Leaving Afghanistan Behind

·33 min read
Photo credit: Johannes Eisele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Johannes Eisele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Johannes Eisele - Getty Images
Photo credit: Johannes Eisele - Getty Images

Few wars get clean ends. Some here in America may want that small grace for Afghanistan as surely as some there deserve it, but in this way, war's like life. Being deserving just makes you a target.

It began clean enough. The United States invaded in the weeks after 9/11, at the behest of George W. Bush, to dismantle and destroy the Al Qaeda terrorist group who'd attacked us. We sought something between justice and vengeance. Once Al Qaeda and its Taliban enablers had been defeated, the original mission accomplished, we stayed. Once Osama bin Laden was killed, in neighboring Pakistan, we stayed. We stayed and we stayed and we stayed.

We stayed for democracy at one point, human rights at another. To nation-build, if you believed in counterinsurgency, or to "mow the grass"—a euphemism for killing terrorists that admits doing so will produce more—if you favored counterterrorism.

Somewhere along the way, the war lost public interest and support. Those matter in a republic, though one could be forgiven for getting lulled into thinking otherwise the past twenty years. The war's justification became the war's existence itself, and that's a twisted reason to keep killing people in the name of country, as well as risking the lives of our own.

A ghoul of a question hovered over the rapid Taliban advancement in the summer of 2021: How? How had two decades of blood and treasure left a porous apparatus either unwilling or unable to defend itself? U. S. personnel had tried to build the Afghan security forces in our own image, with a national army and special operations and a core belief that the military can and should do more than engage the enemy on battlefields.

The hubris of it all. In our own image. Hold up a mirror and you may not like what you see.

Even in this shared defeat, we want—we seem to need—to make it about us. So big-brained pontificators and TV squawkers made grand declarations about the ugly withdrawal marking our late-imperial decline. The tail of the American Century, the death knell of star-spangled exceptionalism. The end of something, certainly, and the end of something demands hysterics.

Sometimes, though, tragedy is just tragedy. Sometimes meaning is only more noise.

A tragedy's coda: Thirteen American service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians were killed in the suicide bombing on August 26 at Kabul's airport. It's the bleakest of ironies that those troops who died did so with a moral purpose not seen in the war for some years. They died trying to shepherd strangers to safety, twenty-year-old Marines among the final casualties of a war their same age.

The Afghanistan war's end was brought about by a commander-in-chief who took seriously his pledge to do so. He's a military father, and that may've made the difference. Joe Biden faced down a lot of entrenched institutional forces to follow through, and future historians should credit him that resolve. America's broader "forever war"—an amorphous term, loathed by many national-security experts because it allows regular citizens to understand—continues, but who knows what the Afghanistan withdrawal augurs. Nothing lasts forever, not even forever wars.

Did it have to end like this, though? With allies braving Taliban checkpoints and desperate mobs for the mere chance to get on an airplane? With rawboned U. S. Marines and paratroopers holding the line, gripping cocked rifles in one hand and reaching for Afghan babies with the other, all under the constant threat of another bombing?

It did not. Anyone who says differently either has bought a political lie or is selling the same. We have our eyes and basic sense, if we're willing to use them. One hard truth is that no matter what, some allies would've been left behind. Another is that the logistical marvel of evacuating more than 120,000 people in a month's time does not atone for the lack of planning that necessitated the feat.

The U. S. Air Force rescued human beings in Kabul. It did not rescue talking points for the Biden administration.

Americans found strength after 9/11 by saying "never forget." Now, with Afghanistan, a lot of people will try their damnedest to, because what happened—what's still happening—hurts and disgusts, shames and frightens. Still others will attempt to warp what occurred for reasons far more cynical than avoidance.

We must seek to wrest some truth while we can. To know truth, one must first find it, and finding truth is much harder than just alluding to it. Six lives and stories shaped by the Afghanistan war follow. They are not comprehensive. They represent distinct perspectives and time frames and motivations. Wars, especially ones that last as long as Afghanistan's, defy coherence. When placed alongside and in contrast with one another, perhaps these experiences bring readers closer to what it all was and will continue to be.

The American war in Afghanistan has ended. Now begins the war over its memory.

The General

They called him King David, once upon a time. The thinking man's general who would save both the war in Afghanistan and America's pride.

For good or ill, it's impossible to reckon with the war on terror without examining the legacy of David Petraeus. Petraeus is one of its few generals who breached public consciousness. He's sixty-eight now, retired from the military but still carrying and conducting himself like a wartime commander. It's probably hard to stop being a general, in fairness.

