The Veteran’s Pain: Reflections on the Afghan Withdrawal

*Photo by Mohammad Rahmani

The past few days have featured chaos in Afghanistan.  Coinciding with the US withdrawal, threats of Taliban violence have prompted an exodus from their sitting President, along with thousands of others.  Missionaries are fearful for their lives and women fear for their safety.  In many respects, the scenes depicted in news outlets portray images making one wonder if an American presence was ever really there?

After a few days of praying thru the many emotions, I feel compelled to offer some thoughts on Afghanistan.  

The Fighting Men & Women

Only the person who’s been in combat can fully appreciate what it means to be at war. There is a point in your deployment when you stop fighting for “Uncle Sam and Grandma’s apple pie” and you start fighting simply for the right to come home. All of the political rhetoric and the “red-white-and-blue” is good enough to get you to take an oath.  But what gets you home is the person fighting alongside you, and the hope of returning to your family.  It becomes less about the cause, and more about your people.

Winning a War

What does it even mean to win a war? Does anybody win a war? There may be victories won. But when we fight, on some level, everyone loses.  Sometimes it’s a very necessary fight—but check your ideas of winning at the door.  You may win certain battles, but nobody comes out unscathed. Nobody comes out untouched. This isn’t paintball.  This isn’t Call-of-Duty.  This is something entirely different.  Nobody returns from a deployment the same as they departed. 

I don’t know that anyone was ever going to win in Afghanistan—as in “white flag surrender of our enemies” type of win. They’ll be no peace treaties signed in Versailles or on the deck of a navy ship.  The Russians couldn’t do it in a decade and we haven’t done it in two. 

Afghanistan is tribal and likes it that way.  A centralized government was going to be a 4 or 5 decade proposition, and even then, I’m not sure it would have stuck.  Further, I’m not sure that we ever solved the poppy problem.  How do you convince an Afghan farmer to grow something other than poppy?  It’s like trying to convince a NC tobacco farmer to grow something other than tobacco.  And after all, poppy is used to produce heroine.  Heroine is sold at great profits.  And those profits help to finance international terror networks.  We never had a great answer to that, and I’m not sure that there is one. 

However, if we define winning in terms of holding the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks accountable, then, in large part, we have done that.  If you define victory by the disruption of Al-Qaeda terrorist networks and by keeping the Taliban at bay for 20 years, we have done that.  If you define victory creating some measure of stability in a fledgling government, well, we did that.

The Frustration 

Much of the frustration simmering around our recent withdrawal comes as a result of the way that it was conducted.  Some special operations and intelligence capability needed to be left in country to retain the gains achieved over the last 20 years.  Some presence was needed to protect our Afghan partners that have provided intelligence and supported our efforts from within.  Some presence was needed to be left in country to protect the civilian population or at a minimum see to their safe and orderly evacuation.  If you ask why I assert such a presence was needed?  I give you the nightly news as exhibit A. 

I’m not advocating for a continued large-scale presence with no end-game in sight.  But the policy and military decisions made by our President and his appointed secretaries have been nothing less than a disaster.  And the reason many are disheartened include the giving back of the security and stability gains that had been achieved in the last 20 years.  The frustration centers around the very investment of their lives in a cause that seems to have been sent to the recycle bin based upon political calculations, rash decision making, and poor execution. 

The Pivot 

Let me pivot this conversation from a critique of the administration to a critique of my countrymen. I used to hear the phrase “America is at War”.  When I came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I actually found America to be at the Mall.  The Afghan issue centers around a decades long investment of human capital in a country only to have the gains achieved so quickly surrendered.  That’s where the veteran’s pain lies.  That’s where the pain lies for our Gold-star mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. 

But to my fellow Americans, you are doing the same thing.  

All of the investment in securing our freedoms has come at great cost—lives and limbs; sons and daughters; visible and hidden wounds.  All of that money, time, and life spent securing your freedoms only to have them surrendered in a year because you are living in fear. America is not at the mall.   America is shopping from home.  America is not taking the hill.  America is living in fear.  America is not fighting for freedom.  America is giving it away.  That’s where the veteran’s pain lies. 

The Ask 

I know it can be tiresome to head to your local polling station to cast your vote and wonder, “is this the best we can do? Are these really the best two candidates we can produce?”  But as we are seeing now, elections have consequences.  How we conduct elections is consequential.  Real lives are at stake— here and abroad.  Please vote, and do so with a sobriety tempered by reality and not social media.

As a Christian, I have a dual citizenship.  One as an American.  One as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.  There is no angst in my soul when I affirm my heavenly citizenship to take priority over my earthly citizenship. Yet, in both realms, I am not called to a spirit of fear.  I am called to life.  Life here and life eternally.   Living life well is the best way to honor the sacrifice of our servicemen and women. Living life in Christ is the best way to honor the ultimate sacrifice of King Jesus. 

The Invitation 

To those veterans who took the time to read this, please know you are loved.  You have accomplished your mission.  And should you ever need someone to talk to, please find me at pastor@kingschurchlv.com. 

To my brothers and sisters in Christ, the church is needed now more than ever—the time is short and the days are evil.  The church is needed to share the good news of Jesus and invite people to respond; to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  The church is needed to be the voice of Christ in a world that so desperately needs the hope he offers.  Pray for our leaders.  Pray for our missionaries in harm’s way.  Pray that we would be resolved to live out our faith in the dual spheres of our citizenship. 

And to those who have never trusted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.  Who have never believed that God did in Jesus, what you could not do on your own, let me invite you today to cry out to God and ask him to save you.  To save you from your sins. 

He can do that.  He will do that.  He did do that.  And when you do that—everything changes. 

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Adam Mallette is the Lead Teaching Pastor of King’s Church in Las Vegas.  He served as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps from 2002-2012. Adam is currently a PhD student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and has earned a Master of Arts in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma.