The images pouring out of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 15th were heart-wrenching, as crowds clamored to escape from Afghanistan as the U.S. evacuation took place. We saw Afghani nationals and U.S. allies, women, and children desperate to board military planes flying out of their war-torn country towards safety. That day, the Taliban had cemented its victory over the Afghan army by taking over the presidential palace after Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani fled the country only hours before.
Chaos in Afghanistan
Many Americans did not anticipate such chaos. Weeks before, President Joe Biden assured the American people that there would be “zero” similarity between the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 1975 flight out of Saigon, which resulted in 7,000 South Vietnamese being evacuated by helicopters, many clinging to the helicopters’ landing skids. However, the images we saw of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan belied those assurances: Here, too, Afghanis precariously held on to landing gears, desperate to leave, but instead, they fell to their deaths.
Moreover, President Biden had assured Americans that the Taliban’s takeover was “not inevitable,” that he trusted the Afghan army’s capability to withstand attacks because it was “better trained, better equipped, and more competent [than the Taliban] in terms of conducting war.”
Again, these were empty assurances, and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban only a month later.
Marine Corps Major Speaks Out
Perhaps President Biden was surprised by how quickly Afghanistan fell. However, Marine Corps Major and Afghanistan veteran Joshua S. Zager, 50, was not. He had sadly watched the slow but inevitable disintegration of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan for over twenty years, which he had initially helped to secure.
“For me, it was equivalent to observing a friend with emphysema smoking five packs of cigarettes a day,” Zager said. “I knew how it would end for him. It’s one thing to train and equip the Afghan army, but it’s all for naught if there is no operational will and belief in a unified mission. So, no matter how much training and equipment we gave them [the Afghan government forces], the Taliban were always going to take over again.”
What shocked Zager, however, was just how badly America’s disengagement ended. Operationally, he says, President Biden’s evacuation efforts were a debacle. Leaving Bagram airport in the middle of the night when the U.S. military had not started evacuating people not only demoralized the Afghan army, but it was comparable to barring the main exit of a building with a fire raging inside.
Zagar’s heart also breaks for the thirteen U.S. troops and nearly 170 people – all victims of an Aug. 26 ISIS-K (the regional affiliate of ISIS, which is the most extreme and violent of all the jihadist militant groups in Afghanistan) suicide attack – who needlessly died days before the U.S. military’s final withdrawal.
Zagar commented, “Sometimes, if you are competent, have a good plan, and are trying to execute a plan to the best of your ability, still people die. Unfortunately, that’s what happens in a war. But what is shameful is when that [competency and a well-designed plan] isn’t the case, and then people die, which is what happened here.”
U.S. Involvement in Afghanistan
Back in October 2001, three weeks after 9/11, nobody anticipated this kind of ending. That is when Major Zager’s squadron was assigned the task of helping decimate the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Their mission was clear: to destroy the Taliban’s infrastructure and to make it crystal clear to them that they cannot harbor terrorists whose aim is to attack the U.S. by blowing up buildings and murdering its citizens.
“For me, it was all about retribution. On the first bomb I dropped on Oct. 7, 2001, I wrote a family friend’s name. He died in the World Trade Center barely a month before,” Zagar says, speaking from his hometown of Fair Haven, N.J.
Major Zager trained for such a mission for over three years. He had returned from Israel, having volunteered for two years with the IDF fighting in Israel’s Security Zone in Southern Lebanon after joining its Paratroopers Brigade. Shortly afterward, Zager enlisted in the U.S. Marines, where he “learned how to bomb, prevail in aerial dog fights, and how to land his fighter-attack jet on ships.”
Stationed 100 nautical miles off Karachi, Pakistan, on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Zager nightly flew his single-seater FA-18 Hornet jet on bombing missions into Afghanistan – the first mission of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. The most challenging task was flying his jet back onto the carrier in the dead of night after a grueling eight-hour stint.
Was he afraid? “I was maybe scared of failure, of not doing something right.”
The mood onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt was solemn and business-like, and there was much satisfaction in what the crew accomplished. After 9/11, most of the world wanted to see the Taliban and Al Qaeda destroyed, and these fighter pilots were able to do it. Their mission was just, clearly defined, and one the U.S. Marines were capable of accomplishing.
The Marines’ Accomplishments and Their Decline
Indeed, when Zager came home to his wife and son six months later, little remained for the U.S. military to do in Afghanistan. “By then, my friends and I had decimated the Taliban and Al Qaeda. When we first arrived, the Taliban controlled 90 percent of the country. With our airpower, we drove them out of the cities within a matter of weeks. They ran into the mountainous regions of Tora Bora and later into the Pakistani tribal regions, which became a haven. The Northern Alliance, a composite of rival tribes, could now take over the country.”
However, over a short period, the Marines’ accomplishments began unraveling.
So, what went wrong?
“The U.S. military tried to do the impossible: The Bush administration changed the mission into ‘nation-building,’ which the U.S. military does not do. Instituting an Afghan government and army and telling them what to teach their children in school and how to treat their women – that’s nation-building. The U.S. government and military brass lived in a dream world. They tried making Afghanistan into a country that would keep out the Taliban and terrorists. That wasn’t going to happen. Look what happened the minute we pulled out.”
Afghanistan, Zager insists, is not like Japan, South Korea, or Germany, where the U.S. still maintains troops. It is not a unified country, but rather is a composite of warring tribes. And that makes all the difference.
After Zager left Afghanistan, he served as an advanced strike fighter instructor in South Korea and Japan; then as a U.S. Marine Corps Attaché to Ghana, Togo, and Benin; and then as part of the Pentagon Staff of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. With all his military experience he asks the question: If the U.S. had not maintained a presence in Afghanistan, would the Taliban have not tried to take over again?
“Then you devastate them again. You keep vigilant” Zager answers.
He believes that if the U.S. had taught the Taliban a lesson and had left Afghanistan alone, the world would be in a much better place, but he admits that we will never know.
A Shameful Exit
Still, whether staying in Afghanistan was the right move or not, how the Americans left was “absolutely atrocious,” leaving behind American citizens and Afghanis most at risk at the hands of the Taliban. Not to mention the billions of dollars in military equipment left behind, which the Taliban appropriated.
“The gross ineptitude of the Biden administration and the military doesn’t surprise me,“ Zager states. “I saw much ineptitude in my time in the military. Many issues were handled poorly. Once women’s rights were a pressing issue. Today, it’s racism and gender that get the focus rather than the missions. As for the pullout, the Boy Scouts could have come up with a better plan.”
As an officer, Zager is appalled that nobody was held accountable. “In the military, if someone crashed a ship, he’s held accountable, and he loses command of the vessel. This ship crashed, and no one was held accountable. I don’t know how these military commanders – Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley – are still in office. It’s a sign of profound issues that are wrong about how things get done.”
Major Zager mournfully reflects on the tragedies in Afghanistan. “There were 2,400 American service people killed and more grievously injured, returning without arms and legs. I had three friends who died, each of whom had two sons. These are six sons of Marine aviators who died in Afghanistan and who are now wondering why.”
“We gave the Taliban 20 years of reasons to attack us, and now we’ve given them the means to do it.”