Rebekah Sanderlin has never been to Afghanistan, and yet she says the war-torn nation of 39 million has “permeated every single part of our lives” for the last two decades.
As the wife of an Army veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan about seven times, the last one less than two years ago, Sanderlin developed an affinity for the Afghans based on her husband’s experience with them and her own research.
She uses terms like “terrifying'” and “heartbreaking” when pondering their fate now that the ruthless Taliban has taken over the country in stunningly fast fashion, toppling the government of President Ashraf Ghani, prompting him to flee and forcing the U.S. to rush out its personnel.
After more than 2,300 Americans were killed and 20,000 were wounded in a 20-year war that cost the U.S. an estimated $2.26 trillion, Sanderlin said many military families are wondering if all their blood and sweat — in addition to the months of separation and the missed special occasions — were all for naught.
“There are a lot of veterans who are grappling with: ‘Was it worth it? Were all of our sacrifices wasted?'” Sanderlin said, adding that many are conflicted about the Biden administration’s decision to pull out the U.S. troops, which opened the door for the Taliban’s insurgency.
“There’s a very defined, clear, loud group that feels like, as much as we hate what’s happening, it was time for the war to end. At the same time, there’s another very clear, outspoken group that says we’re betraying the Afghans, and we’re walking away from an opportunity to have done something really good.”
Sanderlin, a mother of three whose husband of 18 years is now retired from the military, counts herself among those who are torn about the troop withdrawal, changing her mind seemingly every hour and feeling like there were no good options.
Like most military families whose members have seen combat, the Sanderlins had friends die in the Afghanistan war; a close friend was paralyzed from the neck down, yet others lost multiple limbs. They’ve also heard stories about the Taliban’s atrocities against their fellow citizens, especially women and children, and fear for them.
So does war veteran Denver Riggleman, a former U.S. congressman for Virginia.
“I deployed on Sept. 21, 2001. So many lost in the Towers. So many brothers & sisters in arms lost,” Riggleman said on Twitter. “When I first arrived, I researched what the Taliban did to women. I briefed the troops on it. Horrific images seared in my mind: executions, hangings, stonings. I’m struggling today.”
Scott Murray, a retired Air Force colonel and former intelligence officer who spent more than two years in Afghanistan at the height of the U.S. involvement there, said he understands the decision to leave, given all the elements that stand in the way of reversing fortunes in the Middle Eastern country.
Murray told USA TODAY that a friend of his in the Afghan government suggested the American presence softened the Afghans by introducing Western comforts and ways of thinking, weakening the natives’ resolve to fight the Taliban.
“The U.S. withdrawal is bittersweet for me,” Murray said. “There’s such an emotional swing while you’re there, and now what? Afghanistan really becomes an ungoverned space again, and we are back where we started. Was the sacrifice worth the effort? I just don’t know how you say yes to that, after the destruction of (terrorist group) al-Qaida, of course.
“Our nation and our allies are much safer than they would have been had we done nothing in October of 2001. We had to act. No question. But is Afghanistan better off today? I don’t think so. I hope I’m wrong.”
Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, a decorated veteran who was the first Green Beret elected to Congress, served in Afghanistan as a special forces officer. He also worked as an adviser to former defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates and as a counterterrorism adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
He refutes the notion that the war in Afghanistan — launched by the administration of President George W. Bush to drive out the Taliban and pursue Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — has been a wasted effort.
“I really bristle, and I know a lot of other veterans do too when I hear people say the war is a failure,” Waltz said. “I certainly think we could have done a lot of things better across multiple administrations. But the fact that we haven’t suffered another 9/11 — and that al-Qaida has been pressured and decimated — is a success. From a counterterrorism standpoint, Americans are safe.”
Perhaps, but many are also sorry.
“It is a horribly sad situation because Afghanistan is a gorgeous country,” said Jason Kirell, an infantry mortarman who was in Afghanistan in 2010-11. “The people there don’t deserve to live under a brutal group of thugs like the Taliban.”
Kirell added he could tell in his time in the country that whatever the U.S. was attempting to do clearly wasn’t going to work.
Sanderlin had the first of her three children two weeks before her husband — whose name she withheld — deployed to Afghanistan, forcing her to put her journalism career on hold. He was away again when their second child was born and didn’t get to meet her until five months later. Their third child, when she was learning to speak, thought the word for phone was “daddy,'” because that’s how she communicated with him.
Despite the challenges presented by his career, Sanderlin knows her family is among the fortunate ones because they survived America’s longest war and they’re now together. Many military families can’t say that.
“When you look at the impact of the war, what I keep thinking about is we’re never going to put it behind us,” she said. “It’s always going to be with us because of the injuries, because of the kids who don’t have parents, because of the spouses who lost their spouse and the parents who lost their children.'”
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