The United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan will have long-lasting consequences, and it raises many questions.
If we went there to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and eliminate al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, why did we stay another 10 years after that was accomplished? Couldn’t the final exit have been handled with less chaos and without the loss of 13 American service people and 169 Afghan civilians from a suicide bomber?
As a veteran from the Vietnam era, I wonder when we will learn lessons from getting dragged to distant lands into forever wars that we cannot win.
These are not questions that will be answered soon, if ever, and certainly not in the space of a newspaper column. Historians and scholars of future generations will assess this war and whether it was worth the cost. But as we take note of our exit from Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of the terrible events that brought on this war, I thought I might seek the thoughts of someone who has been there, done that.
I thought someone who could provide some credible perspective from first-hand experience. I contacted Tim Frantzen, a Maquoketa native and an Army Special Forces warrant officer who served four tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq in addition to other overseas duty.
He agreed to do so. Instead of a phone interview, Tim asked that I email him my questions, which I did, and he responded. I thought it was best to simply present them in Q-and-A format so you can read his exact words.
Tim grew up in Maquoketa, the youngest of Wayne and Ellen Frantzen’s six children. A 1991 graduate of Maquoketa Community High School, he joined the Army in 1997. He spent his first three years as an infantry soldier in Germany, then trained in 2000 to join the Special Forces, also known as Green Berets. Currently stationed in Colorado, he is looking at retiring in a few months, after completing 25 years of service. He and his wife Rima have three daughters.
A note about his responses: These are Tim’s own words and not the official views of the U.S. government or the Army. Although his responses were reviewed by a public affairs officer, they appear as he submitted them with the exception of a paragraph that was deleted. I appreciate that Tim, as a soldier still in uniform, took the time to offer these thoughtful responses to readers in his hometown a long way from Afghanistan. And I salute his service to our country.
Polls show that while many Americans have supported leaving Afghanistan, many were critical of how the final exit was handled. Was it time to leave? Do you wish to comment on the final days?
Tim: There is no good or ideal way to disengage from a war. These kinds of operations are extremely challenging to execute. Although the U.S. government, through its Departments of Defense and State, generally prepare for these kinds of non-combatant evacuation operations, or NEOs, there is a great deal of risk and uncertainty involved. These operations are challenging due to the fluid and chaotic situation on the ground. The enemy, unfortunately, also has a say in the outcome of such operations.
As for asking about whether it was time to leave, I will leave it up to the historians and policy makers to pass judgment. I have a couple of observations that may be relevant. Postwar transitions and reconstruction, which is sometimes derisively called “nation building,” is one of the most difficult and demanding tasks to undertake in foreign policy. It often must be collective effort with international organizations, such as the United Nations, and a consensus of supporting countries, who can devote significant time and resources to such a herculean effort.
It is not surprising that the U.S., the main stakeholder in these efforts since 2002, would have a difficult undertaking, especially when factoring in domestic politics and other foreign policy challenges. The other observation is that with Afghanistan, it is easy to be influenced by the sunk cost fallacy, where we justify our continued engagement because of past investments, or “sunk costs,” even though additional resources and effort leads to increasingly diminished returns.
This is a problematic concept to accept, because these past efforts have the heavier burden of the devastating loss of life, in addition to the material and fiscal cost of the war. However, this also leads to the fundamental question of purpose.
The U.S. for some time had maintained a relative small force of about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan that provided some measure of stability and with no combat deaths for some time. Some observers have argued that we should have maintained that presence instead of pulling out with the results we have seen. Your view?
Tim: You are going to have define what is meant by a measure of stability. For the last several years, the Taliban had slowly and steadily gained territory throughout Afghanistan, especially within the rural areas of the country.
This is important, because roughly 70 percent of the population resides in rural Afghanistan. Even areas under government control, the Taliban ran a form of shadow government to counter the legitimacy of Afghan government in Kabul. They carved out territory even when our strength levels had been several times higher than the 2,500.
In my personal assessment, this small number of troops at best would have helped the Afghan Government and Afghan National Army (ANA) maintain a tenuous hold on Kabul and the larger cities along the main highway routes through the country, but for how long?
