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The Problem with Afghanistan

Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, U.S. Army (Ret.) recently sat down with us to share his thoughts on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Below is a transcription of his conversation with U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jason Pandak, Vice President at AmeriVet. Together, they discuss the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, those who are left behind and what risks the country, and the rest of the world, face moving forward.

AmeriVet Securities: My name is Jason Pandak, Vice President at AmeriVet and today I am joined by retired three-star Jeffrey Buchanan, U.S. Army, to discuss the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Thank you for joining me today General Buchanan.

General Buchanan: Hey, thanks. It’s my honor.

AmeriVet Securities: It’s been a while since we last spoke so if you don’t mind, can you tell us about your military background?

General Buchanan: I spent 37 years in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer commissioned from the University of Arizona. Most of my time in the military was on the light infantry side; 82nd Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division, 25th Infantry Division and 10th Mountain Division. I spent 12 years as a general officer and retired as a Lieutenant General.

I had four combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. I have spent a lot of time on the joint side of the world; I commanded eight operations as a joint task force commander, and during my last job, I was dual hatted as Commander and General of U.S. Army North, which is the Army Service Component Command for U.S. Northern Command, and I was the U.S. Northern Command Joint Forces Land Component Commander.

In that role, I led all federal military support for the Department of Homeland security during five major hurricanes: Matthew, Harvey, Irma, Maria and Florence. In addition, I commanded all U.S. military troops supporting the Department of Homeland Security on the southwest border.

The Differences in Iraq and Afghanistan

AmeriVet Securities: Very impressive sir – that is a great background for our discussion today. Without further ado, let’s go ahead and jump into our discussion for today.

It’s been nearly 20 years of a war that has spanned multiple administrations and the situation remains tense and complicated as time goes on. The costs have been high and the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops have been lost; more than 20,000 have been injured and military expenses exceed $2 trillion. I want to begin by asking for your initial thoughts on U.S. troops withdrawing and why you believe the conflict has gone on this long.

General Buchanan: Let me start by saying that I served in Afghanistan 2015 to 2016. I’m always cognizant of, if you serve a certain time in Afghanistan, you have relative experience for that time; as soon as you leave, your appreciation for the situation start to deteriorate. It’s not the same because what goes on at Herat is different than Helmand or Kandahar; it’s also different than Jalalabad or up north at Mazar-i-Sharif.

I don’t know how many real experts there are in Afghanistan but it would need to be somebody who spent a lot of time in a lot of different parts of the country, and many years in many different situations. So, I am going to start by saying, I have some relevant experience in Afghanistan, but I really don’t consider myself an expert, as my experience is a little dated.

Having said that, what took us to Afghanistan and obviously if you go back the states were set for conflict much earlier than 9/11, due to U.S. support of various Afghan government resistance groups and the Soviet occupation back in the 1980s. It’s hard because you can’t look at Afghanistan in isolation; everything is related to what goes on with its neighbors: Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etc. It’s a very complex area with a lot of history and a lack of centralized government and national identity.

Afghanistan has been very tribal for many years and leading up to 9/11, after the Soviets left, there was a significant Afghan civil war. The dominant power — although they certainly didn’t control the entire country — became the Taliban.

The Taliban, of course, was very fundamentalist. We know they are Sunni believers in Sunni Islam, who believed they should be governed by Sharia law. They did a lot of things to their people including public executions and oppression of women – all kinds of things that in many ways took Afghanistan backward.

Afghanistan — based on this and Taliban leadership, if I remember correctly – prior to 9/11 was only recognized — the government of Afghanistan — was only recognized internationally by four countries.

Again, the Taliban controlled the south and much of the east but they didn’t control the north. One of the things they did, was enable — and I don’t know that they “invited,” but they certainly “accepted” the presence of Al Qaeda, which continued to grow in stride over the years. Eventually, Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a launching point to conduct the 9/11 attacks. If you go back, everything that we’ve been in Afghanistan for, really stems from 9/11.

We went to the Taliban and told them we have evidence that Al Qaeda conducted these attacks on our country. You may remember this was the first time Article 5 of NATO had ever been declared and it actually compelled other NATO members to come to the defense of one of the member nations, [the U.S.] which had been attacked.

