After twenty years, the War in Afghanistan is over.
In the weeks since President Biden announced that the final withdrawal of U.S. troops would occur by August 31, a flood of harrowing stories has poured out of the country — among them reports of public executions, torture, and young women and girls being forced into marriages with Taliban fighters. On the domestic front, after the tragic deaths of 13 U.S. service members and hundreds of Afghans at the hands of ISIS-K terrorists at the Kabul airport, some polls show that as many as three-quarters of the U.S. public thinks the withdrawal has gone badly.
As troubling as these images have been for the casual observer, for U.S. service members, the conclusion of the war is an acutely difficult time. Since 2001, nearly 2 million American troops have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To better understand their unique perspectives, Poets&Quants spoke with veterans who are recent alumni or currently enrolled in U.S. MBA programs — of whom there are many. Thousands of veterans of both wars have enrolled at MBA programs since 2001; in any given year, between 5% and 10% of the incoming classes of the top 25 MBA programs are veterans or active service members.
A HIGH BUT BEARABLE COST
For David Bates, a Marine and 2018 alumnus of Tuck and the Harvard Kennedy School, the horrifying news and images he’s witnessed over the past couple of weeks has left him feeling a “mix of frustration and despair while trying to hang on to some pride.”
Bates, who served in the Helmand Province from 2010-2011 and continues to serve in the Marine Corps Reserves, worked closely with Afghans during his tour and “can’t help but see their faces in the images of the Afghans trying to leave the country right now. To think that people would rather fall to their deaths trying to get into a transport plane than live a day under Taliban rule is heartbreaking. I feel despair for them losing the future they thought they were creating.”
“The Marines in my unit and the countless servicemembers I know who went before and after me – they did everything they could to make that place better.”
Though he acknowledges that he does not have access to full information, he does believe that “the status quo achieved the U.S. objective of denying a safe haven to terrorist groups at a high but bearable cost … you cannot make the same case for our present direction of travel.”
His advice for Americans trying to make sense of what’s unfolded? “If you have someone in your life who is an Afghan veteran or is currently serving, and you are so moved, please reach out to them (including those of you from NATO countries). You can just tell them you’re thinking of them amidst all of this or ask them how they’re feeling.”
A SECOND CHANCE
Peter Kiernan, a second-year student at HBS and former MARSOC raider who conducted special operations in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, also feels that same sense of heartbreak.
“I lost several friends to fighting the Taliban, so it is difficult to witness this resurgence. What’s worse is watching policymakers decide to abandon the allies who fought alongside us for 20 years.”
For Kiernan, the decision to leave was the right one, but „ in business and in life, execution is what matters. I take issue with this administration for delaying the evacuation of allies until the last month of the withdrawal, despite tens of thousands who’ve applied and waited for a year to come to the United States.“
Kiernan, who is fluent in Pashto, managed 12 local interpreters in Afghanistan alongside his other duties, and „spent almost every waking minute fighting for a way to get my interpreters [and families] out of Afghanistan. Luckily, through an incredibly dedicated network (the majority voluntarily working outside their day jobs and off the books), we were able to get them through thousands of people fighting for the same chance to escape the Taliban.“
And though through immense effort he was able to help get famliies out of Afghanistan, he acknowledges there is much left to be done. „I am making it my personal mission to raise money to help support and resettle them in the US. To that end, we’ve created a fundraiser that will help these families get back on their feet after their many years of service. If you’re interested in supporting the cause, you can donate here.”
THE ROLE OF POLITICS
For Isaac Todd, a 2019 Kellogg alumnus and a former Army officer who served in Afghanistan in 2015, the war in Afghanistan “is the most personal conflict in which we served.”
Todd, currently an attorney at Cravath, Swaine, and Moore LLP, was influenced to don the uniform after witnessing the terror attacks on September 11th, and finds that “20 years later, the emotions of that day still resonate, but with those original emotions, we have added friendship with the Afghans we worked alongside with.”
While “policy views among veterans differ,” about whether the U.S. should have stayed or left, he, too, outlines a “shared commitment to the people who helped and supported us. The prevailing view among veterans is that those partners must not be left behind.”
It has been five years since Todd served in Afghanistan, and while he does not have any “special insights into the intelligence picture,” he thinks part of what’s unfolded can be attributed to “the timeless tension between deft military maneuvering, requiring tact and secrecy on the one hand, and democratic accountability (which is a worthy aim) and political expediency (which is not) on the other.”
STILL EAGER TO HELP
Katherine Rowe, a 2020 McCombs alumna and strategic planner at a technology company, runs @vetsinsports on Instagram and co-founded Veterans in Sports to help veterans understand careers in sports. She served in Southern Afghanistan from 2012-2013 as a telecommunications manager and planner.
“I am full of sadness for the Afghan people and all the progress that has been made over the last 20 years,” Rowe said, and further remarked that she is frustrated that I cannot be more actively involved in the response and evacuation, but know that the US military and our allies sent our best to help with the evacuation.”
Though Rowe would not comment on whether withdrawal was the right decision, she did convey that other veterans she knows and served with have “very similar feelings and emotions as I have had,” and many have responded by raising money, helping evacuees land at various bases, and helped get intepreters/peers they served with onto flights.
WORDS OF HOPE
These events have also profoundly impacted other veterans. Mark Delaney, a second year MBA student at Darden and former Army infantry officer, served in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, but never served in Afghanistan. However, he runs The Veteran Professional website and The Veteran (Semi) Professional podcast for veterans interested in entrepreneurship, higher education, and professional careers, and his role at each gives him a strong pulse on the sentiments of many post-9/11 veterans.
“This is a tough time for the veteran community, as many people who spent time in Afghanistan struggle with the question ‘What was it all for?‘ All of us who served after 9/11 spent a signficant portion of our lives overseas and preparing to secure our national interests…and unfortunately, we all know people who were wounded, took their lives after a deployment, or never made it home.”
Though Delaney expressed that “no one I know who spent time in Afghanistan felt we could win that war,” and that “we had to leave,” he does feel that “it’s shameful that our work in Afghanistan will be remembered by this tumultuous exit.” And he acknowledges that “for the approximately 4 million+ post-9/11 veterans in the U.S., the image of the helicopter taking off from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul (an almost duplicate of the escape from Saigon in 1975) will haunt us for the rest of our lives.”
Like other veterans we spoke with, he has seen former service members mobilize and take concrete actions to support Afghan allies, and he had sentiments to share with his fellow veterans.
“It’s easy to feel that this all didn’t matter. It’s easy to feel none of it was worth it. Our politicians failed us, our military leaders failed us. But what we can do now is to ensure that we do not fail each other … your efforts to work toward the mission and keep your brothers and sisters alive still matter. It always will.”