Amid chaos of departure, Northwest Florida veterans proud of service in Afghanistan
FORT WALTON BEACH – Disheartening. Disappointing. Frustrating. Angering.
The words came hard and slow and deliberate from Patt Maney, a 36-year veteran and retired U.S. Army Reserve brigadier general, as he contemplated the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan, where he had served in the early 2000s.
In 2005, an improvised device exploded underneath a vehicle in which Maney was riding in Afghanistan, and he spent nearly two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before returning home to Okaloosa County, where he served as a Circuit Court judge and, after retiring, was elected to the Florida Legislature.
“It’s disheartening, disappointing, frustrating and angering ... because so many good people, American and Afghan, worked so hard, invested so much, and really accomplished a great deal, to see it suffer such a dramatic setback,” Maney said in a recent interview on the U.S. departure from a country where it had spent 20 years, first rooting out terrorists and later attempting to build a democratic nation.
After removing the hardline Islamist Taliban fighters from power in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, the U.S. military, its international partners and the Afghan national military and police forces saw the group in the ensuing years claw its way back into power and, in recent days, take over the country.
Maney’s comments came as cable news networks filled television screens with pictures of people clinging desperately to the sides of U.S. military aircraft as America began its exit from Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed Tuesday, after more than 2,000 U.S. military deaths and the expenditure of an estimated $2.2 trillion.
Maney – whose work included advising Afghan and U.S. government officials on establishing and maintaining political stability in the country, the development of political institutions, and developing a workable judicial infrastructure – has been particularly stung by the departure in the wake of the Afghan people being given a taste of freedom by virtue of American and coalition partners’ involvement.
In fact, Maney saw the pictures of Afghans clinging to the sides of aircraft as stark evidence of the desire for freedom.
“I mean, the fact the people want freedom so badly that they will irrationally think that they can hang on the side of an airplane at 35,000 feet for several hours going hundreds of miles an hour shows how desperate people are to get out,” he said.
Afghan people wanted democracy
Looking back on his own time in Afghanistan, Maney even then saw the yearning for freedom among the Afghan people.
“I was there,” he said. “I took part in the first presidential election. The people were excited about democracy. They very proudly held up their finger with the ink on it (a way of keeping track of who had cast a ballot and who had not) to show that they had voted. And they voted despite Taliban threats and attacks.
“I’m proud to have served in Afghanistan,” Maney continued. “It’s a good day when you can be part of providing economic opportunity and freedom to 25 million people.”
Right now, though, Maney is particularly frustrated about the chaos of the U.S. departure, which seems destined to leave behind many of the Afghans who were instrumental in U.S. efforts to establish democratic institutions and to project American power in a strategically important corner of the globe.
“You’ve got to ask, ‘How did this happen?’,” Maney said. “And that’s not a partisan thing.”
For some time now, like other veterans of Afghanistan, Maney has been on the phone and sending text messages and emails as part of numerous efforts outside of government channels to determine the fate of friends in the country – Americans and Afghans who assisted U.S. efforts – and to work to get them out of the country.
“In large part, they can’t get to the airport (Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, effectively the only way out of the country now),” said Maney, who lamented that British and French military forces in Kabul are going out into the streets to get their citizens and Afghan friends to the airport, an option not open to American troops.
“We’re not doing that,” Maney said. “The U.S. military follows orders, and the orders are, ‘You are to secure the airport.’ That’s their mission, to secure the airport and process the people.
“We’re hamstrung by the Aug. 31 deadline ... and (by) the apparent lack of understanding that we have citizens scattered throughout Afghanistan. How are they going to get to Kabul, and if they get to Kabul, how are they going to get to the airport?”
Beyond the military constraints are bureaucratic frustrations.
“I talked a couple of days ago to an Afghan-American in this country who has family members – cousins – in Afghanistan, who work for American contractors,” Maney said. “They applied for their visas over three years ago, and they have yet to be interviewed.
“They’re not in Kabul. So they have to get to Kabul, then get through the Taliban checkpoints, and then wait in line” for a chance to get out of the country.
In other communications with people trying to get friends and relatives out of Afghanistan outside of government channels, Maney said, “I was told people stood outside trying to get into the airport for 14 hours, and while they were waiting, three women died.”
‘We didn’t execute the plan’
With the clock ticking down on a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Maney is not particularly optimistic that all American citizens and Afghan friends will get out by the Tuesday deadline.
“I know there are a lot of good people working to get folks out,” he said. But, “I’m not sanguine that the national leadership is going to be flexible and forceful enough to make that happen for all U.S. citizens, and our endangered allies.”
Against that backdrop, Maney is adamant that the U.S. military had a plan to get people out, but for some reason, didn’t execute that plan.
“Everybody who’s been involved in any kind of military regional headquarters or planning knows that the military has noncombatant operations plans sitting on the shelf, probably for every country in the world, because there are hurricanes and earthquakes and coups and all different things that happen around the world,” he said. “So I’m confident we had a plan, and it’s unimaginable to me why we didn’t execute the plan.”
Going forward, Maney said in the recent interview more than a week prior to Tuesday’s departure date, “I don’t think we ought to be a slave to a deadline, and I don’t think we ought to be timid. I don’t think we need to be bellicose, but I honestly don’t think the Taliban want to take us on.”
As an example, “I think we ought to start sending armed vehicles out – perhaps in coordination with the Taliban – ... (and) to say we’ve got an American family living in Kabul or sheltering with their cousins in Kabul ... (and) you can ride with us to make sure we’re not doing anything, but we’re going to go get them.”
Even with a more aggressive approach to getting Americans and friendly Afghans out of the country, Maney believes that the circumstances of the departure will have a long-lasting effect on the world’s view of the United States.
“I mean the third-order effects (future ramifications for) America’s image and capability is going to be devastating for probably at least a generation,” he said.
Working to take a positive note from the departure, Maney indicated that he doesn’t see much danger of it fracturing the personal relationships that he and others have forged with Afghans.
“I think most people recognize the difference between personal relationships and institutional relationships,” he said. “Certainly there is a strong sense in the Pashtun (Afghan) culture that if you break bread, if you’re a guest, or if you have a guest, that that creates a distinct relationship ... .”
Maney made a case for a continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan, noting that the United States still has a military presence in Germany, Japan and Italy three-quarters of a century after World War II.
“We have military forces stationed around the world because it’s in our national interest to protect American individuals, to protect American businesses, to protect American policies,” Maney contended, noting that the presence of just 2,500 troops in Afghanistan – the drawdown level reached in January of this year – has been a stabilizing influence.
Until Thursday, in fact, when 13 U.S. troops died in an attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport, there had not been an American combat casualty in Afghanistan since February 2020.
“I’m not for “forever war,’” Maney said. But at the same time, he added, there were reasons for an extended presence in Afghanistan, in particular protecting the U.S. homeland from terrorist attacks.
Still, he conceded that U.S. officials likely made a mistake in not establishing a clear expectation that America would have a lengthy involvement in Afghanistan.
“I think one of our early and critical errors was not telling the American people that we needed to look (toward) ... being there a good while. We set the expectation ... too low, and that led to American frustration.”
‘Americans want to do the right thing’
As Maney believes, there are defensible reasons for having a presence in Afghanistan, for America or for any other country, according to Jacob Shively, an associate professor in international relations at the University of West Florida.
Geographically, Afghanistan is located at the margins of a number of important geopolitical regions, including China, Russia and Iran, which makes it strategically and tactically attractive, Shively said.
“It’s this space that draws in both large empires, and the people fleeing them or escaping them,” he said. “It’s convenient to be there, because it’s difficult to access or dominate or control.”
But it’s a mistake to think that nation-building, as the United States tried to do, was going to work, Shively added. The logic for the United States or any other country interested in venturing into Afghanistan “isn’t that you’re going to turn it into South Korea (which democratized following the Korean War) ....” Shively said. Instead, the logic for being in Afghanistan is that “you’ll at least deny it to others who want to make problems.”
However, under the administration of former President George W. Bush, the U.S. government decided to try its hand at nation-building after taking down the Taliban with a relatively minimal investment of Special Forces troops and air support.
