PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Many veterans who fought in America’s longest war say it’s reassuring that President Donald Trump reversed his past calls for a speedy exit from Afghanistan and won’t pull troops out under a strict deadline.
They don’t want the sacrifices they’ve made to be in vain, though some worry the administration’s strategy is too vague to lead to victory.
Trump recommitted the United States to the 16-year-old war in a national address Monday, announcing a plan that includes sending up to 3,900 additional U.S. forces to join the 8,400 troops currently in Afghanistan. The first deployments could take place within days. The strategy shifts away from a “time-based” approach and instead focuses on linking assistance to results and to co-operation from the beleaguered Afghan government, Pakistan and others.
Marine veteran Peter James Kiernan praised Trump for not pinning withdrawal to a timeline that enemy fighters could just wait out, but he expressed concern about the lack of specifics.
“For the moment, I think our partners in Afghanistan will take it as a reaffirmation that we’re still committed to helping them, which is the biggest benefit,” said Kiernan, who spent nine months in Afghanistan and recently graduated from Columbia University. “But there’s no guarantee how long that’ll last, and a lot of things in this presidency are subject to change quickly.”
Former Marine Capt. Derek Herrera, a Bronze Star recipient left paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet in Afghanistan, agreed that withdrawal should not have a deadline but said there also needs to be a conversation outlining what success would look like and how to reach that.
“Personally, I think we all need to re-energize this difficult conversation and open our eyes to what the future could be there,” Herrera, of San Clemente, California, said in an email. “Although it is a great talking point to say we are going to pull everyone out of Afghanistan, the reality is so much more complex than what is apparent on the surface.”
That’s why retired Army Col. Raymond Denisewich was pleased to hear Trump is relying on commanders to carry out the strategy.
“The good news is, We have a president saying, ‘Guys, I want you to assess and implement a strategy for success in this area, but I’m not going to tell you how to do it,”’ said Denisewich, of Cranston, Rhode Island. “It’s kind of nice not having the White House micromanage the commanders in the field.”
Thomas Porter, a military reservist who served in Afghanistan, said he’s encouraged that Trump appears to have listened to military commanders instead of going “with his gut.” Porter, the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he’s waiting to see how steady the administration will be in this new strategy and how returning veterans will be treated.
Former Army Capt. Andrew J. Brennan, though, doubts the strategy will succeed given the American public’s war fatigue.
“The United States will never win a war without the commitment of its populace, but the will of the American people does not support this war effort,” said Brennan, who flew combat missions in Afghanistan.
Trump said the U.S. was intent on “killing terrorists” rather than “nation building.”
Qismat Amin, who worked as a translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2015 and now lives in Fremont, California, said Trump outlined what every Afghan wants to hear: The United States will continue having a military presence until there is stability in the country.
But Army veteran Emily Miller, who worked alongside special operations forces in Afghanistan to engage with local women and children, said true stability must go beyond a military response.
“The speech was heavy on tough talk and counterterrorism and winners and losers,” said Miller, of Washington, D.C. “At the end of the day, I do think economic development is what makes a country stable.”
Many veterans hope the United States has learned from Iraq, where an American military withdrawal led to a vacuum that the Islamic State group quickly filled.
“This is the kind of speech I wish I had heard years ago when they were talking about the drawdown in Iraq,” said Tristan Hood, who served in Iraq with the U.S. Air Force, then worked in Afghanistan as a contractor. “I do have this lingering skepticism, primarily because I heard three different presidents tell me we were going to finish up in Afghanistan. The words are strong, but I heard two other commanders in chief tell us something similar, so it’ll be interesting to see what’ll come of this.”