Longest war: Were America’s decades in Afghanistan worth it?
By ELLEN KNICKMEYER, Associated Press
Karl B DeBlaker
In this Aug. 11, 2021, photo retired Lance Cpl. William Bee poses for a photo with his wife Bobby Jean surrounded by memories of his military service at his home in Jacksonville, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
Karl B DeBlaker
In this Aug. 11, 2021, photo Lance Cpl. William Bee poses for a photo with his wife Bobby Jean and their dog Olivia surrounded by memories of his military service at his home in Jacksonville, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
Karl B DeBlaker
In this Aug. 11, 2021, photo Lance Cpl. William Bee poses for a photo next to a bookshelf that displays items from his families military service including his Purple Heart at his home in Jacksonville, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
Internally displaced school teacher wearing a burqa from Takhar province, who identified y her first name, Nilofar, left, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press inside her tent in a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. In a lightning advance over the past several days, the Taliban now control more than two-thirds of the country, just two weeks before the U.S. plans to withdraw its last troops, and are slowly closing in on the capital, Kabul. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
A U.S. Marine walks to pick up food supplies after they were dropped off by small parachutes from a plane outside Forward Operating Base Edi in the Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan on June 9, 2011. The smoke in the background comes from burning parachutes the Marines destroy after they reached the ground.
Associated Press photographers have recorded the two-decade conflict from every angle. So many of their images have conveyed the drama and grim reality of battle: U.S. Marines nearly swallowed in clouds of swirling sand as they returned fire on Taliban shooters; a Marine with shrapnel wounds to his face and body peering out from behind bloodied bandages; an Air Force paramedic draping an American flag over the remains of two U.S. soldiers killed by an improvised explosive device; Marines rushing a comrade who had been shot in the chest to a waiting medevac helicopter.
A child looks on as military vehicles of 5th Striker Brigades drive past his village on the outskirts of Spin Boldak, about 100 kilometers (63 miles, File) southeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug. 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File)
2nd Lt. Andrew Ferrara, 23, of Torrance, Calif., with the U.S. Army's Bravo Company of the 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment, based in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, turns from the rotor wash of a landing Blackhawk helicopter during a mission for a key leader engagement at the Shigal district center on Sept. 15, 2011, in Kunar province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
Lance Cpl. Blas Trevino of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, shouts out as he is rescued on a medevac helicopter from the U.S. Army's Task Force Lift "Dust Off", Charlie Company 1-214 Aviation Regiment after he got shot in the stomach outside Sangin, in the Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan on June 11, 2011. The Army's 'Dust Off' crew needed two attempts to get him out, as they were fired upon and took five rounds of bullets into the tail of their aircraft. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)
Soldiers from the U.S. Army First Battalion, 26th Infantry fire mortars from the Korengal Outpost at Taliban positions in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar Province on May 12, 2009. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade rest inside a tent at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan's Helmand province on June 9, 2009. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
Injured U.S. Marine Cpl. Burness Britt reacts after being lifted onto a medevac helicopter from the U.S. Army's Task Force Lift "Dust Off," Charlie Company 1-214 Aviation Regiment on June 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)
Spc. Paul Pickett, 22, of Minden La., right, of the U.S. Army's Apache Company, 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Combat Brigade 10th Mountain Division based out of Fort Drum, N.Y., covers an injured U.S. soldier as a helicopter lands to evacuate the wounded after their armored vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan's Wardak Province on Aug. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
A tattoo on the back of U.S. Army Sgt. James Wilkes of Rochester, N.Y., is seen through his torn shirt after a foot patrol with 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, of the 5th Styker Brigade on May 8, 2010, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. The full tattoo reads, "Sacrifice. Without fear there is no courage." (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)
U.S. Marines rush Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua T. Twigg, 21, of Indiana, Pa., with a severe gunshot wound to the upper chest, which was fatal, to a waiting U.S. Army Task Force Shadow medevac helicopter to be taken to a field hospital, in southern Afghanistan on Sept. 2, 2010. Despite the efforts of medics on the ground and in the air, Twigg's wounds were too severe, and he was pronounced dead by doctors shortly after arrival at an advanced Role 3 U.S. Army field hospital located minutes by helicopter from the battlefield. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
U.S. Marines, from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, return fire on Taliban positions near the town of Garmser in Helmand Province of Afghanistan on May 2, 2008. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
U.S. Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, 1st Battalion 5th Marines rest along a tree line after arriving in an overnight air assault near the Taliban stronghold of Nawa in Afghanistan's Helmand province on July 2, 2009. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