The Taliban had been very adept at surging from rural areas to quickly attack and control district and provincial capital cities within the country, only to retreat and slip away when substantial U.S. and strained ANA forces were sent to retake the beleaguered cities. This cycle of conflict took a heavy toll on the ANA and Afghan National Police (ANP).
Additionally, using the lack of combat deaths as a reason to stay is a very weak argument. We would still have 2,500 troops involved in a country rife with conflict. These troops would be vulnerable to not only attacks by the Taliban, but also from extremists such as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). The continued threat environment would have seriously hampered the utility of 2,500 troops to support the ANA and ANP.
In a quickly deteriorating security situation, those troops would have been increasingly vulnerable as they continued operations with the ANA. Therefore, it is incorrect to assume the status quo would remain the same, especially when the ANA and ANP continued to suffer significant casualties in day-to-day operations.
How do you see the Taliban as governing? What do you see as the immediate future of the country?
Tim: There is already a historical record of Taliban governance when they controlled most of the country under an oppressive theocratic regime prior to 2001. The new government is now composed of some of the same individuals who had prominent roles in the previous Taliban government.
However, there is a new generation of Taliban who have been tempered by twenty years of conflict at the mid and lower levels of the organization. These Taliban may be different, or at least they are saying this in their recent public relations campaign.
The other factor that will affect their governance is the Afghan people. The Afghan people are different from 20 years ago. They have lived in a society with some economic freedoms, individual human rights, and self-determination. This current situation, coupled with the major presence of rival ethnic groups to the Pashtun dominated Taliban, will make it very difficult for the Taliban to govern effectively.
Another wild card is the role taken by other countries within the region surrounding Afghanistan because it pertains to their own interests and security.
From your observations and experiences, what should readers here know about Afghanistan and its people that they may not have read or seen in the media?
Afghanistan has often been portrayed in western eyes (as) a poor and backward country under a strict religious orthodoxy. In reality, the country, its population, and culture are incredibly dynamic and complex. Afghan society is considered a high-context culture, meaning implicit communication and relationships are important in everyday life.
The country’s adherence to conservative Islamic principles doesn’t preclude the diverse aspects of its culture and demography, which is organized through a complex web of relations amongst ethnic groups, tribal authorities, villages and families. This complex tapestry also made the insurgency granular, with families, villages and tribes facing off against each other, depending upon to whom they gave their allegiance. It also makes it difficult to govern effectively, with institutional efficacy sometimes based more upon who one knows, rather than expertise and knowledge.
The integrated, collective nature of Afghan society also made it difficult to conduct counter-insurgency (COIN). Any action or mission that transgressed against the population could create waves that would seriously inhibit effective operations.
Finally, the Afghan people are resilient, having gone through varying levels of armed conflict for roughly 40 years as well.
Was there a poignant or telling moment or encounter during your deployments that was significant to your experience?
There were two instances that I remember that are kind of reflective of our efforts. In the first one, I was advising a Czech Special Forces unit and Afghan Special Police Commandos in a clearing operation in the mountains of Nangahar Province in Eastern Afghanistan.
We were clearing the first village when we were hit by a complex attack from four sides. We had fought it out for a bit with the insurgents before they broke off. My interpreter had been severely injured during the fighting. After we had been returned to base via helicopter, we found out a day later that four of the Afghan Police Commandos had quit.
We were told they quit because they had been from the villages where we had conducted our operation, and their families and neighbors called to ask why they attacked their brothers. They also had received threats. There was nothing we could do to prevent them quitting.
Another time, we were conducting a warrant based arrest of a top lieutenant of a major crime lord in eastern Afghanistan. We had been using arrest warrants to go after the Taliban and major crime networks. These individuals were notorious for their criminal activity and their connections to the Afghan government.
This fellow was very bad news and had committed several acts of murder, extortion and violence against many Afghans in eastern Afghanistan. When we conducted the raid on his house, we discovered that he was not there. The day after our failed attempt to capture the individual, our police commando commander received a call from the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) in Kabul. The MOI threatened to disband the unit and fire the commander. He was given strict instructions to never attempt to arrest this individual or any of his associates.
We found out later that this guy and his boss had been in the house next door to the compound that we had raided, where they watched the whole operation. Afterwards, they made a call to the government in Kabul. They definitely had friends in high places, which was often the norm. It was another example of some of the challenges in establishing a legitimate and stable government in the face of corruption.