I find him sitting alone in a corner of the Metropolitan Club's penthouse bar, in a crisp banker's suit, hunched over his phone. This private social club maintains an old-society presence off Central Park, a sanctuary for New York's elite for generations. We meet a few weeks before Kabul's fall, as the withdrawal from Afghanistan begins in earnest.

"This is not going to end the endless war. It's going to end our involvement in it," Petraeus says. "I fear that the endless war is actually going to get worse."

He goes on to cite those fears, some of them prescient: An Afghan civil war. A refugee crisis. A safe haven for radical jihadism to flourish. He's professorial and didactic in his delivery; it's not hard to see why then president Bush turned to him after the failed bluster of Donald Rumsfeld and friends, or later why then president Obama tapped him to try to salvage the Afghanistan campaign. But as ever, the question with Petraeus's counterinsurgency pitch is time. How much longer would the long war—the longest war—need to be?

"It's a generational challenge," Petraeus says; we "should not define it with decades, much less a few years . . . . You just have to keep at it."

Photo credit: Malike Sidibe
Photo credit: Malike Sidibe

COIN—the pithy abbreviation for counterinsurgency—has aged like milk. At its plainest, the strategy seeks to separate insurgent guerrillas from the population that produced them. Petraeus's version involved a lot of money and messy compromise and, again, too much time. America changes its governments, and different governments will have different ideas on war and peace. But for all the cash COIN required to turn insurgents into nominal allies, for all its overcooked hearts-and-minds practices, parts of it worked. I was there, in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, as a young officer, when COIN brought calm to a people desperate for it.

I should disclose here I still have mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. That calm was real, as was the ability to bring home alive every soldier in my scout platoon. But we bribed the hell out of tribal leaders. That was dirty. And the relief our actions brought proved temporary. Even then, we feared it couldn't last without American soldiers on every neighborhood corner. Lo and behold, a few years after we left, ISIS claimed much of Iraq as part of its caliphate.

When Petraeus assumed command of the Afghanistan war in 2010, a year after the troop surge began there, the dream was to replicate that calm. This included doubling down on building the national army in the American military's likeness. A national army meant that soldiers of various Afghan ethnic groups would invariably serve in regions populated by other groups, no minor thing in a tribal society. So Pashtun farmers in Helmand Province were pitched on the wisdom of burning their poppy fields by armed outsiders, be they a grizzled sergeant from Atlanta or an ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley.

Four hundred ninety-eight U. S. troops were killed in 2010, the deadliest year of the war for America—a gruesome by-product of COIN's mandate to push into remote areas. An additional 411 were killed in 2011. Estimates for Afghan security casualties range wildly, but a 2013 examination determined that more than 60 percent of their losses since the war began had occurred in just the three preceding years.

The bodies outpaced the gains. So the war outlasted COIN; Obama announced a troop drawdown in the summer of 2011, and the Afghanistan surge ended the following year. By then, King David had returned home and become director of the CIA.


This article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of Esquire. Subscribe to Esquire Select and get every issue of the magazine.

A decade later, in the Metropolitan Club, the details still nip at Petraeus: The public's expectation that COIN could serve as a one-size-fits-all panacea, despite the many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. The domestic political considerations that led Obama to announce the drawdown, which, in the retired general's view, emboldened the enemy. And then there's what he refers to as inputs: "Not only the right number of forces . . . the right big ideas, the right leaders, the right other resources, from diplomatic contributions, aid development, intelligence, various international efforts. It took us fully ten years to get all that right."

Recalling what went well, ruminating over the what-ifs: Petraeus is like any old soldier in this regard. Though, of course, he's not any old soldier. He was the HMFIC—the head motherfucker in charge. I try a few times to interject, but he is a forever general, and I am a forever junior captain, at least in the confines of the Metropolitan Club. He points out that both his son and his daughter-­in-law served in Afghanistan. He's not unfamiliar with the impossible demands COIN places on young leaders.

His next appointment arrives. I think to hell with it and ask what every veteran through the eons has probably wanted to ask their former commander. Does he have any regrets? Is there anything from the war that keeps him up at night?

For two, maybe three seconds, Petraeus seems almost shaken.

