The Onus of Afghanistan


James Hatch is a Special Operations Veteran, the founder of Spike’s K9 Fund, and an Undergraduate at Yale University. 

OPINION — I was in Bethesda Naval Medical Center in July of 2009, when then-Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates visited me. I had, a few days earlier, been wounded in a gunfight in Afghanistan.

Secretary Gates came into my room, looked at my wife, and asked if she was happy with the way I was being treated. After he was satisfied with her answer, he looked at me and asked where I’d been wounded and how long it had taken me to get to a field medical unit. I told him twenty-eight-minutes. He smiled and said “we are trying to make sure that we have field hospitals set up in such a way that no matter where a service-person is wounded in Afghanistan, they can be in a field hospital inside of the “golden hour.”

Secretary Gates was a soft-spoken and intense man, who was very humble and one could surmise that he was very concerned about all of the people who worked for him. To me, he seemed to live that commitment.

My first deployment to Afghanistan was in the Spring of 2005. I did several other deployments there until my last one in 2009. I saw firsthand how hard many Americans, and our allies, worked for Afghanistan. Many of my friends and my beloved dogs were killed in Afghanistan fighting to make that place something better than what it was. Did we make mistakes? Yes. Were we (myself included) arrogant? Yes. But those two errors do not outweigh the massive commitment that we, our allied partners, and the rest of the American people, whether they cared to know about it or not, made for the people of Afghanistan.

When President Biden came out a few weeks ago and announced an immediate pullout from Afghanistan, I agreed with him.

Today, as I see the Taliban in control of Afghanistan, I still agree with the President. Today’s situation saddens me and I have gone through a gamut of emotions regarding the horrors that the Afghans face. I have finally come to the conclusion though, that the onus for this failure is not only on us, the United States but in a greater part, it is on the Afghan people.

As I watched humans holding on to the sides of a U.S. C-17 cargo jet and then falling to their death as it took off, I found myself wondering why that type of commitment wasn’t demonstrated by picking up a rifle and fighting the Taliban?

We spent trillions of US dollars in Afghanistan, and of course, the argument could and should be made, that those dollars were probably not allocated in the best way all the time, but it was still free money to help an entire nation. We fought the Taliban, and we kicked their ass nearly all the time. The Taliban were effective at using civilians to shield themselves, they were ok at ambushes when they used IEDs, but when I visited their strongholds in the middle of the night, they were cowardly creatures who hid behind their wives and children. Yes, they would fight occasionally, but when they did fight us, not on their terms, like the night I was wounded, they sprayed bullets wildly and had no regard for each other or the innocent civilians in their midst.

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The Afghan people were given weapons, vehicles, aircraft, bullets, bombs, and on and on, and when we left, most of them quit. The Afghan people bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for this mess.

They, and we, will live and die with their decision, but for me, it is time to change the focus.

During a recent interview on CNN, I spoke of my desire to see an “after-action-report” on the US decision-making process in Afghanistan over the last twenty years. In the military, after every single mission, we had a debrief where we tore the mission to pieces and talked about every detail we could so that we wouldn’t make similar mistakes in the future. They were often brutal affairs.  Even if the mission was a success, there were always things we could improve upon. I told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that I didn’t think a proper debrief of Afghanistan could be accomplished by congress. I don’t believe that “think tanks” can do it either because they are funded and peopled by politically motivated parties. I believe it needs to be done in academia. I believe that it can be done in academia and guess what?

Shortly after my TV appearance, James Levinsohn, who chairs the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, reached out and he told me he wanted to do the “after-action” and he set the structure for it. He talked Ambassador Anne Patterson, into teaching the course and guiding graduate and undergraduate students through readings and interviews with decision-makers from across the military, civilian and political spectrum.

We need to do everything we can to ensure that we don’t make these same mistakes again. I don’t believe that there has ever been an honest, open, politics-free after-action of any of our wars or conflicts. We owe it to our war dead. We owe it to our gold star families and those who will be forever impacted by the effort we exerted in Afghanistan, to do our absolute best. We owe it to the Afghan people to look honestly at our decisions and their resulting failures. Most importantly, we owe it to the young Americans who now, or who will one day, serve the United States of America in any capacity. They will be the ones paying with their blood for the decisions that our future leaders will make.

The Afghans are responsible for their nation.

We are responsible for ours.

Let us do the painful and necessary debrief, learn the hard lessons, and move on.

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