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'We believed in the mission:' Afghanistan War veterans react to country's collapse

U.S. veterans describe anger, guilt and frustration for "everything we did to help improve that country and then to see it all go to waste."

GOLDSBORO, Pa. — In 2010 an American armored vehicle tumbled down a ravine in Afghanistan. An Afghani interpreter who went by the name “Joe” ran to help the U.S. troops inside.

“This Afghani who put himself in danger firstly by even assisting the United States, was the first person down assisting soldiers,” said veteran Tom Bourke of Carnegie, Pa.

Credit: Tom Bourke

Bourke served in both the Marines and Army, deploying to Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Though he was never close with Joe, he often wonders what will happen to him now that the Taliban have re-taken control of Afghanistan.

“The last couple evenings as I’m sitting there watching this on the news, I think about these folks,” Bourke said. “Is the Taliban in their villages? Is somebody pointing out their home as the one who collaborated with the Americans?”

U.S. officials were stunned by the speed by which Taliban fighters captured Kabul, after only a week-long advance through the country. By Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country and Taliban fighters were filmed sitting in the abandoned Presidential Palace.

"I feel betrayed, disgusted... the wastefulness of everything we did to help improve that country and then to see it all go to waste," Bourke said.

U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan are expressing guilt for abandoning the Afghani people, as well as anger and heartache over the sudden end of a grueling 20-year offensive.

“I think we ought to be concerned, frankly, about our veterans,” said Cory Angell, director of communications for Pennsylvania VFW. “The impact on our hearts and our souls to see something evaporate so quickly that we worked so hard to build.”

The 20-year war cost more than 2,300 American lives and an estimated $2.26 trillion.

Credit: Watson Institute

But many veterans who formed personal relationships with Afghanis feel the people there will pay more dearly in rights lost under strict Taliban rule.

Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 in accordance with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, in which women were largely confined to their homes and suspected criminals faced amputation or public execution. 

Taliban officials have now promised the public a “secure environment,” but many Afghans remain fearful of rights being rolled back.

“It’s not a loss for us. It’s a loss for them. That’s the tragedy,” Angell said.

The evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stands in stark contrast with the mood two decades ago, when U.S. troops invaded the country hoping to bring democracy.  

“That’s what hurts the most. We believed in the mission, the Afghanis believed in us, and we weren’t there to deliver on it in the end,” Bourke said.

If you’re a veteran and need support, Angell suggested reaching out to your local VFW.

You can also find a list of veteran support organizations here.

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