"I'll never forget," he begins, "we had Apache gunships on patrol in eastern Afghanistan, a very mountainous area, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning. Through their thermals, they thought they saw men with rifles. We did a lot of checking, there were no friendlies around, so, 'Okay, we've got to engage them. They’re hostile.' " His voice holds steady. "They were teenage boys collecting sticks for construction."

The regret expressed is of a tactical variety, not a strategic decision. Still, I think, it's a genuine response.

He pauses. "I mean, we're supposed to be protecting the people."

The Sniper

Nicholas Irving conveys the seriousness of a man who's traveled to the edge. He served in the U. S. Army for six years, all with the prestigious 3rd Ranger Battalion. He deployed to combat six times, three tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some folks still know him as the Reaper. It's a nickname he earned when, as a direct-action sniper in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, he killed thirty-three enemy insurgents, with a dozen more "probables," he says. "We just never found the bodies."

That was in 2009, back when Afghanistan was the other war, the forgotten one, perhaps best evidenced by then joint chiefs chairman Admiral Michael Mullen saying, "In Iraq, we do what we must," while "in Afghanistan, we do what we can."

Irving is not a vet-bro trying to peddle a product like some public-facing operator types. Want to hear about the machinations of Hollywood, where he sometimes works as a consultant on action films? He'll tell you. Want to know what killing people is like, or what watching a friend bleed out will take from a person? He'll tell you about that, too.

"We got ambushed," he says, describing a 2009 firefight in southern Afghanistan. "The ground opened up with fire; it was weird. We jumped headfirst into this ravine and started fighting from there. My friend, Corporal Benjamin Kopp, got hit first, in his femoral artery. And I remember the blood and stuff flowing down the river." He turned to his platoon leader, saying, "We need to move; we need to get to the safe haven." As Irving spoke, his PL got shot in the chest. "A splash of water hit my face. But it wasn't water; it was his blood." The PL survived. Corporal Kopp did not. The gun battle lasted for twelve hours; after beginning the mission with 210 rounds of ammunition, Irving says he had six bullets left. "A crazy, crazy day," he says.

Photo credit: Malike Sidibe
Photo credit: Malike Sidibe

I'll admit it: Irving surprised me. I didn't anticipate the Reaper, a bona fide snatcher of souls, to make an impassioned anti-war statement.

But he did.

It's late June when we speak, so the withdrawal is still a matter of why, not how. At his home in San Antonio, Irving, thirty-four, says he supports it "100 percent . . . . My stance is completely different than it was. What's changed for me is nothing's changed over there. We got bin Laden a long time ago.

"It's watching young guys go over there and do the same thing I was doing. The whole purpose of us going was so they wouldn't have to," he says.

We discuss various divides in contemporary America. As a Black man who served in the predominantly white special-operations community, Irving knows those divisions all too well. "You had a few guys who were flat-out racist, legit about it," he says. A couple times, fellow Rangers called him the n-word. "On the shooting range, people had this assumption that I might be really good at drive-bys." He "would usually just outshoot them" to shut them up.

There's a through line from Afghanistan to now, as Irving sees it. He has a hard time understanding why fellow military veterans insist on being at the forefront of some of these divides—the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, for example, when Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer while climbing through a window in a barricaded door. "It's just way too much fighting," he says. "You got to get tired of it at some point."

Irving left the Army in 2010. Life initially lacked the structure and purpose he'd relied upon in the Rangers. Post-traumatic stress shadowed him, and he struggled with alcohol. He returned to war as a contractor because he missed the life.

He credits the birth of his son, in 2016, with saving him from a spiral of violence and depression. "Everything changed," he says. "I stopped drinking, started reading more philosophy. I didn't intend for it to happen, it just did, and I realized how much better it is to be in a settled state of mind . . . to not be paranoid and angry all the time."

Every old soldier with children knows the conversations that await. About killing and death and culpability and so much more. Irving is ironclad about how he'll handle it.

"I don't have a bad taste in my mouth from the military," he says. "But I would not let my son go. I would not let my son join the military, at all, in any capacity."

The Marine

Yes, the Afghanistan war involved strategic gambits. Yes, it involved turning men to pink mist through a sniper's scope. It also contained the jagged dimensionalities of life lived between briefings and firefights, where people from starkly different backgrounds learned to work together and trust in the pursuit of shared victory and peace.

"There's some things you can only solve with violence. We have to have an edge and be willing to use it," says a Marines field-grade officer I'll call Leila. We're speaking a couple weeks before the Taliban return to power, but it's a matter of when at this point, not if. "There was duality, though. There's so much beauty in Afghanistan, between the mountains and valleys. And the people, too. They're survivors. I learned so much from them. I feel a lot of gratitude for the time that I got to spend there, in spite of the tragedy."

