As Fort Carson troops have streamed home from Afghanistan in recent weeks, their leaders have said the nation where America has battled for nearly 18 years is increasingly ready to stand on its own.
But even as signs point to an end to America’s longest war, veterans worry that the finish looks a lot more like Vietnam than World War II.
“We will have spent American blood and treasure for nothing,” warned retired Army Lt. Col. Sprague Taveau.
But even among veterans, the Afghanistan question has no unanimous answer.
Take retired Army Maj. Russ Vanardo, who served in Afghanistan with Fort Carson’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. He says the best way to honor the sacrifices of soldiers is by shedding no more blood.
“I think whatever gets us out of that country morally and legally needs to be done,” Vanardo said. “The Taliban runs the country whether we want to admit it or not.”
The arguments around the nation have gotten more heated in recent days after the Trump administration announced it had reached a deal in principle with the Taliban to end the war.
Few places in the country have as much invested in the future of Afghanistan as Colorado Springs, which still has hundreds of troops there with headquarters of the 4th Infantry Division deployed there and more on the way as Colorado National Guard troops deploy this year.
Col. Monte Rone, who commands Fort Carson’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, returned home this month after leading his soldiers on a nine-month tour that saw them spread across much of eastern Afghanistan, one of the most restive regions.
The brigade had its soldiers assigned to 32 outposts and lost Sgt. Jason McClary to a roadside bomb blast.
The colonel wouldn’t talk about the peace process but expressed optimism about Afghan’s military.
He advised an Afghan corps that had as many as four of its brigades engaged in combat against the Taliban simultaneously.
“Those were Afghans out front,” he said, noting that his soldiers stayed in a supporting role amid growing power and independence demonstrated by the Afghan National Army.
The Afghans, he said, were unmatched in battlefield power and undefeatable in the field.
“They were able to do the things a good army does,” he said.
Building a competent Afghan army has been a top priority for the Pentagon since the first U.S. troops kicked off Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.
But the Taliban has been a tough enemy to tackle, in part because they were well-trained by forces that include the United States.
The rise of the Taliban coincided with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Beginning in 1973, a series of coups and intrigues left the central government weak and vulnerable. A communist coup took shaky control of the nation in 1979 and kicked off a civil war. The Soviet Union sent its military and began to establish what they hoped would be a puppet state.
The U.S.-backed Islamic forces fought to rid Afghanistan of communists. Those Islamic fighters, including Taliban militants, gave Russia the boot after 10 years of fighting.
The Taliban emerged from the rubble to control most of the nation and quickly became an American foe by hosting al-Qaida training camps.
America launched cruise missile strikes in 1998 in response to al-Qaida attacks. In 2001, American troops invaded to avenge the 9/11 attacks.
Since the U.S. invasion, American troops have found themselves amid another Afghan civil war. The strength of American forces in Afghanistan has swung from a low of 7,000 troops to a high of 100,000.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama kept the United States at war there, fearing more terrorism and a humanitarian crisis if America pulled out.
But a new politician arrived on the scene with a different view of American involvement there.
“We should leave Afghanistan immediately,” Donald Trump tweeted two years before he jumped into the 2016 presidential campaign. “No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard and quick. Rebuild the U.S. first.”
Trump entered the White House with ambitions of ending the Afghanistan war. And while he has bowed to Pentagon experts and kept troops there, his Afghanistan plans haven’t changed much.
The announcement of a potential Taliban truce follows more than a year of work to bring the militant Sunni group to the table.
But Trump has drawn fire for his Afghanistan policy even as he has pushed for a pullout.
The loudest of those opponents might be Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
He drove a vote last week that, while mostly symbolic, shows a clear split between the president and his party over Afghanistan.
“We have seen the costs of a precipitous withdrawal before in Iraq,” McConnell said in a statement.
“And in Afghanistan, we have seen the downsides of telling the enemy they can just wait us out.”
His measure, opposing the withdrawal of U.S. forces, was approved by a rare supermajority in the Senate, unifying the GOP and Democrats even as political divides threaten another shutdown.
But Fort Carson leaders have said there’s never been a better time for peace in Afghanistan. Last month, Col. David Zinn, commander of the post’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said during his unit’s nine-month 2018 deployment, he saw many signs of hope.
“I see momentum building to negotiations that could bring an end to the conflict,” Zinn said.
If there’s momentum, Fort Carson soldiers deserve much of the credit. Rone repeatedly expressed admiration for his 1st Brigade troops, saying they accomplished their Afghan deployment with flawless professionalism that left the place in better shape.
“I am so proud of the Raider Brigade,” he said.
But as Rone’s troops reacquaint themselves with their families, a very American debate is raging about Afghanistan’s future.
Taveau said a quick deal with the Taliban is a recipe to plunge Afghanistan back into chaos.
“I believe it is a strategic mistake,” he said. “In the end, they will refit, retake the country and we will be right back where we started.”
Vanardo said that while Afghanistan could well re-enter the darkness, American troops can do no more to change that nation’s fate.
“We didn’t lose. We won militarily over and over,” he said. “It is not us. The taxpayers, the soldiers and the diplomats did their job.”
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240