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Do Not Forget Afghanistan

As the U.S. departure looms, we must honor our troops’ service and sacrifice—and the Afghan allies who stood by us at a terrible cost.
July 6, 2021
Do Not Forget Afghanistan
U.S. Army 1LT Matthew Hernandez looks down the Korengal Valley from a mountaintop outpost October 24, 2008 in the Kunar Province of eastern Afghanistan. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

I left Afghanistan for the last time a little over a month ago—on Memorial Day. After six deployments of more than four cumulative years in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving at various levels, I feel comfortable saying that my war has finally come to an end. The sense of finality hit me as I stood in line waiting for the helicopter to ferry me from Resolute Support Headquarters to Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). It was a short trip, just five minutes, but it symbolized how far security in Afghanistan had deteriorated since my last push to the ’Stan.

During my 2014-15 deployment, I often drove alone to the airport or nearly anywhere in Kabul. Although I rode in an up-armored SUV and was usually dressed in nondescript civilian attire, at least we were able to traverse Kabul’s hectic streets. Now, however, only a select few ninjas were allowed to venture outside the International Zone. The rest of us unlucky Average Joes were stuck serving alongside our Afghan brethren in the U.S. embassy.

As I stepped onto the UH-60 and fumbled with the seatbelt, my mind drifted over my three years in Afghanistan. I volunteered for my first Afghan deployment in 2008, after completing a thoroughly dispiriting push to Iraq. I grew pretty fond of the Afghan people on this deployment. As a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) member, I partnered with district (similar to county-level) government officials and enacted quick-impact projects such as wells and mosque repairs at the village level. I found the Afghans fascinating and incredibly generous of their meager resources. I spent hundreds of hours drinking chai with toothless Pashtun elders who spoke fondly of their time killing Russians. It was intoxicating and addicting. I had to come back—and I did in 2012, 2014, and 2020.

My helicopter banked and finally landed at HKIA. I had half a day to kill before departing Afghanistan and looked around for things to occupy my time. There were quite a few distractions on this enormous base. HKIA houses not only Afghanistan’s largest international airport but also a large conglomeration of international troops. There were bases like these littered throughout almost every one of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces. Thinking about the pending U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which President Joe Biden wants completed by September 11, I wondered what would happen at Bagram, our other significant air hub. What would happen to all of the memorials built for fallen soldiers throughout these bases?

At Bagram Air Field, there’s a Yelner dining facility. Senior Airmen Jonathan Yelner was a mechanic in the Air Force but, in 2008, he volunteered to be a driver on my PRT because he wanted to do more for the war effort. His eagerness and dedication were apparent to everyone. He was up every day at the crack of dawn to make sure the vehicle was ready for the day’s mission. As one of the few airmen on a predominantly Army firebase, Yelner gave as good as he got and earned the soldiers’ respect. Then, on a late April day in 2008, the Taliban killed Yelner during an IED-initiated ambush.

His death was a blow to our unit. We had a small ceremony at a chapel at Bagram. It had all the familiar trappings: the soldier’s cross, a 21-gun salute, the final roll call, and taps, with young men, far from home, taking turns saluting and kneeling before Yelner’s cross while struggling to hold back tears. For thousands of U.S. veterans, these small, private ceremonies on barren landscapes in the Afghan countryside are engraved in their minds forever. Underscored by gut-wrenching eulogies given by grief-stricken comrades, these ceremonies are the moments I wish all Americans could have seen to get a sense of the sacrifice that so many young men and women gave in their names. I wish they could’ve seen the toll that these deaths took on so many of us, if for no other reason than to add heft to the ubiquitous utterance of “Thank You for Your Service” made by well-meaning civilians.

As I walked to my room to put down my gear before my flight, I passed a mental-health clinic next to a medical center. I wondered how many young men had walked into that office in search of a path forward in a war that provided more questions than answers. I immediately thought of my two best friends, Max and Adam, who are still fighting the war despite being home for years.

Both men had been full of youth, vigor, and spunk. Adam had a razor-sharp intellect and was a beautiful writer. Max was a natural leader, the kind that men naturally gravitate toward. They were ready to take on Afghanistan and serve on the frontlines. Unfortunately, the war was brutal on both men. After they returned, both separated from the service after watching the war machine do its thing. Tragically, like so many other veterans, they came back home wholly different—cynicism and despair replaced their youthful optimism. They each careened into a vortex of depression, alcoholism, and brushes with the law. Now, nearly a decade later, they are both finally on a better path. I’m incredibly proud and grateful they have found a new way forward.

Others, like my buddy Casey, never recovered. Casey survived the IED strike that killed Yelner. But he was never the same. The idealistic young man who drank whisky and told some of the foulest jokes became hollowed out by guilt—the guilt of surviving the IED that killed one of his troops. He had called me countless times after I came home, but I struggled to connect with him. I never knew what to say to him. I just couldn’t do it. I was scared that I might suffer the same problems if I stepped into his abyss. He passed from a broken heart in 2014, but I think of him as being killed in action on the same day as Yelner—a more fitting death for the proudest soldier I ever met.

