Afghanistan Realities

Jason Criss Howk

16 October 2022

Kabul 2002

“Everyone in this war has blood on their hands”

-Sir Graeme Lamb

While working to jumpstart the Afghan peace process in 2009, retired LtGen Lamb mentioned the idea above to me as we were traveling together. I have thought about it many times over the last decade plus. It has many meanings to me. Obviously, all the combatants in the war have caused bloodshed. Both the NATO coalition, the ANDSF and their partners killed tens of thousands of their enemies and unfortunately accidentally harmed Afghans. The Pakistani-backed terrorist and militia groups murdered tens of thousands of Afghans (both innocent citizens and security members) and less occasionally killed NATO forces.

The Afghan people also had blood on their hands. Too many Afghans lost their family members to the war. Some Afghans even supported the terrorists that were attempting to retake control of the country and force the elected government to fall apart. Other Afghans chose to squabble among themselves from 2001-2021 instead of putting their energy towards strengthening their nation’s sovereignty and thinking about the future after NATO left.

The nation is still dripping with blood today as the Taliban-Haqqani terror regime systematically works every day to find and murder anyone they see as an enemy of their Khawarij beliefs (violent Islamist supremacy). In certain cases, those terror efforts border on genocidal behavior. One thing is clear to the Afghan people abandoned by the world to live as hostages under a terrorist regime, the bleeding–the war, is far from over.

I have been writing and speaking about the War in Afghanistan since 2002; my views have evolved over that time period. They will continue to evolve as new information comes to my attention. I wanted to gather some of my reflections today on what lies ahead for both the Afghan people and the veterans of this war, a war that is likely the longest in their memory.

Afghans must move forward

I truly believe the Afghan people were betrayed by Pakistan and their puppet terrorists, the NATO coalition, many businesses—that have now lost interest when times are harder, the international diplomatic community, and the leaders inside the Afghan government. Many of these groups and people made promises to rebuild the nation and to bring security. Those promises remain unkept. In the case of Pakistan and their terrorist partners, the betrayal was likely unforgiveable. That group aimed to stop the Afghan people from knowing peace. Pakistan betrayed the NATO coalition for over 20 years and paid no penalty for that treachery, this is a disloyalty that angers some the most.

It does little good for Afghans to focus on the people who broke their promises at this point.

The national leaders of the NATO coalition have made their mistakes for 20 years, and in the end, they tired of their work in Afghanistan. They will not be brought to any kind of justice for getting bored of the war. The NATO coalition spent massive amounts of resources, and sacrificed thousands of lives to try to help Afghans. In the end it was not enough, but equally to blame, the Afghan people did not do enough to partner with the world that had come to help. Partnership goes both ways in war and peace, the bond was not tight enough and the enemy was able to break the partnership.

The hundreds of Afghan leaders that failed to create a solid nation hold much of the blame for the catastrophes in this war effort, but they also did not always have full control. What they did control they did not manage well. They failed to build strong relations with other nations. They failed to find a way to make peace with Pakistan so the Pakistani security sector would stop their support for terrorism in Afghanistan.

ALL these failures are known. People can (and will) earn a PhD cataloging the failures. But no amount of blame-casting is going to feed Afghans this winter or protect them from the deadly weather, and deadlier terrorist regime that is holding them as hostages to gain international recognition as a government.

The reality is that Afghans must find some ideas that they can unite behind. They must find some political-level anti-terrorism leaders they can rally behind. Afghans must stop fighting each other and learn how to fight their enemies. This will likely require some sort of global council, like a government-in-exile, that can serve as an organizing body to help get Afghans around the world and in their nation moving in roughly the same direction.

Debate will be needed, but it cannot be endless. Never-ending talking and slow action has caused the situation that exists today—the terrorists talked and fought at the same time, and that gave them the edge. Afghans can learn from their enemies and the Pakistani strategy to divide and conquer Afghans.

Afghans must take actions to get the proper humanitarian, education, and development funding to their people. This is something the terrorists have little interest in. It is an area that Afghans who believe in human rights for all can agree upon.

Getting past the trauma of being betrayed and abandoned to fight the largest terrorist force in South Asia will not be easy, but Afghans will need to learn to trust again, and find the friends that will back their efforts to eject the terrorists from Kabul and the provinces (either defeat them diplomatically or militarily). The Afghan people lost a golden opportunity to unify and build their nation when the world was focused on them for 20 years. It will be harder now but not impossible. The Afghan children deserve the hard work that is going to required of Afghan adults right now.

This was a group failure—BUT No nation is coming to save Afghans. No one.

Only Afghans can save themselves now.

Afghans can either splinter and plea for help, or get to work. The world has moved-on for the most part. A few allies exist, but they cannot do the work for Afghans. They can only help from the sidelines while Afghans form a young new team and change their future.

What of the at-risk Afghans trying to get out? There is not much help available any more.

SIVs, those who signed a contact with other nations to trade their work with foreign nations for a visa to settle abroad—they will not all be cared for. Most nations are far behind on helping Afghans who earned visas. This will not get better with time. The politicians and bureaucrats deciding how fast the visa process will occur are not overly interested in making this successful. In some nations like the US, the President himself is not very interested in keeping this promise…that trickles down into the government and means that no one will stand-up to their bosses and make this promise mean something. Afghans who think they have a path to new citizenship elsewhere, should not get their hopes up that they will ever do so.