From the beginning, NATO was involved in this response and initially, we were there to go after Al Qaeda and bring them to justice. Of course, because the Taliban refused to participate, then our operation also included working with the elements from the north — the “northern alliance” as it was called back — and driving the Taliban from power. Bringing Al Qaeda to justice took many years and a lot of time. The Taliban initially had been repressed and, in most cases, had been driven into hiding in Pakistan early on.

Over time, that strength grew back, especially as the U.S. attention on Afghanistan waned, because they started shifting their attention – and certainly the bulk of their resources in 2003 –to the conflict in Iraq. Iraq was probably the main effort, all the way up until our initial withdrawal back in 2011 – and then there was a shift of forces into Afghanistan.

Now, one of the things that ought to be instructive to us is that this was after our final dominant withdrawal from Iraq. We shifted our efforts toward Afghanistan and had what we called an “Afghan surge” if you will; we increased our combat power and sent a significant number of U.S. troops over there. When I deployed in 2015, I was on the backside of that surge and we were starting to withdraw again.

I’m very careful anytime when comparing Afghanistan and Iraq, because they are not the same, even though we were involved in both at the same time. You could certainly take the experience from one place and apply some insights from another place, but they were very different. So, even way back then, I remember thinking, I had always been very hopeful and optimistic about Iraq, because there were a number of things that Iraq had going for it.

Iraq had pretty good infrastructure, access to natural resources, not just oil but also water. They had a national identity, even though there was significant conflict between the three dominant groups of the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Arabs and the Kurds. There is a history of secularism and separation between the church and the state; there was also empowerment of women in Iraq.

Now, when you look at all those factors I just laid out, none of them really existed in Afghanistan. There is no significant national identity – in fact, it was very tribal. There was no history of empowerment of women. There is not much regarding natural resources, as it’s a landlocked country.

One thing I have always said about Iraq is that if they can ever overcome their internal division, they’ll do very, very well. The problem with Afghanistan was much more complex. I remember thinking, when I was in Afghanistan 2015 and 2016, is that based on everything I mentioned, it was hard to be really hopeful about the country.

We were doing a good job, identifying what we call “high value targets” and I was a believer in that we’re never going to be able to kill our way out of this conflict. We know every time we kill one of these guys, Taliban or Al Qaeda, we end up creating more terrorists. But if we kill or capture enough of the right ones, we can keep them off balance – and that’s just what we did.

At that time, my belief was that if we keep the conflict in Afghanistan, we will also stay and help stabilize the Afghan government – and hopefully their government will work long enough until they get a viable economy. You can’t win that conflict militarily, and I didn’t participate in any of these discussions leading up to it, but I think our own government recognized that we’re just expending way too many resources, to include the lives of our troops, in order to achieve what might be the unachievable. It will have to be up to the Afghan people. I know that was a very long-winded answer, but I want to give you some context.

Those Left Behind

AmeriVet Securities: I think there are no short answers on Afghanistan, or we wouldn’t be talking about it 20 years later. The next question applies directly as a follow up: recently, there was a bombing in Kabul which targeted young schoolgirls, killing and injuring many. Some people believe this vicious attack is potentially foreshadowing of undoing advances of the country, specifically, in this case, regarding women’s rights, which you did mention.

That being said, do you believe there are potential scenarios that could delay our withdrawal in the future?

General Buchanan: Again, this will be a bit of a complicated answer. ISIS has carried out many attacks and much like Al Qaeda, they have grown in Afghanistan. They are also, in many ways, more repressive than the Taliban.

What’s interesting is that the Taliban has worked with Al Qaeda, yet they have been enemies of ISIS. The Taliban sees ISIS as an enemy and it’s a different situation. ISIS is – the best way I can describe – evil. If you look at what they’ve done: beheadings and burning people alive; they are inventing very sadistic ways to kill people.

The Taliban has been fighting and operating against ISIS, in roughly the same area where Al Qaeda is, which is in the east, around Jalalabad, the Nangarhar Province and a little further north, as well.

I have no doubt ISIS will continue to conduct attacks before and after we leave. In fact, aid workers who were in the region recently, focused on demining and removing landmines, were killed – and I think that was attributed to ISIS.