At night, when I’m alone and the demons come, I wonder if Casey would be here today if I had been more courageous and honest with him.

After setting my ruck into my room, I walked to the dining facility and grabbed a bite. An Afghan immediately greeted me after I opened the door. I responded in both Dari and Pashto, which brought a cheery smile to his face. As I stood in line and saw other Afghans, I thought of all my interpreters. Of all the heartache and despair associated with my three years in Afghanistan, my proudest achievement is getting nearly ten Afghan interpreters to the United States. I’ve written countless letters of recommendation, emailed senators and representatives, and guided Afghans through the Byzantine bureaucracy set up by our government.

Unfortunately, I still have three Afghan interpreters waiting for their Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). While the news that we will evacuate at least some of our 18,000 SIV applicants to as-yet unnamed third countries is welcome, it’s not nearly enough. SIV recipients in the United States, many of whom have already become American citizens, have immediate family members in Afghanistan. Afghan-Americans must wait two years to secure a visa for their parents and nearly a decade for their siblings. In most circumstances, this is just an annoying bureaucratic hurdle to overcome. In Afghanistan, it can be a death sentence. These Afghan-Americans have earned their place among us. In fact, they’ve done more for this country than many Americans.

At first light the following day, I started the multi-step process to board my final flight from the ’Stan. Before I boarded, I saw multiple Afghan soldiers and wondered how my Afghan friends were doing on the frontline. Would they survive the fighting season? Would their families be marked for death? Most senior Afghan government officials—many of whom are directly responsible for the corruption that has hollowed out the Afghan Army—already have American visas (or green cards or British visas or similar documents). But there is no visa program for Afghan soldiers.

I fear that many Afghan soldiers will be killed, like my friend Lieutenant Colonel Sohrab Azimi. Like Sohrab, there are thousands of Afghan soldiers who have been stalwart allies of the United States and have spent decades fighting America’s enemies. My friend Khial, a fun-loving Afghan Air Force officer, was one of the first qualified pilots. His brother, Khan, is a senior Afghan police officer. Both men are part of a new generation of Afghan officers, educated and trained in the United States, who have tried to reform the Afghan government while simultaneously fighting a ruthless, state-sponsored enemy.

Other Afghans are from an older generation who never learned to speak English but stepped up after the fall of Kabul to rebuild the Afghan government, such as my friends Daru and Khadi, whom I advised during my second and third deployments. This older generation had to survive both the Soviets and the Taliban, so there are no saints among them. Certainly Daru and Khadi are not saints. But then neither are the majority of Afghan elites who acquired American visas because of their power and influence. Both men served in some of the most remote and hostile areas over the last twenty years. Khadi and Daru lost friends and family because they fought members of their tribe who had supported the Taliban.

I saw both men separately before I departed Afghanistan. These were emotional reunions filled with laughter and a rehashing of war stories that stretched credulity. As our time together came to an end, both men asked for a visa for their families. They were willing to stay and fight but asked if I could help keep their families safe. I had to tell them I could not help them despite their years of service. I had conversations like these on a nearly daily basis with innumerable Afghan officers. The Taliban will likely kill and torture most of them if they come back to power, especially those who were members of elite units or part of the intelligence services. Their families will possibly meet the same fate.

Should we abandon these men and their families despite their sacrifices? Helping the 18,000 SIV applicants is a moral imperative. However, we should widen our aperture and devise a plan to grant asylum to other Afghans. Thousands of women were encouraged to step out of the shadows and fight for their place in the sun. Does anyone genuinely think that the Taliban will not target these women? After the fall of Saigon we granted asylum to nearly 123,000 South Vietnamese refugees. At minimum, we should match this level of generosity.

With just ten weeks left until President Biden’s deadline for withdrawal, there is no time for protracted planning. We must act now to help our stalwart allies who sacrificed so much to fight for a cause that, however idealistic and naïve, was founded on a desire to bring freedom to millions who have endured forty years of war.

As my plane took off, I felt like I was abandoning my friends to a cruel death. Leaving Afghanistan does not feel like a cause for celebration for a job well done but rather an escape before a future calamity we helped create.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that we will re-engage or change our minds. My only request to my fellow Americans is that we do not forget Afghanistan.

That we do not forget the men and women whose names adorn memorials on bases being abandoned across Afghanistan.

That we do not forget my comrades, many of whom bear invisible wounds—and some who could not bear them anymore.

And that we do not forget our allies remaining in Afghanistan. Their war will continue and will be far more bloody and ruthless than anything most of us experienced. Tens of thousands will perish in the coming civil war and even more from the humanitarian disaster sure to follow. While opinions vary on the wisdom of President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, surely we can agree that we must do our best to alleviate the suffering that will come.

Losing a war is hard enough. Compounding this abject feeling is coming home to a country eager to move on after twenty years of bloodshed in a conflict in which less than half of 1 percent of the population served. We must remember that, even if our soldiers are coming home, our responsibilities born of this conflict continue. It’s the least we can do.

Will Selber

Will Selber is a retired Middle East Foreign Area Officer with 20 years of experience in the intelligence community and four and half years in Iraq and Afghanistan.