As Afghanistan continues to dominate the news cycle, we learn more about what led to the end of America’s longest war. But sometimes lost in the discussions about strategy and tactics is the human element of the story.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Don Bolduc served 10 tours in Afghanistan and knows what daily life was like for our troops.
“This was lost at the higher levels … unfortunately, the Afghan government and military and national police have responsibility here, but not the men and women that served in our military for 20 years and went over there repeatedly,” says Bolduc. “They did their job, they did it well, they did it with honor. And their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their friends and family members did not go in vain despite what you're seeing today.”
Bolduc joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his experiences on the ground and what we can do for our troops coming home.
We also cover these news stories:
- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says there will be many congressional inquiries into what happened in Afghanistan.
- Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s deposed president, is currently sheltering in the United Arab Emirates on humanitarian grounds.
- The Texas Democrats who fled the state Capitol to block the vote on an election bill can now be arrested for doing so.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: Our guest today is retired U.S. Army Gen. Don Bolduc. Bolduc served 10 tours in the Afghanistan War, including as commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group during Operation Medusa. He also served as former commander of special operations in Africa. General, thank you so much for joining us today.
Gen. Don Bolduc: It is wonderful to be here today. Thank you for having me and my best to all your listeners.
Blair: It's a real honor having you on, sir. So, I'd like to start with your service. Would you be able to take a couple of seconds to describe to our listeners what your role was over your 10 tours in Afghanistan?
Bolduc: Sure. So in 2001, in the initial invasion, our role was to advise and assist Hamid Karzai in developing an Afghan indigenous force to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in southern Afghanistan. We did that.
My subsequent tours were as battalion commander, brigade level commander, and as a general officer. And that was commanding, controlling special operation forces—Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Special Forces, Marine special operation forces—in supporting our Afghan partners in the village and district areas build an indigenous force to protect themselves against Taliban attacks in the rural areas.
And that culminated with a command of about 6,000 special ops forces on the ground conducting these types of missions in Afghanistan. Very highly effective missions, I would add, not because I was commanding them, but because of the great work men and women in the command did inside the villages to support our Afghan partners as they protected themselves and their families against the Taliban and against al-Qaeda.
Blair: It seems like you were pretty involved in this process. And I want to ask you, given your extensive history as both a soldier and a commander, so you've had these dual roles, what do you think could've been done better by the Americans in Afghanistan? Was this a war we ever could have won?
Bolduc: It absolutely is a war we could have won. And I've written about this extensively and I've shared it with the chain of command throughout my career extensively.
By June of 2002, I believe, we had accomplished the military mission that we were sent in there to do. We had established an interim government, Hamid Karzai was in charge. He had put in all his provincial governors and they were building their government the Afghan way.
And it was our opinion on the ground that this was the best way to approach this war. Let the Afghans defend themselves, let them build their security, let them figure out how they're going to prosper themselves. And the international community could support that, but not be directly involved and let it be done the Afghan way.
Well, obviously, we didn't decide to do that, we decided to rotate, we decided to transition into nation-building and create Western-style government in Afghanistan, Western-style military, Western-style police, which just doesn't work and it didn't work.
And these assessments were given over and over and over again from 2002 all the way up through, I know, 2013. It was just not the way to do it, wasn't going to win, and we saw that.
One of the biggest distractions in Afghanistan was the invasion of Iraq, which took a lot of resources away from Afghanistan. And so you had a period from 2003 to 2005 where the under-resourced focused on nation-building—Taliban resurged, al-Qaeda resurged.
And so from 2005 to 2010, we were fighting a very capable insurgency in there. And then trying to hand … peacekeeping operations over to NATO. Well, it was far from peacekeeping operations.
Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal came in with a different idea of bottom-up strategy, which was something that had been assessed and talked about being most effective: building an Afghan local police force in the villages similar to the Arbakai concept that they had that defeated Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Brits, and the Russians. And we should've stuck with that.
Gen. [David] Petraeus came in and solidified it, Gen. [John] Allen also. And I served from 2009 to roughly 2013 with only a 10-month break between that in Afghanistan assisting in coming up with this program.
By 2010, we had the highest U.S. casualty rates, we had the worst security situation, and using this bottom-up counterinsurgency concept, the Afghans were able to gain control of 90% of Afghanistan in the rural areas. And our casualty rates were the lowest they ever were. Our effectiveness was great and it looked as if we were going to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda for the second time. They were saying that this strategy is something they can't defeat out of their own mouths and they were disrupted, they were degraded, and … they were neutralized, rendered ineffective.
Next thing I know, I'm sitting in briefings and we're … in the middle of 2013 in Afghanistan and we're going to transition to noncombat operations. We're going to pull all our assets out of the village areas before the mission was actually complete and solidified, so the Afghans could do it themselves, which would have taken a couple more years.
So 2013, 2015, maybe into 2016 was our assessment, and then we could have handed it right over to the Afghans and the Taliban and al-Qaeda would have been neutralized at this point completely. But we didn't, we changed strategy in 2014, [then-President Barack] Obama decided the war was over, we're going to transition to noncombat operations.
We warn them that [with the] reversal of the security situation, an increase in casualties would occur, and that the Taliban and al-Qaeda would resurge. And by 2016, that's exactly what happened. And by 2019, we had the highest casualty rates that we've ever had in the Afghan war and we were losing big time.
And I credit President [Donald] Trump with his plan, but he was pushing back against the Defense Department that wasn't on board. So when he transitioned out of the White House and President [Joe] Biden came in, I could see quickly that this was going to deteriorate into something that we saw in 2011 when we drew down to zero in Iraq. Problem is, in 2014, when he was doing this, there was a little pushback from the senior military. So they just let it happen.
And now we're seeing the worst planned withdrawal by political and military leaders, I think, in the history of warfare. It is a disaster, it is shameful. And I hope I have caught you up sufficiently on what I saw being involved from 2001 to 2013 and how we are in this predicament now, and it's bad policy and strategy by senior leaders, both civilian and military, in executing the war, and it is horrendous and very upsetting withdrawal plans. And this is where we're at now and it's a tragedy.
Blair: I think that definitely gives our listeners a very in-depth view of what the situation was like leading up to our pullout from Afghanistan. One of the things that the media sometimes likes to discuss is that the Afghan people didn't want us in Afghanistan. They didn't want us to be there, this was something that was forced from the top and that the actual people on the ground didn't want us in the country. In your time, what was the perception of the Afghan people of the U.S. troops? Was this something that was true, that the Afghan people didn't want us there, or did you have a different experience?
Bolduc: I had a much different experience than what has been reported. Clearly, we have stayed there too long doing what we're doing and the ineffectiveness of our policy and strategy I think was frustrating to many in Afghanistan.
But the people in Afghanistan, I mean, you have to understand that as special ops, we were down there in the villages and they loved us because we weren't trying to change them, we were trying to facilitate their success using their culture and their beliefs in the way they want to live and just supporting that so they could build back up their institutions, very similar to ours.
The Taliban destroyed their family, the Taliban destroyed their education system, the Taliban destroyed their security, their confidence. And so that all needed to be restored and that took time. And that's what they saw our special operation forces doing, working with them, beside them, and not trying to turn them into Americans, right?
And I think that's one of the biggest frustrations that people in Afghanistan see and have is that in many respects, we took over.
I mean … in the early years we named their country, wrote the constitution, we brought the Italians in to put together their justice system. We brought the Germans in to put their police together and the U.S. military put their army together. And then we built their government and we built the government largely on a bureaucratic process that we were familiar with in the West and it just doesn't work. And we focused top-down, so one of the things we did was we invested in corruption.
So my experience was that they wanted us there doing particular things and staying out of others and we had a hard time differentiating between the two.
Blair: I think that's a good message to send to our listeners, that as much as the media will say, “Oh, this was something that we weren't supposed to be doing,” at least the people on the ground respected us and wanted us to be there.