Leila is in her late thirties, a senior staff officer devoted to supporting and developing the next generation of Marine Raiders. She agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, both because she's still on active duty with MARSOC (Marine Forces Special Operations Command) and because, by her own admission, she's still figuring out exactly how she feels about the war.

Leila served in Afghanistan four times, in 2010, in '12, from '13 to '14, and most recently from '20 to '21. She spent thirty-four months there, the vast chunk of it in Helmand Province. COIN, counterterror, advise-and-assist: Leila did it all. Tracing her career is like wandering the maze of our post-9/11 campaigns, even if they seemed to always return her to Helmand.

Photo credit: Malike Sidibe
Photo credit: Malike Sidibe

One of the most visceral moments of Leila's life happened on her second tour there, shortly after surviving a bombing. "Our MRAP"—mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle—"struck an IED; the front was completely destroyed," she says. "The speed of the explosion was really shocking. Everything slows down, and your training kicks in. All your senses are heightened." Two hours later, back at the compound they were using as a base, an Afghan ally prepared a meal, "this amazing mixture of okra and tomatoes with fresh bread," Leila says. "My lip was busted. It was hard to chew. Still, the best food I've ever eaten in my life. That's just part of the duality between the war and the beautiful aspects of the culture and the landscape that can get lost."

Anecdotally, I've found that spec-ops types feel better about their experiences than veterans of conventional units. The why seems obvious enough. Midnight raids from the holy above to find enemies with blood on their hands bring clarity. Clarity matters in war. Clarity is purpose renewed. Leila has served in both types of units. Her understanding of the conflict transcends the typical keyhole perspectives.

Post-COIN, the already heavy burden on special operations increased, kill-or-capture raids and improvements in the quality of local security elements their twin focuses. Like many who deployed with special-operations forces during these years, Leila is adamant that she saw real progress, both on the battlefield and in political reconciliation efforts. The notions of the American public regarding Afghanistan may have already set, but the war ground on, both through night-vision green and from the splintered clouds overhead—an eightfold increase of bombs and air strikes occurred between 2015 and 2019, topping off at about twenty a day.

Another formative war story comes from Leila's third deployment, when she befriended and mentored a young Afghan officer named Obaid. "Our Afghan partners . . . were pretty much operating independently. They were only using us if they needed air support or QRF"—quick reaction force—Leila says. "This was a huge step."

Afghan commandos such as Obaid came from all over the country, from every ethnic group and tribe. They were elite and, like their American counterparts, the proven best. Mass-­producing such people for an entire national army may well have taken the decades Petraeus suggested. As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, a lot of government security forces laid down their weapons without firing a shot, but some did choose to fight, and fought well. Many of this set belonged to commando units. Early reports indicate a developing resistance among these units to the new regime.

Obaid will not be among them. Six months after Leila redeployed to the States, he was killed by a sniper while helping to retake a district center from the Taliban. "He had a wife and two-year-old daughter somewhere," she says. "I don't know what happened to them."

Unlike most of the approximately eight hundred thousand Americans who served in Afghanistan, Leila was able to say goodbye to both the war and the country. Having deployed in 2020 as part of an advisory task force—no more night foot patrols, no more trips to countryside bazaars—the end seemed very much near. While waiting on the tarmac in Helmand, she tried to make sense of it all.

"It was sad to leave," Leila says carefully. She's still on active duty, after all. "However things play out, we did the best we could with the resources we had and the time we had it." She sighs. Leila spent a professional lifetime fighting America's post-9/11 wars. She represents a generation of service members in this way. What of victory? What of peace?

"Mixed feelings, I guess."

The Interpreter

Khalil Arab is a man caught between. He's between his old life left behind and a new one across the sea. He's between war and peace, that strange, ambered state that's trapped many a seeker over the centuries. He's between tragedy and good fortune, having escaped militants who wanted him dead while so many others did not escape, nor will. More than anything, he tells me, he's lucky—and grateful—to be in America on a special immigrant visa, available to Afghans who worked for U. S. forces and whose lives became threatened as a result. He says so again and again.

But that doesn't mean he's had it easy.