I’m not going to say that the Taliban are the good guys, because they’re not. In this particular case, they’re enemies with ISIS and they’re going try to take them on. So, I am concerned about what’s going to happen after we leave. I am concerned about violence, which will be conducted by ISIS and the Taliban.

There’s also a number of these groups who use terror or terrorism to attack and they have no reluctance to killing innocent people – the Taliban is one of those groups. I think violence is going to continue during the remainder of our time there and I think it will continue afterward.

My personal opinion is that the Taliban is not focused on attacking us right now, because it’s in their interest for us to leave.

I also believe that as we leave, attacks will be especially targeted against Afghan security forces. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future – if the Taliban is part of the government, if there’s a power sharing agreement or if they will try to overthrow the government, etc.

I believe you can dress a wolf in sheep’s clothing but it’s still a wolf. No matter what they do, their core belief is in Sharia law. This means they don’t believe women should be able to walk around without a burka or go to the marketplace, unless they’re escorted by a male member of their family. Under Sharia law, music is illegal. This was all enforced when the Taliban was in charge. That doesn’t necessarily mean Sharia law will be brought back but I think that it’s still their core beliefs.

More directly to your questions, is there a scenario that could cause us to delay our withdrawal? I imagine there is, but I think it’s highly unlikely because now that we’ve made this decision, it’s in our interest to leave. I think it’s unlikely the Taliban would attack us and that it’s much more likely that ISIS would try to plan an attack.

In the meantime, and I don’t know the details, I’m sure we’re going to have the capability of defending ourselves until the final troops leave, meaning our intelligence systems and our ability to understand what’s happening until we leave. Even if we’re withdrawing under pressure, we’ll never be an easy target for these guys.

AmeriVet Securities: Yes, that makes sense. You were talking about the fact that, just because the U.S. and our forces and coalition forces withdraw, this does not mean the end of conflict in Afghanistan. As you laid out, there are multiple different groups, all of them utilizing violence as a tool. I’d like to ask specifically, do you believe that there should be any or little concern, specifically for local military and translators who supported U.S. troops in Afghanistan after we leave?

General Buchanan: I’ve been a believer in trying to take care of them and my thoughts are the same from our experience over the years working with the Iraqis. I was successful in some cases with helping Iraqis and not successful in others. I’ve got a very good friend that is here from Iraq, that is a leader – he was actually a two-star general – and when we left, he was taken in. He was Sunni and the Iranian power influencing those decisions, brought him in, captured him and tortured him for a couple of months. He eventually got out and he made his way to the U.S., seeking asylum.

Just before COVID, I went to go testify on behalf of his asylum here – and it’s still not resolved. These people made sacrifices for their own country and those sacrifices also benefitted us directly. I think we have an obligation to care for them. One of my interpreters from Iraq did immigrate to the U.S. successfully with his family and he’s now serving in the U.S. Army. He became very successful and it’s people like this that will continue to make our country great. Because of the opportunities we’ve given them, they’ll be American citizens who are just as good as those you can find anywhere in our country.

Still, many who supported us are potentially at significant risk if left behind. I know the U.S. State Department has worked on some exception programs, but like any bureaucracy, it can be filled with obstacles.

AmeriVet Securities: I completely agree with you. I personally worked with a number of Iraqis back in 2004, as I was working with training their reconstitution of their military, and they were really constant targets at that point in time. You had mentioned earlier that there may be some sort of power sharing agreement between the current government and the Taliban. If the Taliban does, at some point, become the dominant political force – or just completely take over the Afghan government – what do you believe are the risks involved for the rest of the world with the Taliban once again running Afghanistan?

General Buchanan: I think all we have to do is go back and look at what was going on in the late nineties. Maybe their behavior will be modified, but their core beliefs are still present. Ultimately, those core beliefs are going to come to light, especially if they become the dominant power or if they’re in charge. All the things that were happening to Afghan citizens are likely to return.

Now, aside from that, I know that part of the agreement they made with the U.S. government was that they would not facilitate or empower Al Qaeda anymore, but I honestly have very low confidence they will adhere to that. Again, the danger to us is that Al Qaeda and ISIS both have more of a global agenda than the Taliban ever did. We could find ourselves back to where Afghanistan becomes a little bit of a potential launching pad for international terrorists.

