Accountability and Change Can Help Afghanistan Veterans Make Peace with the War

U.S. Marin assists evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul.
A U.S. Marine with Joint Task Force - Crisis Response assists evacuees at an Evacuation Control Check Point (ECC) during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 26. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla) 

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Two years ago, America watched as Afghanistan crumbled before our eyes. Afghans and Americans rushed to escape the country as the Taliban began taking control, culminating in the deaths of 13 troops just days before the withdrawal was complete.

For those of us who served in Afghanistan, watching those moments unfold in real time was gut-wrenching. It felt like the prior 20 years of work and courageous service were for nothing. Young men and women, some of whom were the same age as the war itself, lost their lives when they were so close to returning home.

We know, of course, that our service in Afghanistan did serve a noble purpose. We accomplished our original missions there: overthrowing the 2002 Taliban, ejecting al-Qaida, and killing Osama bin Laden.

But mission creep set in, and nation-building began, causing thousands of American troops to lose their lives in support of these vague operations with little to no connection to vital U.S. interests.

Looking back, the tragic end to the Afghanistan War and the 20 years of death and destruction that preceded it are harsh reminders that wars must be executed responsibly, with realistic, vital goals in mind. And America's leaders must be held accountable for failures on those fronts.

To the first point, America has taken a misguided approach to war for decades. Our lawmakers have signed into law open-ended Authorizations for Use of Military Force, or AUMFs, that have allowed Pentagon leaders and four presidents to send troops into harm's way without votes approving operations or proper oversight from Congress.

Making decisions to send America's sons and daughters to war should be amongst the hardest that members of Congress make. But the blank-check nature of broad AUMFs gives them the chance to shirk this responsibility, leaving decisions to generals and Defense Department bureaucrats who are more likely to misuse these authorities as they're further removed from public accountability.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 7,000 service members, allies and military contractors have lost their lives in combat. That is 7,000 children, siblings, spouses, parents and friends whose loss leaves a hole in the lives of those who loved them at home. Their loss is felt in hurting families and communities every day.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan put an end to at least some of the needless deaths. America's sons and daughters are no longer deployed fighting a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. They stand ready to protect vital U.S. interests, but they do so in their homes and communities while out of unnecessary danger.

If we learn one lesson from Afghanistan, it should be that combat will devolve from its original mission if Congress doesn't keep a tight hold on oversight and make tough decisions about when to end conflicts.

To the second point, the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan is cause for accountability measures. Withdrawing from Afghanistan was the right decision, but the method in which the withdrawal was executed and the decades of lies and misinformation fed to the public about the war demand answers and justice.

The Afghanistan Papers showed what many of us who served in theater already knew: Our leaders realized early on that nation-building in Afghanistan was going to be an impossible feat. Further, leaders often didn't even know what we were trying to accomplish there in the first place.

But still they sacrificed American troops, my friends included, in the name of figuring it out and saving face for their mistakes.

As the Afghanistan War Commission begins untangling 20 years of war, it's my hope, along with many of my fellow veterans, that those who made poor decisions during the course of the war will be held accountable.

Two years after the final withdrawal from Afghanistan, I still deal with complicated feelings about the war itself, as do most Afghanistan veterans I know. A change in how the U.S. approaches war and accountability for poor execution will help us sort through those feelings and make peace with them.

-- John Byrnes is deputy director of Concerned Veterans for America, an organization that is a member of the Stand Together philanthropic community that was founded by Charles Koch. Byrnes is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and Army National Guard who deployed to Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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