After two decades of midnight watches and gut-twisting patrols down bomb-riddled roads, after all the deaths and bloodshed and lost years, that was the one inescapable question on Wednesday among many of the 800,000 Americans who have served in Afghanistan since 2001.
“There’s no easy answer, no victory dance, no ‘we were right and they were wrong,’” said Jason Dempsey, 49, who deployed twice to Afghanistan as an Army officer to train the Afghan forces who are now fighting a losing battle against the Taliban. For military leaders, Mr. Dempsey said, “the end of the war should only bring a collective feeling of guilt and introspection.”
Across the country, when the news broke that President Biden planned to withdraw virtually all United States troops from the country by Sept. 11 and end the longest war in American history, messages flashed on phones and veterans called old squadmates, some relieved and some on the edge of tears.
Few wanted the war to continue. But finally ending it posed questions that some have pondered for years without easy answers: How is it possible for the United States to win almost every battle and still lose the war? How could the countless sacrifices and small victories leave Afghanistan with no better promise of peace than it had a generation ago? What does leaving say about the value of the nearly 2,400 Americans who were killed? And what does it say about the nation as a whole?
“It’s confusing, it’s complicated,” said Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Ackerman arrived in Afghanistan for his first tour there in 2008, believing he had missed the war. He would soon be involved in a surge that sent more than 100,000 troops to the country.
Now a writer, Mr. Ackerman said he and many others had been forced to make their own individual peace with the war a long time ago. “A lot of us have tried to move on, and when we saw the news, it wasn’t a huge surprise,” he said. “The people who have served on the ground are the last people you need to tell that the war is going to end in tears.”
But that acceptance did not take the sting out of the news, he said. “For years I sat across from Afghans in shuras and looked them in the eye, and told them to ally themselves with America,” he recalled. “That was the first thing I thought about when I heard the news. What about these people who trusted us? Will this be seen as a great betrayal? How will the world now see us a nation and a people?”
Even veterans who see the end as a relief say that pulling troops from Afghanistan does not mean the United States should take its focus off counterterrorism.
Tony Mayne was there at the beginning. As a 25-year-old Ranger, he parachuted into the night over Kandahar Province five weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Many saw the routing of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the months that followed as a decisive victory, but military leaders found it necessary to continue sending soldiers like Mr. Mayne, who deployed three more times for counterterror missions as the Taliban returned in force.