The Afghan cities fall in rapid succession, like men caught in enfilade fire. First Zaranj, Kunduz a few days later, then Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. Next is Mazar-i-Sharif. And finally, the Taliban begin their move to swiftly and decisively take Kabul.
I watch this news, and at first I feel nothing. But at night I return once more to Afghanistan. There is a nightmare: The enemy and I are in each another’s sights. Who will shoot first? I squeeze, but the trigger freezes. The Taliban fighter’s finger curls. I wake. I have had this dream for 10 years, ever since returning from Afghanistan, but now it feels as though it has become real.
Decades of war are dissolved in weeks. The Taliban advance with a speed that reminds me of the American conquest of Baghdad. There are other similarities: Taliban troops enter the gilded compounds of our corrupt Afghan allies and marvel at the evidence of years of American aid stolen by their former government leaders.
During the day my thoughts become preoccupied by the past. I hear a squad on the other end of the radio pinned down, a report about a Marine hit, the crack of fear in the sergeant’s voice, clock ticking as the blood pours from the 19-year-old’s neck; we race to send the helicopter that will arrive too late.
I see a report that the American Embassy will destroy its American flags to deny the Taliban a propaganda victory. I think of the star-spangled banner that flew over my old patrol base, called Habib, Arabic for “beloved.” Five men died under that flag, for what?
The hawks still circle and screech. The voices from the past 20 years who prodded us forward into battle return to the evening news to sell us on staying. “It’s not too late,” the former generals, secretaries and ambassadors say. “More troops can hold the line. Victory is just around the corner.”
But the speed of the Taliban’s advance makes clear that this outcome was always inevitable. The enemy had no reason to negotiate, and no reputation for restraint. The only question before President Biden was how many American soldiers should die before it happened. But if leaving now was the right decision for America, it is a catastrophe for the Afghan people whom we have betrayed.
The Afghans are forced back into living under religious tyranny, an existence made all the more painful by their brief experience with freedom. Now they see the light from the far end of a dark tunnel. The school doors will close for girls and the boys will return to their religious studies. For them, the arc of the moral universe will bend backward and break.
It’s my old unit, First Battalion, Eighth Marines, that is sent in to secure the airport in Kabul. I am jealous. I would give anything to return right now, to give what last full measure remains. But that is impossible. Soon I learn that there is a fallback embassy at the airport, that our position is collapsing, that talk of weeks has turned to days and finally hours, 36 of them, to evacuate the Americans who remain.
As all this unfolds, there is much fanfare over the celebrities at Barack Obama’s 60th birthday party, a celebration held as the war he expanded during his presidency ends in infamy. But he is not alone. Our other commanders in chief also bear responsibility for what has occurred. And there is no celebrating for those of us who ache each day wondering how we could have given the best parts of their lives to such a lie.
The collapse has been sudden, our exit too ill planned to evacuate the vulnerable Afghans who worked with us. We’re desperate for the allied nations that went to war with us to take them in on our behalf. A few thousand here, a few thousand there. I look across the New York Harbor to the Statue of Liberty and wonder why we are not lifting our own lamp for those abandoned by this war. Is our new Colossus dead or will she rise to repay her debt?
In my mind I see the Huey helicopter teetering above the American Embassy in Saigon, but rest assured, they say, the end of Afghanistan will be different from 1975. Still, our fathers, and our grandfathers, have fought and lost this battle before and know better even if we did not. Will our own children suffer the same?
There is more than enough blame to go around. After all, without those of us who volunteered there’d be nobody to fight these wars. I long to appear before the young man I was, to slap his face, and tell him to take a different course. “You’re going to die over there,” I want to say. “Not in body, but in spirit.” But he is gone, and I will spend the rest of my life staring at his shadow.
And finally, there are my fellow Americans, Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, who voted repeatedly over 20 years for those presidents and members of Congress to mislead and mismanage us to defeat. This national shame is a millstone around all our necks.
Suddenly, reality snaps into focus. It’s the entire nation of Afghanistan that is pinned down. I can hear her people screaming. And I will hear her death rattle before long.
Here at home, the Manhattan skyline is clear, the Freedom Tower glistens, and our nation lumbers onward. This American tragedy has reached its final act. Now we wait for the curtain to fall.
Timothy Kudo (@KudoTim), a former Marine captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is working on a novel about the Afghanistan war.
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