"I feel responsible," Arab says, from the apartment in Houston he shares with his brother. We're discussing his family in Afghanistan and the many ramifications his work for America some years ago had on them, and may still. "I felt it was the right thing. But because of the toll that it took, if I could go back in time, having to make the same decision again, I wouldn't."

Like many involved with this war, Arab, thirty-­five, is facing down the relentlessness of the past mostly by himself. There's a quiet melancholy to him, one I hear over Zoom in the dead of July, as the Taliban swirl across uncontested rural pockets of Afghanistan.

"There's this old song about a bird who is kept in a golden cage. 'A cage is a cage / Even though it’s a golden one,' " he says. "I think this is a very interesting analogy for all who are displaced, not just Afghans."

Photo credit: Malike Sidibe
Photo credit: Malike Sidibe

Born and raised in Herat, an ancient trading city along the Silk Road in northwestern Afghanistan, Arab, then a teen, watched the initial air strikes of the 2001 invasion from neighborhood rooftops. "Seeing the rockets actually hit the targets, the Taliban strongholds, it was a moment of jubilee," he says. "It was not just destruction but the promise to a new future." He began his career as an interpreter for police contractors a couple years later at Herat's Regional Training Center, helping to mold a modern security force for a new Afghanistan. "I never worked for the forces that fought on the front line," Arab says. "Most terps"—short for interpreters—"didn't. But it was never an easy job. It was always dangerous. It always came with a price tag."

In 2010, while working as an interpreter for the Guardia di Finanza, an Italian unit that specializes in counter–drug trafficking, Arab received a letter from the Taliban. They claimed he'd violated sharia law, and they made vague references to earthly and eternal punishments. Everyone in Herat knew such letters weren't empty gestures. The Taliban did not make those.

Somehow, at the height of the American occupation, home was now the most dangerous place in the world for Arab to be.

His father found the letter in their courtyard on his way to the mosque. By sheer luck, Arab was on leave, backpacking through India. He stayed put and he stayed away. A vagabond decade spent bouncing around Asia and Europe followed. In 2013, he began applying for a small but expanding American program—the special immigrant visa, or SIV. Then he waited. And waited. He waited until late 2019, when he finally boarded a flight to the United States, approved packet in hand.

Arab wants to become a citizen so he can vote, and he speaks with amazement about the First Amendment. He's religiously agnostic, so the old devout Muslim in him has no problem raving about nearby Pinkerton's Barbecue. "I could make it as a vegetarian in Europe," he says. "Not in Texas." He and his brother—also an SIV recipient—have plans for their own trucking company.

Arab and I keep in touch through the summer, as the Taliban advance across Afghanistan. Zaranj falls. Then Kunduz. Then goes Herat, albeit not without a fight; unlike in some other areas, its security forces fought back, Arab says with pride. "Three hundred Taliban dead," he says. "That's what people are saying to each other for strength."

While Arab's family in Afghanistan relocates within the country to avoid identification, he struggles with what to do with himself. He's devoted many months to human-rights organizations as a volunteer SIV advocate. Now what? He doesn't know what to do with this sense of helplessness. He goes on long drives just to get out of his apartment, trips to nowhere through the sprawl of Texas.

"It's been an absolute nightmare," he says. "We had the time to do this right, to get people out. In April. In May. Now good people will die."

This is not notional for Arab. The wife of his brother in Houston has been waiting years for an interview for her sponsored visa. It was pushed back many times due to scheduling conflicts, bureaucratic inertia, the pandemic. The very day the Taliban enter Kabul, the American Embassy reaches out to say they've expedited her request. But she lives on the other side of Afghanistan. She travels four hundred miles through Taliban checkpoints to the capital to try to claim her place on an evacuating aircraft. She's refused entry some days. She's forced from the chaotic mob surrounding Kabul's airport other days. But then, near the end of it all, Arab's brothers who remain in Afghanistan use brute strength to push her through to an American government contact, who in turn gets her on a plane. She's soon to reunite with her husband.

Arab's not sure he'll ever see his parents again. Getting hold of them proves trickier by the day. He suspects the Taliban are messing with the Internet and telephone lines. I ask another question about that, but his mind keeps drifting, to the choices of the past, to the other interpreters he knew and befriended who didn't get out. To the unlucky ones.

"We had the time," he says again.

The Lieutenant

Otis Hatfield was four on 9/11. He grew up in lower Manhattan, ten minutes from the World Trade Center, and vaguely remembers being evacuated, rushing uptown with his mother, turning to take in the burning towers. "I don't know how many of those images are real or built in after the fact," he says. "But the aftermath in the neighborhood lasted for years."

Hatfield, now twenty-four, belongs to a new generation of Americans who've only known their country at war. What that means on the macro belongs to the sociologists, but for Hatfield it helped inspire a sense of duty. He wanted to become a soldier. He started building scale models of epic World War II battles in his bedroom. In middle school, he became a "COIN obsessive," reading General Petraeus's counterinsurgency manual while his friends absorbed Harry Potter.

His parents, an art dealer and a museum director, didn't dissuade their only child from this dream, but they also didn't know what to do with it. In 2010—not that long ago, or a lifetime back, depending—they sought an after-school tutor for their coltish son. I sent my CV. His mom replied, explaining that, yes, they needed a tutor, but more than that they wanted a mentor who might speak about war in a way that didn't glorify it. Could I do that, too?

Photo credit: Malike Sidibe
Photo credit: Malike Sidibe

I agreed. Yet I still wonder: Is there a way a man can tell a boy about the ruin of conflict that won't feed fascination? Is there a way an adult can tell a child about the mistakes of the past that won't be absorbed into the conviction of a wiser tomorrow?

This past August, Lieutenant Otis Hatfield, infantry platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division, returned home from Afghanistan, a newly minted veteran. Two decades' worth of American soldiers have made this dizzying odyssey, and he's among the very last. Did he get the war he wanted?

Does anyone?

"I don't really remember what I expected," he says with a shrug. "Wasn't what went down, I know that."

They arrived at Kandahar Airfield last November, just after the American election. Sure, the president-elect had campaigned on ending the war. But so had both his immediate predecessors. The war had been there most of Hatfield's life, a distant proving ground as certain as the sun. Why would it go anywhere, especially now that he'd finally gotten to it?

Hatfield and his platoon conducted one patrol before word came down: No more of those. About half his soldiers then received orders home, only a few weeks after they'd arrived. Hatfield got sent to Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, where an operations-center officer was needed. Six months of staff life followed. While it may not have been what an eager infantry lieutenant desires, it allowed him a direct view of the machinations of the withdrawal.

"Retrograde," he corrects me, a few times, using the official military term for our departure.

Hatfield was part of the quiet extraction in the dead of night from Bagram Airfield in July. He spent a few weeks in Kuwait at Camp Buehring, a sort of halfway house between war and civilization through which an entire generation of American service members passed on their way home. Every soldier there, Hatfield included, watched through phone screens as the country they'd just departed got captured by militants in beat-up Toyota pickups.

In Kuwait, "there were occasional arguments about the war, about what our role was," Hatfield says. "It was a lot to process . . . . I don't know who's looking for it, but somebody is looking for a sense of closure over this conflict. They're conceptualizing modern warfare in a way that hasn't reflected the reality in a long time."

Elements of the 10th Mountain Division helped secure the Kabul airport during the evacuations—Hatfield's friends and colleagues. If not for the manifest fates, Otis and his men could well have been there, too, through the madness of the visa checkpoints. They could well have been there for the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate. In the wake of this tragedy, Hatfield sends word that he's no longer sure about his participation in this interview. He feels he didn't see enough of the war to say anything worthwhile. He wants the focus to be on the fallen.

I talk him down. His perspective transcends any phase of this war. His confusion is that of an honest young man trying to reason with the impossible, and that's as ubiquitous to armed conflict as any weapon or tactic.

Hatfield's now at Fort Drum, in western New York, adjusting to life as a garrison leader. He's trying to square the messy past with the present and future at once. He's spending his leave days with his parents and his nights with old friends, most of whom work in art or media and have no idea how to even ask about Afghanistan. He's glad they don't. "I don't have the emotional space yet," he says.

And then what? This isn't a question only for Lieutenant Otis Hatfield but for the U. S. military as a whole. "Near-peer" adversaries like Russia and China necessitate a shift back to the sort of large-scale operational training employed during the cold war. What's old is new again.

Still, Hatfield hopes the past two decades maintain some relevance.

"Being pro-COIN now is kind of inflammatory, but it gets something about today's world," he says. "Nowadays everybody with an Internet connection participates in conflict. Anyone with an Internet connection writes the narrative of war."

The Afghan

Kabul sits in a narrow, dusty bowl in eastern Afghanistan, surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains. Humans began settling the area before the Bronze Age, and more than 4.3 million people now call it home. Kabul has served as an economic center for centuries and a political one at least since the second emir of the Durrani Empire moved his court there in 1776 to better quash revolt.