1st Lt. Nikesh Kapadia, 24, center, of Queens, N.Y., with the U.S. Army's 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky., stands in the rain while waiting to go through customs at the Transit Center in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, on the way home after completing a deployment in Afghanistan on Aug. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
Wounded U.S. Marine Sgt. Shane Hanley, center, a squad leader from Easy Company, 2-2 Marines, receives treatment by U.S. Army flight medic Sgt. Michael G. Patangan while airborne in an army Task Force Pegasus medevac helicopter, shortly after Hanley was wounded, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan on Feb. 9, 2010. Sgt. Hanley, of Punxsutawney, Pa., who agreed to have photos of himself published, sustained shrapnel injuries to the left side of his body, face and eye when an improvised explosive device detonated below him while he was on a foot patrol. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
During a rescue mission by a team from a U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, army medics carry a wounded Afghan Army soldier to an evacuation helicopter, in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, on Aug. 2, 2010. U.S. Air Force Pararescumen and helicopter aircrews work together to evacuate wounded combatants and civilians from battlefields in southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
United States Marine LCpl. Franklin Romans of Michigan, from the 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines "Warlords" searches a house during an operation in the Garmsir district of the volatile Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, on Dec. 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer, File)
Sgt. Joshua Engbrecht, 28, of Riverside Calif., left, and Pfc. Jack Shortridge, 21, of Long Beach Calif., of the U.S. Army's 1st Platoon Apache Company, 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Combat Brigade 10th Mountain Division based out of Fort Drum, N.Y., give each other haircuts under the stars at Combat Outpost Tangi in Afghanistan's Wardak Province on Aug. 18, 2009. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
U.S. Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit try to take shelter from a sand storm at forward operating base Dwyer in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan on May 7, 2008. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
Upon landing after a helicopter rescue mission, Tech. Sgt. Jeff Hedglin, right, an Air Force Pararescueman, or PJ, drapes an American flag over the remains of the first of two U.S. soldiers killed minutes earlier in an IED attack, assisted by fellow PJs, Senior Airman Robert Dieguez, center, and 1st Lt. Matthew Carlisle, in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan on July 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
Soldiers from the U.S. Army First Battalion, 26th Infantry take defensive positions at firebase Restrepo after receiving fire from Taliban positions in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar Province on May 11, 2009. Spc. Zachary Boyd of Fort Worth, TX, far left was wearing 'I love NY' boxer shorts after rushing from his sleeping quarters to join his fellow platoon members. From far right is Spc. Cecil Montgomery of Many, LA and Jordan Custer of Spokan, WA, center. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
A CH-47 Chinook helicopter from Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade flies along the edge of red sand dunes where they collide with a river and farmland on its way to retrieve British soldiers after a 5-day mission in the Helmand province in Afghanistan on June 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)
Tyson Hicks, 2, holds an American flag while in the arms of his father, Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel Hicks, who had just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan with the Georgia National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team on Sept. 16, 2014, in Macon, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
A U.S. soldier arrives at the scene where a suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 16, 2013. A Muslim militant group, Hizb-e-Islami, claimed responsibility for the powerful explosion that killed and wounded many and rattled buildings across Kabul. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)
Spc. Dallas Purdy from Hockley, Texas, hangs a message of support from friends Ashley and Katie Daniels while serving with the 1-320th Alpha Battery, 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division at COP Nolen, in the volatile Arghandab Valley, Kandahar, Afghanistan on July 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
Air Force Airman 1st Class Tyler Hitter stands by the transfer cases of Army Warrant Officer Joseph L. Schiro of Coral Springs, Fla., right, and Army Staff Sgt. Justin C. Marquez of Aberdeen, N.C., left, as they wait to be lowered from a cargo plane after arriving at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Oct. 8, 2012. According to the Department of Defense, Schiro and Marquez died in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
U.S. Marines from the 2nd MEB, 1st Battalion 5th Marines sleep in their fighting holes inside a compound where they stayed for the night, in the Nawa district of Afghanistan's Helmand province, on July 8, 2009. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
Here’s what 19-year-old Lance Cpl. William Bee felt flying into southern Afghanistan on Christmas Day 2001: purely lucky. The U.S. was hitting back at the al-Qaida plotters who had brought down the World Trade Center, and Bee found himself among the first Marines on the ground.
“Excitement,” Bee says these days, of the teenage Bee’s thoughts then. “To be the dudes that got to open it up first.”
