Refugees from Kabul, Afghanistan, sit inside a military aircraft as they arrive at Tashkent Airport in Uzbekistan on Aug. 22, 2021. (Bundeswehr via Getty Images)
As Afghanistan fell into the clutches of the Taliban last week, Kansans were confused and saddened. But those reactions couldn’t compare to the emotions that washed over local veterans of the conflict and their families — including Danny Sjursen and Melissa Jarboe.
Their stories are different. Sjursen is a veteran who served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, and Jarboe’s husband, Jamie, died in 2012 from injuries sustained in the war. But each has spent the years since grappling with the war’s legacies in their own ways — while the rest of Kansas and the country decided to feign amnesia about overseas conflicts. U.S. soldiers sacrificing in foreign lands became an afterthought to many. But not to Sjursen and Jarboe.
That put both in a peculiar situation last week, when U.S. attention snapped to Afghanistan for the first time in a decade or more.
“It’s been a bit of a nightmare,” Sjursen told me late last week. “You’re reliving the disaster that is this final fall.”
“Sunday and Monday was hard because I felt helpless,” Jarboe said. “And I think a lot of Americans did.”
‘Weight of the war’
Sjursen, a retired U.S. Army major who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, is now the director of the Eisenhower Media Network. He writes frequently from an antiwar perspective, and he speaks quickly and precisely, spilling out names of commanders, media figures, and regions in Afghanistan.
He told me his phone had been buzzing nonstop from an informal network of veterans, all of them checking in on one another and trying to make sense of it all.
“The weight of the war doesn’t make us better or special, where we should be privileged, but the weight of the war — because there’s no draft — fell on like a very small sort of warrior class,” Sjursen said. “These folks are like a mini tribe that feels like the civilian society didn’t even really follow this work. They just really didn’t.”
This group was wondering, he said, what it was all for. They had lost friends, been wounded and sometimes taken lives, all as part of their jobs. Jamie Jarboe was part of that history too — Sjursen had been a troop commander in his same unit in Afghanistan.
“It is a very jarring thing, indeed, to then see it all fall apart,” he said.
What did Americans at home miss about the conflict? What didn’t we see?
“They underestimated the skill, the will and the popularity of the Taliban,” Sjursen said. “I think they also never understood … that at the height of the surge, when we had 100,000 soldiers there — I was there — we were not winning. Despite the loud protestations of the generals in the press releases. To the contrary, the Taliban was never militarily pushed really that far out.”
Melissa Jarboe created the Military Veteran Project after the death of her husband, a staff sergeant wounded by a sniper. The nonprofit aims to prevent veteran suicide through treatment of post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. In promoting the group’s work, Jarboe has made connections in Washington, D.C., and Afghanistan itself.
“We had mass chaos over the weekend,” she told me. “We were inundated with thousands — not hundreds but thousands — of people messaging, calling.”
Some wanted help getting out of the country. But that isn’t the focus of the nonprofit, which meant working as a de facto referral service as images from Kabul flooded television screens.
“That mass chaos is not something the military veteran project does,” Jarboe said. “Our treatment program is a long, extensive process. And it’s a long, expensive process to be brought into it. And so we couldn’t push out treatments, and we don’t have the volunteers to sit by the phone lines. But we do have fellow organizations that can, and that’s what we kind of pushed through and did.”
What did Jarboe think most Americans didn’t see or understand about the war? She took a reflective attitude.
“Everybody has the freedom to be able to believe and think what they want, right? So if they’re not properly informed with the information, I don’t believe people can make a good judgment call,” she said. “But some people were not fazed by the Afghanistan war. And that is so amazing, isn’t it? You know, we have the ability here in America to not have to care about war.”
We want to believe that we can change the world and our circumstances for the better.
We want to believe that we hold the power to create positive change.
But the end of our two decades in Afghanistan suggests that belief isn’t enough. An ideal world can’t be simply conjured up through optimistic talk and polished public relations. Keeping troops there indefinitely wasn’t the answer either — and according to Sjursen, likely worsened the problem.
“Any occupier inevitably, counterproductively, fuels the narrative of the resistor and actually increases the legitimacy in the eyes of the people of the resistance organizations,” he said. “So the Taliban, despite their brutality, and despite being unpopular in certain parts of Afghanistan, suddenly looks like the only legitimate resistance alternative to an American military occupation.”
That brings us to the most difficult set of questions. What was the United States in Afghanistan for, and what did we want to accomplish? Were we there to punish terrorists and their enablers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001? If so, why did we remain in the country for nearly two decades of fighting?
As we grapple with a painful aftermath in Kabul, many Kansans want to draw sweeping conclusions. We want to blame a president, party or government agency. We want to understand how to feel. But the Afghanistan War wasn’t a single event. It was two decades of history that intersected with millions of lives.
– Clay Wirestone
“We had a mission to seek out al-Qaeda and seek out ISIS,” Jarboe said. “And we were there to expire the leaders of those organizations. And then a few other things, I assume, terroristic threats came up along the way,” along with nation-building efforts.
She wonders why no one said, after those leaders were killed, it was time to leave.
“I don’t know why that decision was not made up until this point. It was time for the war to end. And it’s time for America and our military to rest,” she said.
Sjursen saw confusion from the start.
“America did not seem to ever really know what they wanted to do with Afghanistan,” he said. “They were never really sure what they wanted this war to be, never really sure what they wanted, what victory would look like. They never really clearly defined that. And when they did define it, they kept shifting the goalposts forward and back, forward and back.”
As we grapple with a painful aftermath in Kabul, many Kansans want to draw sweeping conclusions. We want to blame a president, party or government agency. We want to understand how to feel. But the Afghanistan War wasn’t a single event. It was two decades of history that intersected with millions of lives, including those of Sjursen and Jarboe. It was messy and complicated and emotional.
Perhaps we should pause. Perhaps we should ponder our limitations, of perspective and imagination. Perhaps we should simply listen to the voices of those who sacrificed so much.
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