ANDSF: The forces who bled the most for their nation, over 70,000 fallen and thousands more wounded and injured, will also have to fend for themselves. No nation is interested in helping these Afghan patriots to leave their homeland. No one is capable of protecting them from deadly retribution by the terrorist regime. No senior ANDSF leaders seem to be working to protect them either, although some are trying to find money to help feed them and find them shelter. Short of joining one of the Afghan oppositions groups to continue to fight the Taliban-Haqqani terrorists, these men and women are left on their own to stay safe and feed their families.

Other refugees such as P1 and P2 visa seekers are finding it harder to get out of the country and to find sponsorship abroad. The assistance mechanisms to support these people are running out of steam and money. Short of an unforeseen shift in global focus, again this group had better plan to find a way to stay safe and exist in Afghanistan. Those already in the process and outside the country should brace for a long journey. No one that is trying to speed up this system is finding any success.

As those Afghans in diaspora find themselves feeling more of an outsider to their home country they will slowly need to focus on life in their new nations. If they are not used now to help provide diplomatic opposition to the Taliban-Haqqani regime, and to set up humanitarian mechanisms to help Afghans, they will be a lost resource. I know many of the leaders that left Afghanistan are not seen in a favorable light by Afghans, but some of them can still play a positive role. Others clearly need to retire and stop causing anger among the Afghan people…some sins won’t be forgiven.

This is the moment, both inside and outside Afghanistan, for the younger generation that was educated from 2001-2021 to take the reins from the older failed leaders and forge a new path for the nation. That is a lot of weight to put on young shoulders, but that is the reality.

Afghan War Veterans are NOT Victims and still have work to do

The military and civilian veterans of the longest major war of recent history sacrificed a lot for the Afghan people and they are changed by this service. These veterans are now many things in society, but they are not victims. They are stronger from this service, even if they carry hidden and visible scars and wounds. Finding out where you were made stronger is your task.

Almost everyone that entered the country did so as a volunteer. Continue that volunteer spirit to keep serving others.

The war policymakers in all the various NATO capitals made the final decisions about how the war would be fought, and when the war would end. Those senior civilian leaders, in the end, betrayed their security promises to the Afghan people. The Afghan government collapsed and the NATO nations did little to stop it. The policymakers decided when they wanted to end the war efforts and remove our forces. I do not want veterans to think that they were betrayed by their uniformed military leaders, the decision to start and end wars does not come from generals, it comes from civilian elected leaders. You, like me, might be angry with your elected leaders about their mishandling of the war policy, their failure to keep their promises to Afghans and their failure to end the war wisely and honorably, but that is how our political system works.

Veterans face many of the same options that Afghans do now. Do you stew in your anger and cast blame on others, or do you move forward and find a new way to contribute?

I hope you choose to find new ways to make the world a better place. Take care of your family and friends. Find charities that are helping Afghans or veterans and get involved. Educate the American people about the war effort and what they can do to make a difference. Study the lessons of the war and do something positive with them. I was raised by Vietnam Veterans and read all their books when they finally started writing about the war—books from 4-star officers down to privates who served one tour. It was an education activity and likely a therapy of sorts for that cohort, it can be for you too.

This is a time for unity of purpose, to bring veterans of all rank and service together to come out of this war better than we can by ourselves. I have vented a lot over the last 18 months, likely I offended some in that healing process, but I am trying to bring veterans together for the rest of my life on earth. I apologize to anyone that felt slighted by my words, my intention was not to hinder your journey through this.

Your View on Afghanistan is not the only one

As someone who talks to Afghans and allies of Afghans daily, and lots of active-duty leaders and veterans, one thing is crystal clear. We all have different views on the war and the nation and the way ahead. That is normal and healthy.

Those different views can be used positively to help us find a path to a better place for Afghans and veterans. They can be misused by those who seek to divide Afghans and keep them from finding peace. They can be misused by folks that want to treat the military as a political toy, but these are lives not a means to get votes.

Think about your views. Listen to other views. Give a little where you can to help make things better. Stand strong where you must to make things just.

I am much wiser from listening to other people share about their experiences.

The worst thing you can do is blindly defend your views without listening to others and letting others challenge your ideas.

We Veterans Get to Write the History too

Note- for General Officers and Flag Officers (GOFOs)—we understand that 3 and 4 stars have a special place in society and must be very careful. Those who served under Trump and Biden will likely choose to hold back for now, as all of their words will be misused for political games in the next couple elections—but you owe it to yourselves and your people to tell your story one day. I am happy so many senior leaders are working behind the scenes to help.

Other generals from the last 20 years have much more leeway to help shape the narrative—please do so. Your soldiers are watching and reading, they want to know your perspective and how you are using this experience to grow. They want to know you are facing challenges too and that you found a path to better yourself. Without being political, generals can really help speed up the process of healing and acceptance.

What can we do so that historians, with no understanding of the war, don’t get to write an alternate version of what just happened?

Talk to the Press

Veterans should be writing and speaking about this experience so that others can learn from you. What you say or do might save a life or help jump start a new career. Continue to be a mentor to those around you and to inform the citizens of this country about what we did.

Talk to your community

Find speaking venues outside of the press to engage directly with your friends and family and community. They still do not understand what we were doing for 20 years. This is the moment to explain it and to answer their questions.

Write and publish

Tell your story in printed word. Every war brings a new generation of story-tellers to our nation. Put your words on paper and share them. It is easier than ever to write an article or write a book and publish it. If you cannot find a magazine or book publisher to print your story, do it yourself on a blog or via Amazon. I help veterans and Afghans write and publish; I can see how much it helps them. Don’t write for money, just write to get your thoughts out of your head and to share as much as you would like with others.

Communications was our Achilles heel in the Afghan war, don’t let it be our weakness in peace.

Almost every path forward towards peace and safety involves talking to others and finding common ground. Start the journey.

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