Now, on a sort of similar note to that, do you feel that the way we pulled out of Afghanistan, the way that we left and the way that we decreased our forces, do you feel that will affect the relationships we have with the local allies going forward, both in Afghanistan and in other conflicts that we're involved in?
Bolduc: I don't see how it cannot, right? I mean, this is a black eye to America for America's foreign policy. It is a complete 100% absolute failure in taking care of people that helped us for 20 years.
And I can tell you and I can testify to the fact that they kept me alive, they kept the men and women in my command alive. We would not have been able to do the missions we did in the village areas without the protection of the Afghan people and the tribal elders and the village elders in that construct that they had, their cultural construct.
So we have let them down, we have let our allies down, and we have sent a signal to the rest of the world that when America decides that they're done, they're done, regardless of the consequences of that. And that's absolutely the wrong message to send.
We invested in this country, many of the people in there invested in us, and I got to tell you, over the years, I've written a lot of supporting memorandums for visa applications. Some have been successful and some have not, our system is terrible.
I continue to do that. I wrote five yesterday. Since 2017, since I retired, I probably [have] written near 50 memorandums for Afghans who I worked with to apply for visas to get out of Afghanistan because they saw this coming and they wanted to get out.
Unfortunately, we have a bureaucratic system that doesn't allow that to work effectively. And we have left many of them on the ground at the mercy now of an extremist Taliban. And we've left that unchecked as well. And so this is, in the history of warfare, probably the worst political and military planned withdrawal in the world's history.
I mean, I'm a pretty good study of history and I can't think of anything that was done worse. It eclipses Iraq, it eclipses Vietnam, it eclipses anything that we have done. And the sad thing is that when we look at how we did things in World War II and other things to kind of win the peace, we had more area, more countries to deal with in World War II, we had Europe, we had Asia, and we did that more effectively.
Today we can't even handle one country in a very unstable region, which, nobody's even talking about that. Pakistan, a nuclear country, not the most stable country in the world or in that area. We got Iran to the west. We got an unstable Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan. We have China, we have Russia, we have Iran, we will have North Korea in there because they follow China everywhere. This is just opening up Pandora's box and the worst thing is it sends a message to China that we're not going to defend Taiwan either and that's a bad message to send.
Blair: I do think that that's something unique to the situation, is that there are pretty intense geopolitical consequences to how people will be responding to this. I know a lot of people have compared this pullout to the pullout from Vietnam in Saigon. Do you find that that's an apt comparison or do you think that that's maybe a little too much?
Bolduc: No, I don't think it's a little too much at all. And as a matter of fact, I could almost tell you that not only is it comparable, it's probably going to be worse. I mean, nothing worse than to see 17 taxis run down the runway and hundreds of Afghans trying to climb onto the aircraft and the aircraft takes off and a number of them fall to their death, right?
I mean, there is nothing more vivid than that as an example of the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal from Afghanistan and what's going on in Kabul and what's being played out in many places in Afghanistan at the expense of people that trusted us, right?
And there was no doubt in my mind—and I want to be clear on this with everybody, anyone who's read anything I've written, I was very supportive of President Trump's withdrawal approach and plans. We needed to change our military mission there, but there was a responsible way to do it and then there's an irresponsible way to do it. And I think we see the irresponsible way to do it.
So this isn't, “Should we have changed our mission in Afghanistan and what should we have done?” There's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. And I think we can see that this is definitely the wrong way.
Blair: Absolutely. Now, one of the things I would like to focus on is actually post-combat. You've done some really strong advocacy work to eliminate stigma surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder in our troops. Do you find that PTSD is something that's common in soldiers returning home from Afghanistan?
Bolduc: Oh, absolutely. … Anyone who deploys to combat right and experiences combat, whether it's one tour or whether it's 10 tours, obviously, the more exposure you have, the more post-traumatic stress has an effect. But regardless, we have seen it in the history of warfare and I do believe that all service members have post-traumatic stress because when you look at its essence, it's just the brain reorders itself, right?
In a combat environment, the brain reorders itself so you can stay alive more than one day in combat. Well, the more exposure you have to combat, whether it is during one tour or whether it's multiple tours, the more difficult it is to reintegrate back home because there are triggers everywhere that are similar to what you experienced in combat that would have kept you alive and your brain reacts to that.
So when we don't treat what I call the mental injuries of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, when we don't treat that in our service members effectively, then it becomes very, very problematic. And we can see that in the generations of combat veterans that we have.
So yes, understanding what post-traumatic stress is, destigmatizing it, understanding that you can be a highly functional person and have post-traumatic stress and live your life with the symptoms that that creates, but the last thing we want to do is create an environment where they're on their own and they have to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, that … only adds a slippery slope, right? You're going to go down. And it just culminates in this very high suicide rate that we have both on active duty and among our veteran community.
So we see the guys that stay in that have post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury and don't get the treatment that they need. And then our veterans, this isn't one or the other, they don't become a veteran and then become suicidal. They are there in the military not getting the right treatment, they become veterans.
And I'll tell you what, in many ways, that support structure, the purpose, the comradery, the job that you had, that makes you believe in something bigger than yourself and gives you that sense of belonging and purpose that goes away and it gets worse, right? So this is something that we fail to understand, that we're not effectively dealing with, and it has its consequences.
And I have to tell you, sir, I've done a call to action among the veteran community here because I am seeing and getting reached out by many veterans and many families of veterans on what they're seeing on television is worsening their symptoms of post-traumatic stress, making them feel bad. That moral injury that they've sustained in some cases gets even worse when they see the images on television and such.
So [Veterans Affairs] and our communities and our 501(c)(3) organizations that help veterans, … employers, we've got to raise our level, reach out to the veteran, reach out to the family, reach out to the person that you know has served.
And this is going to affect the Vietnam veterans as they watch and Korean veterans as they watch and World War II veterans as they watch as well. So this isn't isolated to the Afghan or Iraq veteran, right? This is a society-wide thing that we need to be aware of and we need to address and nobody's talking about that right now.
Blair: Right. And I think that's such a good thing to be aware of, that some of our troops as they come home are going to need assistance, and they're going to need help.
Well, General, we are running a little bit low on time here, but I wanted to ask you kind of as a final point, recently we've been hearing stories of veterans who are struggling with the news coming from Afghanistan, they're watching the TV and they're seeing these images, it's kind of reminding them that some of them may have lost friends or sacrificed their bodies and their minds to this campaign. What is your message to those veterans who are questioning if it was worth it?
Bolduc: Well, understand that these veterans did exactly what they were told to do. And they did it with honor, they did it with bravery, they did it with integrity, and they accomplished every single mission that they were asked to do, no matter what it was, right?
First rotation defeated Taliban and al-Qaeda and then they made conditions better for the Afghan people, schools, clinics, businesses. They created an army, they created a police force, they did everything that they were asked to do.
So please do not allow the ineffectiveness of senior leaders on the political side and the military side take away the pride that you should have in your job that was well done. … We are proud of you, you should know that we're proud of you. And this is a message that we're not hearing and we should be hearing it at the national level, that our service members did exactly what they were supposed to do, they did not lose anything.
This was lost at the higher levels and unfortunately, the Afghan government and military and national police have responsibility here, but not the men and women that served in our military for 20 years and went over there repeatedly. They did their job, they did it well, they did it with honor. And their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their friends and family members did not go in vain despite what you're seeing today.
Blair: Wonderful. Thank you so much, General, and a great thank you to all of our troops who are now returning home from Afghanistan. That was retired U.S. Army Gen. Don Bolduc. Bolduc served 10 tours in Afghanistan, including as commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group during Operation Medusa. He also served as former commander of special operations in Africa. General, thank you for your service and thank you so much for your time.
Bolduc: Thank you, God bless you.
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