PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Last week, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would lead the withdrawal of foreign forces still in Afghanistan. This will effectively end two decades of presence in the country after the relatively swift deployment of U.S. and NATO troops following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s become colloquially known as America’s “Forever War.”
Understandably, the conclusion of this military operation is garnering much attention all over the world. Some argue the United States is abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban. Others say that this decision is two decades too late. Still others debate whether the war in Afghanistan was worth the blood and financial resources spent on it.
The decision struck me differently.
When I first learned of the call to remove foreign forces from Afghanistan, a whirlwind of thoughts swirled around my head. It took a while to parse them, because, as I discovered, I was looking at the decision through four separate and distinct lenses, all of which reflect my career, my life and my personal relationship with the war in Afghanistan.
In the end, what to make of the end of the Forever War depends on the eye of the beholder. Soldiers, diplomats, spies, peacekeepers, civilian contractors, aid workers and more were involved. All of their experiences are different.
This is the perspective of one individual who was part of the 20-year war in Afghanistan — as a student of the postwar Occupation, intergovernmental negotiator, a U.S.-Japan alliance manager and war veteran.
I was 16 years old when terrorists targeted the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, in an attack that shocked America to its core and fundamentally shifted its foreign policy priorities.
What started as a quest to hunt down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and eliminate state-sponsored terrorism from Afghanistan morphed into an exceedingly complex nation-building operation. The decision to subsequently invade Iraq introduced yet another nation-building mission and pulled resources and attention from Afghanistan. Compounding issues was problems in the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai and the persistent destabilization efforts originating from neighboring Pakistan, especially in the Waziristan region.
As all of that unfolded, I had enough time to go to college, serve 10 years in the military with two tours to Afghanistan, graduate with a Masters and a Ph.D., and have two children of my own — all before this decision to withdraw the remaining foreign forces from the country.
In many ways, the Afghan war shaped my life. When I was commissioned in the U.S. Air Force, I already understood that I would most likely end up in either Afghanistan or Iraq. In my graduate studies, I focused on the postwar Occupation of Japan — a subject that bridged my regional interest in Northeast Asia and the mission I knew I would be involved in as a U.S. military officer.
I served two tours — about a year of my life — in Afghanistan, each deployment offering a completely different perspective of the war. In both cases, I was an aircraft maintenance officer — the person responsible for overseeing the fixing and flying of aircraft for military operations.
First, I was in Camp Bastion, a British air base in Helmand province. Helmand was the home of some of the hardest and bloodiest engagements in the entire war effort. There, I was part of a combat search and rescue unit — the “Pedros” — responsible for recovering wounded soldiers and civilians and delivering them to hospitals.
There are two numbers that will stay with me for the rest of my life: 303 and 311. During my deployment, my unit saved 303 lives and made 311 medical assists. I choose not to remember the number of lives lost during that same time.
My second deployment found me in Kandahar in charge of maintaining remotely piloted aircraft, what many refer to as “drones.”
If I close my eyes, I can still see the behemoth, “Mad Max”-esque world of Kandahar Airfield, with dusty, weathered vehicles, walls made of unserviceable shipping containers, and makeshift buildings and tent cities all around. I will never forget the stench created by an open-air cesspool that accommodated the waste of 26,000 rotational base personnel (which was dis-affectionately known as the “poo pond”).
While my first deployment focused on rescue operations, my second ran the gamut in overwatch and offensive missions. From this deployment, the only number that stands out is “two,” as in I was there when U.S. forces eliminated the No. 2 al-Qaida operative, Abu Yahya al-Libi.
Why the number stays with me is because of this fundamental truth. What happens when you eliminate the No. 2 al-Qaida operative in Afghanistan? Someone else becomes the No. 2 al-Qaida operative in Afghanistan.
There are more lessons and stories from my time in Afghanistan, but my experiences there have stayed with me as I proceeded in my academic studies, in my time as a U.S.-Japan alliance manager, and in my work and research as an intergovernmental negotiator.
Being deployed to a British base offered daily exercise in coordinating with allies. Operating in a resource-constrained environment meant that every effort to secure equipment and prioritization for my unit became a negotiation. Through it all, every experience and observation served as real life case studies for the concepts and issues that academics deliberate in papers and conferences.
Certainly, the Afghan war colored the way I approach each of those respective roles, and those roles I have had now color the way I look at the decision to end the 20-year war effort. Each offers a unique perspective on the situation.
As a negotiator
Most of my work following my time in Afghanistan has been as an international relations specialist — specifically, as an intergovernmental negotiator.
In essence, my job has been to determine the interests between governments within a negotiation, craft a strategy for achieving those interests and negotiate a deal that satisfies those interests and is implementable.
One of the common arguments I have seen this past week from critics of the decision to withdraw the remaining troops from Afghanistan is that it eliminates the last ounce of leverage the United States has in dealing with the Taliban.
As a negotiator, I have two retorts to that.
