A grunt’s thoughts on the loss of Kunduz: I used to tell my squad that it was worth it
As I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed during my Monday morning commute I almost overlook a post from my old Company Commander: “Taliban Fighters Overrun Kunduz City as Afghan Forces Retreat.”
By Ryan Blum
Best Defense guest columnist
As I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed during my Monday morning commute I almost overlook a post from my old Company Commander:
My mouth drops.
Back in March of 2010 my unit took responsibility for Kunduz Province in northern Afghanistan during the surge there. The capital, Kunduz city, is home to about 300,000 people and is the fifth-largest city in Afghanistan, strategically located for its trading routes to Kabul from the border of Tajikistan.
When my unit arrived, the Taliban controlled most of the countryside — only the major population centers were under government control. Our area was mostly non-Pashtun, which meant the population solidly favored the Afghan government. For 12 long months my unit endured IEDs, landmines, sniper attacks, ambushes, and suicide bombers in an attempt to bring peace, order, and commercial trade to Kunduz province. And we succeeded.
We pushed the Taliban to the border of Tajikistan, liberated villages that had been oppressed by the Taliban, and cleared roads of IEDs so farmers could freely move to sell their wares in the city. One of the most rewarding days of my life was when a local Kunduz police officer, in tears, thanked my company for liberating his home village, which had been under Taliban control for more than two years.
We spent hours training the Afghan National Police (ANP) on how to conduct patrols, search and clear IEDs, and protect their own population without us. In September 2010 a suicide bomber drove his vehicle into our patrol and killed six of our ANP partners. I watched as American and Afghan soldiers, together, picked up the dead and wounded. For me, it was a moment of solidarity.
The Afghans I spoke with earnestly wanted a country that was secular, where their daughters could attend school, and they wanted the benefits of modern technology. Most of all they wanted security, freedom from the perennial war, and anxiety from which they had suffered for over thirty years.
Sitting in the Parisian train I start to read the comments section on my commander’s post, which is now filling up with numerous cynical and fatalistic remarks — mostly from former officers. “…It was obvious,” “I knew it was going to happen…,” they said.
Well, it was never so obvious to me. I can’t comprehend risking my life, nor even getting up out of bed everyday for a futile mission. Maybe I’m weak. I just could never have done it.
Perhaps they dealt with the Afghan war on a more macro-scale. I suppose, like the media, they only focused on the corruption of Afghan officials and the politics in Washington. I was only on the ground, in Kunduz, and whether that meant I understood the situation to a greater (or lesser) degree, my war was a polar opposite from theirs. The Afghan police and soldiers I fought besides were brave, dedicated, and loyal fighters who, not unlike me, were only trying to make a better life for themselves.
I wasn’t an officer. I was a grunt. A squad leader in charge of nine men. My war was micro. I handed out humanitarian aid, helped open schools for girls, and when necessary, fought against those who were trying to kill me, my brothers, or Afghan partners. Most villagers were receptive and welcoming. Not out of fear, but appreciation, for removing the Taliban. That was my war. Anecdotal. Episodic.
Early on in the tour one of my soldiers was shot through the leg by a sniper. Some of my men asked, “Is this worth it? Should we be risking our lives for this?” As a Non-Commissioned Officer my job was provide purpose, direction, and motivation to my subordinates. Morale is one of those factors that can influence the outcome of battle and save lives.
“Of course it’s worth it!” you tell your men.
Then the next month a member of my platoon lost his left leg to an anti-personnel mine. I began to ask myself the same question: “Is this worth it?”
And I told myself it was. It had to be. That day the mission was to secure a town so the residents could come out and vote in elections for the first time. If ever there was a cause worth supporting, you can imagine that an American would view securing the right to vote in peace among the highest.
It was worth it, and it is worth it, because in war you have to justify the daily unspeakable horrors no human should have to endure or witness. Horrors such as death, destruction, poverty, amputation, and sectarian violence. You’re sacrificing two of the most precious gifts you have: your capacity for human decency, and your time. Time you could be spending with your loved ones. Time when your friends from high school are finishing their degrees, getting a head start on their careers. Today, I get strange looks from my classmates as they ask, “How old are you?”
You sacrifice your youth, both in terms of unnaturally accelerated mental and physical aging. You wonder if you should’ve been enjoying your late teens and early twenties, like everyone else seems to have, you should be falling in love with beautiful women and travelling to “nice” destinations. You’re not supposed to be constantly concerned about death, and certainly not concerned about a place called Kunduz, among a group of strangers, in Afghanistan.
We, or at least I, did it because I thought it was for a higher purpose. I thought it was going to be worth it — for Afghanistan, and through Afghanistan, for me. In the end, our meaning would be the meaning of history — the place where civilization triumphed over man’s impulse for chaos and murder.
Now, four years after leaving Afghanistan, I read that Kunduz has fallen. I’m not sure I could look my men in the eye and say: “it was worth it.”
Ryan Blum was a squad leader with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He now studies International Affairs at the American University of Paris.
Photo credit: A Taliban flag flutters over the main traffic roundabout in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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