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A Vet Formerly Deployed In Afghanistan Shares His Perspective On The Chaos In The Country

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At this highest point in 2011, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan hit 98,000, but many more service members have cycled in and out of that country over America's 20-year involvement there.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Mike Jason is one of them. He led troops in Kuwait, the Balkans and Iraq. He spent much of 2012 working with the Afghan special forces in northern Afghanistan. When I spoke to him yesterday, I asked for his reaction to the swift fall of the Afghan military.

MIKE JASON: I think the speed is alarming to all of us that serve there. But, you know, for me, there was also a sense of deja vu having watched ISIS, you know, just completely take over Mosul, where I had been just three years earlier. I mean, there was a sense of, like, this is happening again. And it's tragic. It's, in a way, numbing. But I have - I'm also texting with friends and colleagues in the Afghan military that are on the ground right now. I'm also texting with the Gold Star widow of one of my best friends who died in Afghanistan - several, actually. And we're all watching this unfold in real time. It's just - it's a bit horrifying. And really, it's just difficult to watch.

KEITH: What are those conversations like?

JASON: You know, with my friend in Afghanistan who's a senior officer in the military - you know, his brother now has been captured by the Taliban. His family is in flight. He's trying to go into work basically every day to shore up and defend the country and coordinate operations. I tell him that I'm thinking about him, and I pray for him. What do you say? With the widows of my closest friends, you know, different reactions. You know, was it all for nothing? Was it for the values that we champion, you know, in our institution, in the Army? And so we try to find ways of answering and dealing with it and processing it while watching it in real time.

KEITH: I can't imagine that there's an answer.

JASON: No, I don't think there is an answer. And I don't think there's an answer - you know, as quickly as the districts are falling or units are surrendering, we cannot possibly emotionally or spiritually process what we're watching and what we've been through over the last couple of decades.

KEITH: There is a toll in addition to the lives lost in those Gold Star families. You've also spoken about being alert to signs of PTSD among your troops. The toll of this war in America is going to continue, whether it's over for our country or not.

JASON: Yeah, look. It's been 20 years. And we've rotated through, you know, easily over a million troops, not to mention contractors and our allies. And we're now figuring out this burn pit issue that's affecting respiratory systems and causing cancer potentially. You know, it's our generation's Agent Orange - the traumatic brain injuries, you know, the dramatic, you know, suicide rates in the veteran population. I mean, wars are not just a temporary expenditure of military operations. It's everything that comes afterwards.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, my dad's a Vietnam veteran, and we're still living it.

JASON: Right.

KEITH: So President Biden and others keep saying that the U.S. trained the Afghan military and police and that they've known that the U.S. would leave eventually, and now it's time for them to stand up and defend their country. But as you've alluded to, they just seem to be folding. And I wonder, having been involved in training, what you think happened.

JASON: We're all trying to process that, right? Like, 20 years - $89 billion, 300,000-some odd Afghan security forces. How is it collapsing as we watch? And so all I can write is my own little corner of the global war on terror. You know, Afghanistan - righteous anger and indignation over the 9/11 attack. And we went in with a light footprint and took the country over, like, lightning quick. And then what? What was the next step? And all of a sudden, we turn around, and two years later, we're in Iraq, and resources start flowing over there.

And the question is, what was the strategy and policy for what the military should be doing with regard to security forces in both theaters? We didn't fight a 20-year war. We fought 20 individual wars incoherently, kind of without a policy strategic direction. So at the same time, the Afghans who are the recipients of this training, advice and equipment also know the clock is ticking and making their own calculus for their own safety and the safety of their families, while never really tackling, you know - all this cash is flowing in, the corruption, the drugs, the morale, the logistics. Why weren't we able to ever address these really problematic institutional issues?

KEITH: What do you think the American people should be thinking about, or what do you want them to be thinking about as they as they watch this unfold?

JASON: Who we go to war with and who fights that war should be the most important debate in a free society or in a democracy. And look. We voted - we, the American people - we voted for four sequential administrations that campaigned on getting out of this operation. The intent was clear. But I look back on the presidential debates over the last several elections. I mean, Afghanistan may have gotten seconds or minutes of debate. It was always in the background. But why didn't we debate it more? Why didn't we discuss it more forcefully? Why didn't somebody make the case to the American people clearly and forcefully why we should stay or go and why the sacrifice is or is not worth it? And so every casket that comes back is done in our name, and we should have a say in it.

KEITH: That was retired Army Colonel Mike Jason. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.