AmeriVet Securities: That does lead into the next question – if you look at what happened in Iraq as we withdrew from there – that precipitated the rise of ISIS. We’ve discussed the fact that ISIS is active in Afghanistan along with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Do you believe that in leaving Afghanistan, it will create more opportunities for these terrorist groups to flourish, and if so, does the U.S. have a responsibility to prevent them from regaining strength?

General Buchanan: I think there is clearly an opportunity for them to flourish but there is an additional component with the Afghan military – they don’t necessarily have all the tools that we have at our disposal.

I am a little concerned about the Afghan Air Force and how they will maintain it once we leave. Even though their pilots are competent and they’ve been trained – they’re capable of doing many things – but if the aircrafts aren’t maintained properly, it’s only a matter of time before they’re all grounded or worse.

I’m sure we are doing everything we can to help them maintain this capability, but there is certainly a risk that terrorist groups will grow if the Afghans don’t necessarily have all the tools we had.

When you ask about our responsibility, I think in this case, our responsibility is driven by our interests. If it’s in our interest to get directly involved, I’m sure we will. But it depends on that balance and making a decision based on what is in our interest. Clearly, keeping terrorist groups repressed will always be aligned with our values; but in order to build enough momentum to actually do something about it – to risk your own troops and everything, it’s got to also include the interest, if you know what I’m saying?

AmeriVet Securities: I do understand that and I think that brings me to the next question. We talk about responsibility and the use of American forces; obviously, it needs to benefit our interests. When we think about the Afghan people, the government itself is heavily dependent on foreign aid, with grants from the U.S. and other countries making up approximately 75% of their total spending at in 2019. The Biden administration hopes to send almost $300 million in extra civilian aid this year. Is economic and civilian assistance something that the U.S. and other allies should continue in the future?

General Buchanan: So again, it depends on the interest, but I think so. If they don’t have aid, there’s many parts of their government that won’t be able to function. They won’t be able to survive and continue to operate as a government. At some point in time, it’s likely that if the government doesn’t do the things that a government is supposed to do, well, it will revert to lawlessness, tribalism, warlords and everything else.

I think if it’s actually in the interest of NATO, the European Union and the U.S. to continue to support Afghanistan – if the government is still viable and they’re able to keep international terrorism at bay – then that directly helps us with our problems.

There’s also a bigger issue, when you start to get into things like human rights. It’s generally in our interest to keep the situation from reverting to what it was, because we care for people in general. I think it’s in our interest to continue providing support, although I’m not sure of the extent.

Whatever money we are spending should be tied to the long-range goal of helping them create a viable economy. There is an interesting book called “Little America,” which is specifically focused on the Helmand Province, around the area of Lashkar Gah.

It’s called “Little America” because back in the 1950s, many Americans had gone to Afghanistan and helped them develop a viable agricultural sector. This was done in the south and we helped them grow cotton. It worked and it was successful. Then, during 9/11 and years later, many of the Afghans in that area wanted to return to growing cotton. And, while I don’t know exactly what part specific to our bureaucracy — within the U.S. State Department or USAID – was responsible for this support, but in the end, they didn’t get the help they needed.

Many of those farmers are now growing poppies, which is not good for us. It’s not good for the Europeans, because most of the heroin produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan goes to Europe. These farmers are just trying to survive, take care of their families and they want to have a viable agriculture industry. Based on our own decisions and some lack of long-range views, we did not support them to do something that could have worked well.

The Risks Moving Forward

AmeriVet Securities: We have discussed the multiple risks facing Afghanistan moving forward. If the war were to continue at this point, what risks do you see the U.S. military facing? Do you believe it will increase the amount of risk that our military is dealing with overall?

General Buchanan: Our commitment in Afghanistan is significant monetarily but it’s not really all that high when it comes to numbers of troops involved. You may remember at the height of operations in Iraq we had more than 170,000 coalition troops in the country. Before that, when we converted from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn back in 2010, we still had 50,000 troops in Iraq and maintained those numbers all the way up until about three months prior to our withdrawal from Iraq in December of 2011 – that’s pretty significant. When I was in Afghanistan in 2015, I think we were somewhere around 10,000 troops. By 2016, we had withdrawn quite a bit.