In the decade that followed, three more deployments in America’s longest war scoured away that lucky feeling.
For Bee, it came down to a night in 2008 in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. By then a sergeant, Bee held the hand of an American sniper who had just been shot in the head, as a medic sliced open the man’s throat for an airway.
“After that it was like, you know what — ‘F—k these people,'” Bee recounted, of what drove him by his fourth, and final, Afghan deployment. “I just want to bring my guys back. That’s all I care about. I want to bring them home.”
As President Joe Biden shuts down the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan this month, Americans and Afghans are questioning whether the war was worth the cost: more than 3,000 American and other NATO lives lost, tens of thousands of Afghans dead and trillions of dollars of U.S. debt that generations of Americans will pay for. After a stunning week of fighting, Afghanistan appears at imminent threat of falling back under Taliban rule, just as Americans found it nearly 20 years ago.
For Biden, for Bee and for some of the American principals in the U.S. and NATO war in Afghanistan, the answer to whether it was worth the cost often comes down to parsing.
There were the first years of the war when Americans broke up Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida in Afghanistan and routed the Taliban government that had hosted it.
The proof is clear, says Douglas Lute, White House czar for the war under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, and a retired lieutenant general: Al-Qaida hasn’t been able to mount a major attack on the West since 2005.
“We have decimated al-Qaida in that region, in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Lute says.
But after that came the grinding second phase of the war. U.S. fears of a Taliban rebound whenever Americans eventually pulled out meant that service members like Bee kept getting sent back in, racking up more close calls, injuries and dead comrades.
Lute and others argue that what the second half of the war bought was time — a grace period for Afghanistan’s government, security forces and civil society to try to build enough strength to survive on their own.
Quality of life in some ways did improve under the Western occupation, even as the millions of dollars the U.S. poured into Afghanistan fed corruption. Infant mortality rates fell by half. In 2005, fewer than 1 in 4 Afghans had access to electricity. By 2019, nearly all did.
The second half of the war allowed Afghan women opportunities entirely denied them under the fundamentalist Taliban, so that more than 1 in 3 teenage girls — their whole lives spent under the protection of Western forces — today can read and write.
But it’s that longest, second phase of the war that looks on the verge of complete failure now. The Taliban’s stunning advance in the past week sets up a last stand in Kabul, where most Afghans live. It threatens to clamp the country under the Taliban’s strict interpretation of religious law, erasing much of the gains.
“There’s no ‘mission accomplished,'” Biden snapped last month, batting down a question from a reporter.
Biden quickly corrected himself, evoking the wins of the first few years of the war. “The mission was accomplished in that we … got Osama bin Laden, and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world,” he added.
America expended the most lives, and dollars, on the more inconclusive years of the war.
Annual combat deaths peaked around the time of the war’s midpoint, as Obama tried a final surge of forces to defeat the Taliban. In all, 2,448 American troops, 1,144 service members from NATO and other allied countries, more than 47,000 Afghan civilians and at least 66,000 Afghan military and police died, according to the Pentagon and to the Costs of War project.
Was it worth it?
“The people whose lives we affected, I personally think we did them better, that they’re better off for it,” answered Bee, who lives in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and is co-writing a book about his time in Afghanistan.
“But I also wouldn’t trade a handful of Afghan villages for one Marine,” he added.
Ask the same question in Afghanistan, though, and you get different answers.
Some Afghans — asked before the Taliban’s stunning sweep — respond it’s more than time for Americans to let Afghans handle their own affairs.
But one 21-year-old woman, Shogufa, says American troops’ two decades on the ground meant all the difference for her.
The Associated Press is using her first name only, given fears of Taliban retribution against women who violate their strict codes.
When still in her infancy, she was pledged to marry a much older cousin in the countryside to pay off a loan. But as she grew up, Shogufa came across a Western nonprofit that had come to Kabul to promote health and leadership for Afghan girls. It was one of a host of such development groups that sprang up in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led war.
Shogufa thrived. She deflected her family’s moves to marry her off to her cousin, got a job, and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
For Shogufa today, the gratitude for what she’s gained is shadowed by her fears of all that she stands to lose.
Her message to Americans, as they left and the Taliban closed in on Kabul? “Thank you for everything you have done in Afghanistan,” she said, in good but imperfect English. “The other thing was to request that they stay with us.”
Knickmeyer covered the 2001 Afghan Northern Alliance and U.S. air campaign that routed the Taliban, and the first weeks of the U.S. military presence at Kandahar in 2002.