Last Days in Afghanistan: Reflections on the U.S. Withdrawal
At the veterans-run bank where Mercedes Elias works, the televisions are usually turned to business shows. But they were switched to cable news when the Pentagon accelerated its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Ms. Elias, who had served in Afghanistan as a Marine captain, watched quietly with her colleagues as Afghan men and women streamed onto the tarmac at Kabul’s international airport, desperate to flee their country as the Taliban took over the city.
A year later, Ms. Elias is still bothered by what she saw.
“We all sat and kind of watched in horror at pictures of these people that are trying to throw their babies to Marines to give their kids a better life, people that are clinging on to a plane as it’s flying off the tarmac because they know the horror that is going to await them after the Americans leave,” she said. “All of us watched in dismay, and afterward we all internalized it in different ways based on where you’re at and how long you’ve been out, and what kinds of coping mechanisms you’ve developed since that time.”
On a companywide phone call later that day, Ms. Elias described what she and her colleagues had seen. She said that they were waiting for the roster of Marines killed that day to be released, hoping not to see the names of anyone they knew. She asked everyone to focus on what they could do, such as helping the families of the slain Marines.
Ms. Elias had served in Helmand Province, where she spent the first half of her deployment supplying a growing number of small outposts in the region — and the second half reversing course and directing the flow back to major logistics hubs like Camp Dwyer and Camp Leatherneck.
When she returned home in April 2012, it appeared to Ms. Elias that the war in Afghanistan was essentially over. That America’s full withdrawal 10 years later appeared so haphazard and unorganized seemed unconscionable to her, given that there had been so much time to plan.
“We were told that we were there to change the hearts and minds of the Afghani people, and especially important for me: that we were helping to liberate the women of Afghanistan and help get them better opportunities for education and freedom,” Ms. Elias said. “To see that, seemingly to us, nothing had changed, no progress had been made in 10 years, was just extremely frustrating and upsetting because you think about all the friends that you lost in-country or when you got back to suicide or addiction and things like that, it makes you think ‘What was that all worth?’”
Ms. Elias plans to discuss the anniversary of Kabul’s fall with her colleagues.
“You never really know where people are at in their coping and recovery process,” she said. “But the more you can talk about things that are upsetting like this, and that seem to have no path to resolution, maybe the more it will help more people kind of cope with it.”
— John Ismay