Thoughts on America’s retrograde from Afghanistan


I expected a torrent of emotion watching our feckless retrograde from Afghanistan, from a failed attempt at nation building under a criminally negligent strategy in what became America’s longest war. However, this war wasn’t waged by America, it was waged by a dozen or so battalions and brigades rotationally throughout the two decades, and even then, it was more a rumor of war then an actual one. Americans never cared about the conflict because if they had, they would have held our leaders accountable for the gross lack of success. Like most combat recollections, I expect that in the coming months or years the gravity of this ignominious retrograde my hit me like a ton of bricks. Now though, I simply watch it with indifference; odd because my life from 2001 to 2018 was more or less orbital on that quest.

Rehearsing in my mind how I’ll someday tell my children and yet to be born grandchildren and the complexity of many dynamics consume my mind. I’ll make five points, one point for each ethnic group in Afghanistan. My first point- There is no such thing as “Afghanistan” as it’s a region filled with 5 different ethnic groups and vast localization, isolation and sectarianism. The notion that “unity” is pragmatic there exists only in neo-liberal intellectual’s minds.

Second, there is the “Taliban” which is a meaningless term as the organization we went to war with was utterly destroyed by us, replaced with a massive confederation of Pashtu tribes who historically fought any government that sat in Kabul. This Pashtu confederation, formed largely in 2006-07, was supported by Pakistani ISI and then stood on its own feet, and is a fully functional money-making business, shake down operation, and shadow government combined with vigilante justice.

Third, it’s a horrible place. It’s a version of hell on earth. Human trauma, fetid urban areas, Neolithic countryside (if you can call it a “countryside”) populated by desperation and mentalities that lend to words like “barbarism’ and “brutal.” Ask any of us who spent time outside the wire in Afghanistan and they will bear witness to a parade of human drama that was literally everywhere. Amidst this hell one would find remarkably fantastic people who seemed to be utterly out of place, like Muslim Dante Alighieri’s walking through the inferno. No good “Afghan” I ever met lived long. That place seems cursed to kill its heroes. To this day I raise a glass to many of them from time to time, in private because no one would understand unless they were with me there.

Fourth, the climate is unbearable- yet we bore it. Extreme heat, extreme cold, noxious smells, and dirt. Always dirt. I can still smell the body odors of the unwashed, a whiff and snot immediately formed to run down my throat. I dined with them in cramped chow halls, sat with them in the field, pulled security over them while they prayed, served alongside many of them. I held a young man in my arms as he cried telling me, through my interpreter, about the first kill he’d done on the mission that day. Just on of many stories.

Fifth, the never-ending feeling of doom, a complete void for any optimism. Every Afghan Soldier and Policeman I knew saw himself as a dead man walking. I don’t think I’ll make these points to my daughters. I don’t think I want them to know about this, but should they know, maybe it will help them grow and be better women.

The understanding is actually a simple one, confused by the noise of the disaster known as Afghanistan, as C.S. Lewis wrote: “Noise is the music of hell.” What started as a glorious mission, an epic victory, a saga of a historic liberation became a debacle when we pivoted away from the war, and began to nation build. The military was unleashed in 2002,2003,2004 and then something happened.

The military abdicated to our civilian leadership who were not worthy of waging war, not worthy to impact the destinies of others. No one was in charge. Our command structure resembled the chaos of the region. Diplomats, spies, interlopers, NATO, the Army… no one was in charge. It was a giant goat-f***. Generals and politicians and government bureaucrats all were Pontius Pilates, with the heavy lifting being done by Army, consisting of different commanders every year with different paradigms. President Bush fantasized about the spirit of democracy as the turning point- clearly he’d never been face to face with the locals.

Obama pretended the war didn’t exist and hamstrung the military- he actually did, I fought under his rules of engagement, they were ridiculous.

Trump did the right thing in echoing the ISIS strategy but it was too late, the Afghan Army and Police were built on a bad foundation.

Our paradigm of “letting them do for themselves” allowed for corruption, incompetence and a tragedy where an Afghan Soldier was paid less than what it cost to live, and often had no water, ammunition or credible leadership in the ranks. I remember listening to Major General Abrams speak- threatening any of us if we gave the Afghans any fuel, etc… in an effort to force them to plan. Yeah- that worked. We gave them gas anyway. We weren’t going to let them run out of gas in the middle of the Shorbok desert. Abrams- damn you. You fired out orders left and right and everyone was scared of you. The things you should of spoke for you didn’t. The things you did shout about were detrimental.

After that pivot, the U.S. Army fought a bizarre half measured series of separate actions that neither were decisive or sustainable. We utterly denied there was an enemy- the Pashtun tribes. Never once did we fight Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks or Azara. The enemy was always Pashtun. Instead, we talked about the “Taliban” not knowing its task organization, leadership, using information from NATO countries that was utterly incorrect and being deceived by Pakistani ISI disinformation.

The enemy in that war was Pakistan. While we gave them billions of dollars in aid, they built the force we are now calling “Taliban” and funded the thousands of bombings, assassinations and attacks. In criminal negligence our Infantrymen went outside the wire in complete ignorance of who their enemy was- we knew them only when they were firing on us or blowing us up. We won our fights, we fought fiercely and when the enemy presented himself, we annihilated them.

Then we would foolishly believe claims that the people trying to kill us were just innocent farmers- so much that our own military leadership, led by McCrystal, reversed the momentum so that he could eagerly get the attention and approval of his political hero- Barack Obama. McCrystal’s mission wasn’t to defeat the “Taliban’ but instead was to gain accolades from his master- which is the real mission and talent of our senior officer corps.

The sad lesson of this ugly disgrace, caused by the feckless mis-leadership of Joe Biden and his regime, who obviously listened to the same stupidity that has been designing the policies behind this fool’s errand, is that we  American’s have lost the control of our government, a government that isn’t in control of itself. Our national religion is nihilism and much of our country doesn’t have the maturity or sense of gravitas to comprehend reality, living in a world of “wokeness” and cultural, spiritual confusion which is spinning toward decline.

Out of this chaos, we need heroes to rise. To take charge, to take office, to stand against the apathetic and corrupt. Like Horatius at the gate: “What better way to die then against innumerable odds, for the ashes of our fathers and the temples of our Gods” It’s time to be Horatius. America is worth it-what can go wrong? See Afghanistan.


Labarbera served in Afghanistan 2003-4 as a staff officer, 2009-10 as an Advisor to the Afghan National Police, and 2013-14 as an Infantry Battalion Operations Officer.