I clearly remember my first time in Afghanistan. A thin dusting of windblown snow collected in patches around the Kabul Airport ramp on that December morning 15 years ago. The bitter cold whistling down from the Hindu Kush needled the back of my neck. As the sun rose, a layer of low haze spread over the city—smoke from trash fire pits and the countless Bukhara heaters burning animal dung. I surveyed the hilltop adjacent to the ramp where a multinational team downloaded cargo from my C-17 and marveled at how easy it would be to open fire on all of us.
Winter’s arrival marked the end of the fighting season. As enemy fighters hunkered down in brutal mountainous conditions and fighting diminished, the pace of the US mobility forces ticked up with C-17s and C-130s resupplying the effort with war materiel and reinforcements. Even in those relatively early days, misgivings abounded about the state of the war. An anxious, green lieutenant, I struck up a conversation with a homebound soldier later that day at the USO in Bagram and asked his opinion. His curt response: “We’re losing this war and Washington doesn’t know about it.”
I’ve thought a lot over the past week about that conversation and my time flying missions in Afghanistan. Over 15 years and three presidents, I served as a C-17 pilot in the Air Force Reserve. I saw the heavy occupation days, the surge, the drawdown, forward operating base closures and reopenings, the constantly shifting political objectives always pursued with the messy grind of military logistics. It is tempting to believe that the compound effects of so many errors over two decades yielded an inevitable defeat. But to focus on this is to miss the death blow that threatens to haunt America for generations to come.
Even though many in the ranks legitimately questioned the efficacy of ever-shifting strategy, tactics, or rules of engagement, very few ever questioned the moral legitimacy of our actions in Afghanistan. We were objectively the good guys. We were fighting demonstrably bad people. Yet somehow, the politicians and the political media back home chased their tails to the point that the nation lost sight of that fundamental truth. Failure to recognize the moral righteousness and necessity of America’s mission in Afghanistan and elsewhere, or to outright deny it, is a tragedy that will spawn a thousand more.