In light of recent events in Afghanistan, the Tribune asked US Congressman Dan Crenshaw to contribute an editorial. Crenshaw is a former SEAL who served five deployments overseas. He lost his right eye during a mission in Afghanistan. He was medically retired in September of 2016 as a lieutenant commander after serving 10 years in the SEAL teams.

This isn’t the way we wanted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Americans are angry, disappointed, and now grieving for 13 dead servicemembers.  Veterans are questioning what it was all for, wondering if their sacrifices were worth it. Americans now feel embarrassed as our allies rightfully chastise us and our enemies laugh in our face.

On August 26th we suffered the largest loss of life in over a decade in Afghanistan. Thirteen servicemembers are dead, with many more wounded and some still fighting to hang on. Perhaps we didn’t end a war after all?

That was the promise after all – to end the war.  As the public became increasingly impatient and frustrated with our presence in the Middle East, politicians were all too happy to heed their cries and campaign on “ending the endless wars.”

But it was always a false promise.

Were we at war on September 10th, 2001? No. The names Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were still unfamiliar to average Americans. But they would become household names soon enough, because even though America was not at war with them, they were at war with us.  And on September 11th, 2001, they brought their war to our shores. Three-thousand Americans died at the hands of terrorists that day, and those same terrorists were provided safe haven by the Taliban. The rest is a history we all know too well.

But Americans struggle with the question: what was it all for? Did we win? Did we lose? Was it pointless? The answer isn’t as clear cut as many would like, because this was never a conventional war. It was always an indefinite battle with a faceless enemy made up of bands of terrorist and insurgent factions loosely strung together by a radical Islamist ideology. This enemy did not hate us because of something we did, they hated us because of who we are. Thus the war would indeed be endless, whether we liked it or not.

One may ask, what did we get for 20 years in Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror? The answer is simple: we got zero attacks on the homeland. We denied al Qaeda the safe haven they needed to plan external operations. We relegated them to local operations only. We fought them there so they could not fight us here. 

And for years, we struggled to find the right balance. The question of balance is a simple one: what is the minimal cost, in terms of troops and financial commitment, that we must incur in order to prevent the type of terrorist safe haven that led to the attacks on 9/11? It is a simple question but not a simple answer. For years we wavered in our commitments, sometimes expending vast resources only to set arbitrary deadlines that would appease the public. Americans rightfully became weary of the idea that an American style government could exist in a place like Afghanistan.

But over the last 7 years we found that balance. Our troop presence has hovered around 10,000 troops and lower. Over the last few years it was much less. We haven’t had a combat casualty in 18 months until this past week. But the angry and emotional slogan continued anyway: “no more endless wars!”

The argument for bringing the troops home is an emotional one, arising from exhaustion with overseas conflict. Most people don’t understand the situation in Afghanistan, and that causes distrust and anger. After 9/11, few denied that we needed to take action. But few understood what our strategy would be after we got there, and leaders failed to explain that leaving Afghanistan would allow the Taliban to re-emerge, paving the way for a terrorist safe haven. Americans became exhausted.

With this growing impatience, the case for cutting our losses grew stronger. And American leaders failed to articulate the trade-offs to the American people—and pose this simple question: “If we evacuate Afghanistan, what will happen?” The “no more endless wars” crowd always refused to answer. They prefer to live in a fictional reality wherein ending our side of the war ends the war as a whole. But this is indeed a fiction. They are at war with us whether or not we are at war with them. And with our botched exit from Afghanistan, terrorists will be emboldened, and once again have the opportunity and means to attack us at home.

This love of fiction led to another problem, namely the inability to distinguish between wasteful nation building and a small residual force that conducts occasional counterterror operations. As a result, when many Americans hear that there is a single soldier on the ground in Afghanistan, they interpret it to mean “nation building.”

That’s wrong. There are a lot of foreign policy options between nation building and giving up. We found the proper balance in recent years years—maintaining a small force that propped up the Afghan government while also giving us the capability to strike at Taliban and other terrorist networks as needed. When Echelon asked about the troop presence this way in July, more Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, support a small military presence in Afghanistan than those who support ending our presence entirely.

We had a very simple strategic goal with our presence in Afghanistan: preventing another 9/11. We accomplished that for twenty years, sometimes at a high cost but more recently at a minimal cost. The veterans and families who have sacrificed to that end did so bravely, and their sacrifices were certainly not in vain.  

America didn’t lose a war, or even end one. We gave up a strategic position. We gave up on our Afghan allies, expecting them to stave off a ruthless insurgency without our crucial support, which came at minimal cost to us. This administration’s actions are heartless, its justifications nonsensical. The consequences are dire for innocent Afghans and for America’s prestige. Twenty years after 9/11, I pray they don’t become equally dire for Americans at home.

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William Jones
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Well written editorial. Dan Crenshaw has personal understanding of the importance to military positions. He has backed his opinion with his life of service. Thank you for clarifying the truth vs political ‘reporting’. Thank you for your...

Well written editorial. Dan Crenshaw has personal understanding of the importance to military positions. He has backed his opinion with his life of service. Thank you for clarifying the truth vs political ‘reporting’. Thank you for your service and leadership.

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C McKenzie
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