First, troop numbers are not the bargaining chip people argue they are. I was in Afghanistan at a time when we had somewhere in the ballpark of 100,000 U.S. military on the ground, and that did not include allies and civilian contractors. Troop numbers were not the magic lever for achieving peace 10 years ago, and it is misguided to believe they would be now.
Second, implementation problems were bound to occur before the ink was dry on the peace agreement on Feb. 29, 2020, between the U.S. government and the Taliban. The agreement yielded no mechanisms for oversight of duties and obligations. The agreement did not establish commissions or committees for orchestrating and negotiating the terms of implementation. There was no provision for third-party mediation or verification. No amount of troops in Afghanistan could resolve those structural problems inherent to the peace agreement signed last year.
So, how does one ensure the Taliban lives up to its end of the deal? That is the trillion-dollar question, and one that will take the entire international community’s assistance in answering.
As an alliance manager
Almost immediately after completing my second tour in Afghanistan, I was selected to become a Mansfield fellow and start on a new path as a U.S.-Japan alliance manager.
Assuredly, some may wonder what Japan has to do with any of this, but it is important to remember how far Japan went to support its U.S. ally and the Afghan people.
When 9/11 happened and the U.S. government sought a “coalition of the willing,” the circumstances echoed the first Gulf War in 1991. At that time, Japan elected to send $13 billion in cash instead of deploying troops to be on the ground in response.
When the war ended and Kuwait ran full-page advertisements in The New York Times and Washington Post to thank all the countries that contributed, Japan was absent from the list.
I recall how a former alliance manager characterized the snub to me when I was a student many years ago.
“Japan was portrayed to the world as an ATM,” he said, “not only as an ATM, but one that had to be kicked to spit out money.”
In 2001, the Japanese government delivered a much more robust response on top of financial and humanitarian aid. While Article 9 of the Constitution restricted the employment of the Self-Defense Forces in combat situations, the government pushed the boundaries of what was possible via special measures laws to enable rear area support, airlift and maritime refueling for operations in Afghanistan.
Moreover, these special measures laws served as the basis for a law passed in 2015 that concerns situations in which the International community collectively addresses peace and security, meaning Japan can replicate its contributions from Afghanistan in other coalition-supported operations today.
It is up to the Japanese people to determine whether their country’s involvement in Afghanistan was right or wrong. In whatever way they may remember the conflict, it’s important to recognize that the contributions led to a Japan that is legally and politically more capable of taking a proactive role in global peace and security.
In more contemporary times — say, for example, the rules-based international order is under threat — that proactive role can make a difference.
As a student
As mentioned earlier, I focused my undergraduate and master’s studies on the postwar Occupation of Japan, seeking to understand how a country could go from pillaging Asia to standing as one of the strictest adherents of international law. Certainly, my studies influenced my assessments of the efforts in Afghanistan and this most recent decision to withdraw the foreign forces.
As I reflect upon it, I am reminded of a quote from Gen. Douglas MacArthur that I came across during my studies.
“There is a popular misconception that the achievement of victory in modern war is solely dependent upon victory in the field,” MacArthur once said. “History itself clearly refutes this concept. It offers unmistakable proof that the human impulses which generated the will to war, no less than the material sinews of war, must be destroyed. Nor is it sufficient that such human impulses merely yield to the temporary shock of military defeat. There must be a complete spiritual reformation such as will not only control the defeated generation, but will exert a dominant influence upon the generation to follow as well. Unless this is done, victory is but partially complete.”
The Allied Occupation of Japan sought to change the fabric of Japanese society. In principle, the United States and its allies hoped to do the same in Afghanistan.
However, for myriad reasons, the same robust measures employed in Japan could not be replicated from 2001 to present — namely, the border was too porous and the insurgency was too persistent. As a result, what I saw in my time in Afghanistan was not profound reformation, but a tireless struggle to preserve whatever small gains we had won.
The job now is to see how the international community can foster that generational reformation in ways that do not involve the use of military forces stationed in Afghanistan.
As an Afghan war veteran
Finally, as a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, I understand the horror, bloodshed and collateral damage that took place. I can comprehend how much was lost and how there are some things we will never get back.
One of my functions in the rescue unit was to write daily mission reports. I documented every one of those 303 lives saved, 311 medical assists and lives lost, down to the detail of who they were and what injuries they suffered.
It is impossible for me to erase the memory of detailing how insurgents set a child on fire, simply to have a chance at ambushing my rescue unit when we intervened to save the child’s life.
After all, if the insurgents could kill rescuers, they would also be killing everyone those rescuers might have saved in the future. Such is the abhorrent calculus in war.
Through other lenses as a scholar and a negotiator, I can think about the strategic and policy implications of the decision. But as a veteran of the war, I do not think about the geopolitical implications of withdrawal.
Instead, all I can do is hold out hope for what the future may bring.
Hope that the world will not forget what was lost there or the many lessons we learned from all of it.
Hope that peaceful resolution can be won through flexible, persistent application of nonmilitary instruments of power.
Hope that, whatever the next step may be, it will mean progress for the country of Afghanistan and the stability of the region.
Hope that although the war may be ending for some, the international community continues to march with the Afghan people on the path toward a lasting peace.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
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