The problem is that “you have to play a lot of politics” to set up a government, and while the United States is good at exercising military and economic power, it’s much less effective in the political aspects of nation-building strategies, he said.
“I think a lot of Americans never wanted to be imposing America’s will on other places.”
But perhaps unfortunately, he suggested, in America, “we always have the model of World War II in our mind,” where after winning the war, the United States set up new governments in other countries. However, as opposed to Afghanistan, those countries “were already well-developed societies, so they had some framework” for establishing workable new governments.
Exacerbating the issues in Afghanistan, where nation-building already was a dicey proposition, has been the American desire to be faithful to its commitments, Shively added.
“Americans want to do the right thing. If things are not going well, we don’t want to just abandon somebody.”
Despite that, Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, had all said they wanted to get out of Afghanistan. But now that America actually is leaving the country, “It might be the rational decision, but it doesn’t feel that way,” Shively said.
In terms of lessons learned from Afghanistan, it may be that Americans should consider broader approaches to the United States’ role in the world, he added.
“Americans are very comfortable spending money on the military, but it has blinded us ... (W)e need to think more about pairing our military abilities with political and diplomatic capabilities.”
‘We didn’t fight this war in vain’
For the immediate future, though, veterans like Maney are left to ponder what the past 20 years mean to them, both personally and for the fellow soldiers lost in Afghanistan.
One of those veterans is Army Master Sgt. Joey Paladino, formerly part of the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Eglin Air Force Base. Paladino, who lives in Pace, was part of multiple deployments to Afghanistan, the last one in 2019. He lost two friends in the country, fellow 7th Group Master Sgts. Jose Gonzales and Luis Deleon-Figueroa, who fell to enemy fire in 2019.
Paladino said he supports the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“I do not believe that we should be in Afghanistan anymore. I think the Afghan government should sustain themselves,” he said in the early days of the U.S. exit, before it became abundantly clear that the Taliban were going to retake the country.
Taking a broader look at the conflict, “I’ve been fighting this war for 20 years almost, and the message that I would want conveyed to the American people is ‘Hey man, we didn’t fight this war in vain, and we as veterans, don’t think that we did,’” Paladino said.
On a personal level, “I don’t think that I lost my (military) brothers in vain. I’m very proud of what we did, and when we were there doing it, it was amazing. So don’t think for a minute that we are disgruntled or anything like that.
“We don’t consider it a loss,” Paladino continued, choosing, like Maney, to look at U.S. involvement in Afghanistan beyond the lens of the end result.
“There were a lot of victories along the way,” he said, “and we kept America safe for 20 years from terror and there were no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. And that’s the way we look at it.”
Paladino wouldn’t guess at how other Afghanistan veterans might feel about the U.S. role there, but he did have a suggestion as to how he and other veterans should portray that 20-year investment of blood and treasure.
“I think the narrative that we should spin as veterans is ‘We are proud of what we did,’ and not a negative message,” he said. “And no matter what politically is going on, I think that is the way that we should spin it.”
Eric Brown, a Niceville Special Forces soldier with four deployments to Afghanistan, now just weeks from retirement from the Army after 24 years, unequivocally supports the U.S. government’s decisions on the American exit.
“It’s tough after 20 years when you work on something, multiple combat deployments, people have died, and everything stops just very abruptly,” he said. “And obviously, you have the Afghan interpreters that you worked with or the Afghan soldiers, you feel bad for them for what is happening to them. Right? Because, they’re sort of stuck. They relied heavily on coalition support.”
But, “after being in the conflict for the entire 20 years – the whole thing – at some point there was always going to be some type of transition, and I’m not a policymaker, so it’s not my piece to speak on when they do it,” Brown said.
Being a soldier, “We’re here to support whatever the president and the folks decided to do up in D.C.,” he added.
In any case, there may not be any immediately definitive answer on whether the United States was right or wrong to leave Afghanistan in the way and at the time that it did.
“We’ll know 20 years from now,” Brown suggested. “Hindsight is 20/20.”
Colin Warren-Hicks of the Pensacola News-Journal contributed to this report.