Two years ago, I was sitting in a conference room inside a dusty tent. HVAC systems and passing helos drowned out the voice of the briefer, but the map that was displayed was enough to get the point across: our footprint in Afghanistan was shrinking. And we were there to make it shrink more.
Walking outside the tent, all signs pointed towards “business as usual” in America’s longest war: pairs of Apaches and Kiowas buzzed overhead, convoys of Coalition forces roared by, and the whine of jet engines emanated from the flightline. New construction projects for barracks and offices continued apace while Burger King and Green Beans Coffee stands still did brisk business.
There were indicators, though, that things were winding down. One was the ever-increasing number of infantrymen on the FOB. Infantrymen with nothing to do, as they waited out their tour after their FOB or COP had closed. In fact, there was a noted increase in personnel on the FOB that coincided with our base closure timelines. Marshalling yards filled with vehicles to be scrapped or sold. Container yards swelled as sorting teams organized what was to be sent home, and what was to be crushed and thrown away.
As time went on, there were less benign indicators. Routes that were normally green for Coalition forces went black. Whole districts became “no-go” zones for US troops. Convoys didn’t roll unless they had route clearance packages to their front and dedicated air support around known hotspots. As we closed down base after base, or reduced their footprints, you could see the terrain slowly shrink around Coalition forces. And Afghan National Army casualties, already high, skyrocketed.
By the time we left theater, it seemed as though U.S. forces were going through the motions of fighting a war, but there wasn’t a heart left in it. And why would there be? After all, the indicators were all there that the mission was coming to a close. Why spend more blood when the end was clearly in sight. Still, the motions continued: logistics convoys, route clearance, patrols. Only aviation units, some infantry, and special operations seemed to be actively on the offensive. It was a morale boost to talk to pilots or operators who talked about combat; somewhere out there, the war, that the tens of thousands of troops were there to support, was still being fought.
Today’s announcement that U.S. troops will continue to be deployed through 2017 came as no surprise. It does, however, promote introspection on the overall endgame in Afghanistan for those of us who served there. “Was it worth it?” is of course the question on everyone’s minds. Back in 2014, we thought we were watching the final curtain drop on Operation Enduring Freedom, which brought some semblance of comfort: if we’re ending it, let’s end it on our terms and get ready for the next thing.
Now the end has been delayed, again. Closure is hard to find.
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