The British Empire fought three wars in Afghanistan, using Kabul as a base of operations in the first two and as a bombing target in the third. Later, during Soviet occupation, Red Army headquarters perched itself in Kabul. Then, in the new millennium, came a new foreign power, which stayed for twenty years.

The Taliban (re-)claimed Kabul in mid-August, a fait accompli even before their vanguard reached the city's outskirts. Momentum is a force no clever government spokesperson has ever been able to stop. In about ten days, from the toppling of Zaranj to the fall of Kabul, the theoretical became the inevitable for soldiers and citizens alike.

Farkhonda, twenty-four, was born southwest of the capital, in Ghazni, and as a toddler in early 2001 moved with her family to Kabul. (She asked that her full name be withheld to protect her identity.) We talk and text over the week following Kabul's seizure.

Photo credit: Rohoullah
Photo credit: Rohoullah

She says she couldn't sleep the night the Taliban entered her city. It was too eerie, bouts of deep stillness punctured by fits of gunfire and sirens. "The gunshots might not be Taliban," she says. "The gangs are using this as an opportunity." And the helicopters: Americans and well-connected Afghans fleeing the war through the clouds.

Farkhonda is part of a generation of young Afghans raised in a post-Taliban country, believing in the ideas of freedom and democracy they've learned from an early age. The American invasion didn't bring only soldiers to Afghanistan, after all—it brought aid workers and entrepreneurs and teachers, too. While attending university, Farkhonda took advanced English lessons and landed an internship with a consulting firm. After she graduated, the company hired her as a researcher. She met her husband, a programmer, while working with him on a development project.

This is the flip side of the forever war, the one that gives instead of takes, one many Americans—and I count myself among this number—tend not to consider when bandying about that term. For the vast majority of Farkhonda's conscious existence, she's lived in an open-ish society, where a young woman could study and work and dream. Was all of Afghanistan like this the past twenty years? No. But hers was.

Farkhonda says America's withdrawal began to feel real "in the last three months . . . . The situation got tenser," she says, "and then the war spread everywhere." As militants captured one province, then another, she noticed an influx of displaced people to Kabul. She still describes the Afghan security forces in the present tense. "But after that"—within forty-eight hours, in fact—"was Kandahar and then Mazar-i-Sharif, and I knew everything was going to fall apart." That was just one day before we first speak. "It all happened so rapidly."

Farkhonda is angry, not with the U. S. government—on the record, at least—but with her own. She feels betrayed in particular by Ashraf Ghani, the democratically elected president whose flight from the country with a reported $169 million in cash birthed a denial and countless conspiracy theories, as Ghani is Pashtun, the same ethnic group that fills most of the Taliban ranks.

Fear now reigns in Kabul, she says: "Almost every shop is closed, even the bakeries. You do not see a single woman on the streets." Some of her neighbors started burning their books, but Farkhonda couldn't bring herself to do that—"not yet," she says—so she and her husband spent the better part of that morning hiding theirs. She held on to important work papers, too—a small gesture of hope for normalcy. They scrubbed their phones and removed the art from their walls. Not everyone in the family is taking such precautions. "For my parents and my mother-in-law, it's not very worrying, actually, because it won't change their lives much," Farkhonda says. "My father is a doctor; even with the Taliban in Kabul, he'll still practice as a doctor. My older brothers-in-law are shopkeepers; they have jobs that won't put their lives in danger."

She thinks her parents' tempered attitude might come from having "been through maybe worse"—the Taliban's first reign and the Soviet and U. S. occupations—"or maybe they have sort of accepted this destiny for Afghanistan. I don't know. But it's not acceptable for us. We want something different."

She and her husband are ineligible for SIVs, as they didn't work for a U. S. government entity. So they've applied to as many immigration programs as they can and have packed go bags in case one miraculously comes through. And if the legal routes to leaving don't pan out, that won't stop them from trying. I ask what she thinks will come next. "Honestly, I have no idea," she says. But she knows her objective. "Primarily, we have to get out of Afghanistan."

Despite all the tumult, despite the collapse of most everything she's ever known, she says she's still drawing strength from her favorite literary passage, ascribed to the thirteenth-century poet Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I'll meet you there.

Where the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Writer's note: As this story went to print, I received word that both Farkhonda and her husband succeeded in getting out of Afghanistan and to safety.

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