If we continue to be involved in Afghanistan militarily, there will be risk. The risks are much more individual as it relates to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and their families.

Again, going back to what I said a few years ago, when somebody asked me if we should stay over here [in Afghanistan] or if we should leave – we can’t really win militarily if we bring 100,000 more troops over. We’re not going to really change anything; we’re going to suppress or maybe repress the bad guy but it’s not like facing an armed foe that you’re going to defeat on the field of battle and once you do, the threat goes away.

The interest and inspiration the Taliban, in particular, has with many people in that part of the world is going to continue to exist. I didn’t think we could win but I also thought we did a pretty good job keeping the conflict over there.

I think the bigger risk to us is in the future. I think we’ll be watching to see if there is growth within Al Qaeda or ISIS and I imagine we’ll deal with it one way or the other.

AmeriVet Securities: As this is the U.S. military’s longest war to date, I know it’s personal for you, not only as a retired three-star general through your own service, but you mentioned your oldest son recently had his eighth deployment to Afghanistan. Is there anything you’re able to tell us about him and how you’ve seen the country change over those last 20 years?

General Buchanan: Thanks. Regarding my son, he’s in a special operations outfit and he’s very good at his job, but of course, we can’t talk a lot about what they do.

I will say one thing: as much as I went to combat, I thought it was part of the job and something I had to do. But when your kids are deploying, it’s fundamentally different. I have great confidence in his outfits and his leadership. They do a great job taking care of everyone and their families, but it’s been a long-haul for him, and I’m sure his experiences have changed quite a bit as well over the last 20 years.

AmeriVet Securities: I certainly understand that. As we close out our discussion on Afghanistan, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?

General Buchanan: I do, and this is a message to all of those who sacrificed in Afghanistan, specifically Americans and coalition members.

When I was there, we had 49 members of the coalition, many under NATO authority. We had Czechs, Germans, Poles, French and Brits, obviously. But many others, like Australia and the country of Georgia, were not under NATO authority; they came because they believed it was in their interest to support this coalition.

Over the last 20 years, all of these people sacrificed so much. Some of them made the ultimate sacrifice and gave up their life; I never like to say somebody “lost” their life. I was thinking about this during Memorial Day, recently. Many gave up their life and made a sacrifice. They knew what the risks were and decided they wanted to serve with the rest of us and they gave their lives so that we could all, hopefully, live in peace someday.

I wear a bracelet on my wrist inscribed with a young man’s name, Todd Clark. Todd and I worked together for three different tours in Iraq and he was killed on his second tour in Afghanistan. His wife, Shelly, gave me this bracelet and I don’t take it off, because it always reminds me of the sacrifices.

There are also many who weren’t killed or wounded, but they gave their time and missed birthdays or anniversaries – all of them have made sacrifices.

Sometimes when we’re in a situation like this, like with leaving Afghanistan, we want to know if it was worth it.

My answer is this: if you go back to our initial decision, we brought the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. That’s just one point. We also helped give thousands of people a chance that never would have had one and an opportunity to look, learn and understand, what a responsible government could be.

I can’t predict the future and I don’t know what’s going to happen from here, but I don’t think any sacrifices were made in vain, nor do I think this was a waste of time and energy. I look at my time in service and what I learned from that and how it helps make me a better man.

I probably wouldn’t have this appreciation if I hadn’t gone overseas to see some of this stuff for myself. It is a complicated answer and I don’t want to be flippant and say, “yes, it was worth it,” but I don’t think you can quickly say, “if we’re leaving now, it must not have been worth it.”

We must think of the thousands of people whose lives were saved over that 20-year period and how many people were given more opportunities. It is something I think about and I will continue to think about it. I wish I had my friend Todd back; I wish he didn’t die and I wish his kids didn’t have to grow up without a dad. Individually, those kinds of things really hurt, but when you step back, I think we did the right thing.

AmeriVet Securities: I certainly appreciate your service, the service of your son, your friend Todd and the sacrifices his families made. I want to thank you for your time and insight. I know that we, especially as veterans, do a lot of thinking about those things, such as the friends who aren’t here anymore and the sacrifices they made. On behalf of myself and AmeriVet Securities, I want to thank you for joining me today and for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

General Buchanan: Thanks, Jason. I appreciate it.