Afghan government.”
He scoffed at the notion that the Taliban would share power with the current Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which has been excluded from the Qatar talks at the insistence of the Taliban. “They’re not going to come back into some power-sharing [role],” he said. “They’re going to take over the government, because the government … is going to fold as soon as the U.S. pulls out, or shortly thereafter.”
Bolduc also doubted the ability of the Afghan security forces to hold their own against the Taliban in the absence of supporting U.S. forces. “The Afghan military can’t win without our airpower right over their shoulder and our guys standing next to them pushing them into the fight,” he said. “They get their asses handed to them every time they fight the Taliban.”
David Petraeus, who led the International Security Assistance Force from June 2010 to June 2011, was even more skeptical regarding the negotiations. “It is very difficult to believe that the Taliban would truly be willing, or able, to prevent reestablishment of a sanctuary” for al-Qaida or the Islamic State, Petraeus wrote in an email. “History would obviously suggest the opposite. And it is even more difficult to believe that the Taliban would accept the tenets of the Afghan Constitution and participate in the democratic system of governance that, however imperfect and flawed, has allowed citizen participation in the election of leaders and also has sought to ensure basic freedoms.”
Seventeen U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in 2018, and three so far this year. There are about 14,000 U.S. troops deployed there, although President Trump has ordered that number halved in the coming months. “Frankly, it seems to me that we should be able to sustain this commitment, given the importance of our policy objectives and the sustainability in terms of the cost,” Petraeus wrote.
But for Bolduc, enough is enough. “We’ve been using a military approach now for 18 years – it hasn’t worked,” he said. “For quite some time now, filling the body bags and hospital beds has not been justified, and nobody is being held accountable for that.”
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