Many have watched with horror the debacle of Afghanistan’s chaotic Western withdrawal of troops and diplomats, leaving the local population at the mercy of the Taliban takeover. But for former soldiers who served in the country, the events are even more poignant.
Some of the most angry and bitter reactions come from British veterans. The United Kingdom sent the second largest number of troops to Afghanistan, after the United States.
Jack Cummings lost his legs while fighting on the field, tweeting in his “bangaversary” – the squad term for the anniversary of the explosion – “Did I lose my legs for nothing? It seems. My teammates died in vain. Yes. “
The former bomb disposal specialist served two tours with the 101st Engineer Regiment in Afghanistan and competed in the Invictus Games.
He has recounted how the British Army gave Afghans “the best training”, describing the experience of seeing the country “vanish” in about a week as “heartbreaking”.
‘I would do it all again tomorrow’
Former army commander Rob Shenton made two tours of Afghanistan in 2008 and 2011/12, including as a liaison between the locals and the army when he was deployed to Helmand province.
“I helped create a municipal work plan to employ the locals. The first local I met executed that plan. We became good friends. Five months later I put his body in a coffin and sent him back to his family for burial. before sunset. He had been shot at his front door by the Taliban, “he told Euronews.
“I can’t really describe how I felt when I had to do that. These were people we used to have tea with in the evenings and chat. Now I’m numb to a lot of my emotions around these relationships.”
He described his tours, particularly the first one, as “moving, heartbreaking and heartbreaking”, but also “professionally satisfying”.
And there were consequences. Shenton developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and tried to kill herself a year after returning from Afghanistan.
“I ended up in a mental hospital. I knew my life would never be the same again. A few years later I was discharged from the army after 25 years in uniform. I’m getting better now without (the Veterans Support Charity). for Heroes, he would be in a much worse place.
“But despite what happened to me, I am proud of what we did. It exemplified the excellent teamwork for which the British Army is excellent. I would do it all again tomorrow if I could. We all did our duty to the best of our ability.” . capacity and beyond, “he emphasized.
Coverage can be ‘trigger’
Other British veterans have also expressed great frustration. Britain’s parliament was convened on Wednesday to debate Afghanistan, but former Defense Minister Johnny Mercer, who served in the country as a soldier, is scathing about the handling of events by his own Conservative government.
“Parliament is being withdrawn. So what? The airport is under siege,” he told the BBC. “Boris Johnson has said that he does not want Afghanistan to become a place for terrorism, it means nothing to the families of those who lost their sons and daughters in this war.”
Other senior Tories have spoken similar criticism of the government, for not doing more to confront the Americans bent on withdrawing and helping the Afghan forces and the population. “Why the hell did they all die?” ran the Daily Mail headline on Monday, referring to losses among British service personnel.
“The situation in Afghanistan can be distressing for anyone who has served or been affected by conflict,” says Help for Heroes, a support group for men and women who have been physically or psychologically injured while serving in the military. British.
Sarah Jones, Help for Heroes director of psychological wellness, told Euronews that the charity has heard “from many of the veterans we support that they are finding coverage of concern.”
“The type of graphic content shown in the media can trigger anyone who has experienced being in a conflict zone. The sights and sounds can remind them of difficult events and relive traumatic experiences. As such, their need for support may increase at this time.
“We hope that there will be a significant mental health need in the future as a result of current events,” he continued.
Former army commander Shenton told Euronews that he can relate to veterans who are anxious about events.
“I have been lucky, it has taken me years to be able to see some of the media coverage and books that were written during my first tour. Just last month I looked at a BBC Newsnight report made so many years ago to connect with someone on the same tour, and I found out that one of the soldiers in that report had taken his own life a few years ago, “he said.
Charity has issued tips for veterans who may need help.
‘The experience was worth it’
Germany also contributed a significant number of troops to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Armin Laschet, head of Angela Merkel’s conservative party and a possible successor to the German chancellor, has called the withdrawal of the Western military alliance the “biggest debacle” since its inception.
But among the German soldiers who served in the country there are some more philosophical views.
“The experience was worth it, I got to know other countries, other peoples, other customs. We also received a relatively warm welcome from the population, we could feel that, ”says Andreas Braeutigam.
The 58-year-old was deployed to Afghanistan for eight months between 2003 and 2004. He was nearly killed by a gunshot through the ear and lost seven comrades in a German helicopter crash. Also a veteran of NATO campaigns in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, today he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“The Afghan people won their freedom, especially the women, but they are in the midst of being undermined,” he told AFP recently as the Taliban advanced across the country amid the withdrawal of Western troops.
However, he also wonders if the NATO mission made any difference in Afghanistan: “NATO was not designed to do many things; we cannot make a state bend,” he says.
“No one can do it, not even us, and as long as the Taliban are more numerous and have the support of other countries. No matter which army enters, there will be no possibility of bringing peace to the country.”
French Lieutenant Colonel Jean Michelin served in Afghanistan in 2012. Still on active duty, he is preparing for a new mission in the Sahel region of Africa, and says that although the experience has marked him deeply, he cannot afford to reflect too much on the past.
“We cannot live with the weight of Afghanistan forever. A soldier’s job is also to be ready to go again. I cannot carry Afghanistan in my suitcase,” he told AFP.
Speaking in July, he argued that it is not a soldier’s job to ask whether it is right for international troops to be deployed to Afghanistan.
“The why?’ It is not a military issue, it is a political issue, “he said.” There is a precedent in Afghanistan for digesting and spitting foreign forces coming. We are not the first to have experienced this. “
There are also mixed feelings among US forces, who now see helpless as the Taliban they once fought against take over Afghanistan.
“I firmly believe it was time to go home. We put a lot of money and training into the Afghan army, where we gave them the tools they need to support themselves,” Marc Silvestri said recently.
But watching the chaotic recall unfold in real time has surprised the 43-year-old chief of veterans services in Revere, Massachusetts.
“I never expected the speed and brashness of the Taliban to be what it is,” he said. “I never expected that the training and money that we put into the Afghan army, they would just lay down their weapons and give the country back. That has been shocking to me.”
For veteran Chad Fross, the withdrawal of US troops “was always going to be a disaster” regardless of who was in charge, due to a lack of understanding of Afghanistan.
“A lot of people are going to ask, ‘Why? It didn’t make sense for me to be there. To see my friends die or lose body parts or lose their minds.”
“But at the same time, I wonder how much more useless it would be to stay the course when it would be the same result 20 years from now.”
More than 3,500 service members have died in the Afghan campaign since the US-led invasion of the country in 2001. Thousands more were maimed.
Afghans have made significant progress in some areas: Infant mortality dropped by 50 percent, according to Harvard UNICEF in 2018, while more girls attended school, although a 2017 Human Rights Watch Report said two-thirds were still staying at home.
The United States, the EU and others in the West have called on the Taliban to respect fundamental rights, including those to the education of women and girls. It is unclear how those appeals can be enforced in the future. Unless Afghanistan constitutes a terrorist threat to the West, it is difficult to imagine another military intervention.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism