‘We Never Got It. Not Even Close’: Afghanistan Veterans Reflect on 20 Years of War

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The last U.S. soldier to leave Afghanistan boarded a plane on Aug. 30, 2021. In the nearly two decades of war that preceded, more than 775,000 U.S. service members deployed to the country at least once. Over the course of the 20-year conflict, much about the war changed, from its primary mission to the support it enjoyed among the American public to the force deployment that sustained it. Notably, many veterans' attitudes toward the conflict in which they served have shifted as well.

To understand America's longest war through the eyes of those who fought it, POLITICO convened five veterans from different military services who deployed to Afghanistan at various points between 2001 and 2020. We discussed their early feelings about the war, the inflection points at which their thinking started to change and their reactions to the events of recent weeks and months. Most of the panelists described initial feelings of optimism that gave way to a sense that the U.S. mission was unrealistic. They spoke candidly about the fundamental flaws in the U.S. project, noting the lack of incentives for ordinary Afghans to support American objectives and expressing regret that the United States failed to see the country and the mission more clearly.

This conversation took place in early August, several weeks before the Taliban took over Afghanistan. On Aug. 30, POLITICO followed up with the panelists to ask about their views on the Afghan government's collapse and the chaotic U.S. effort to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies. Those reactions, which the panelists submitted in writing, are featured in the penultimate section below.

This discussion has been edited and condensed. The views expressed are those of the panelists alone and do not reflect the views of any part of the U.S. government or U.S. military, or of any of the panelists' employers.

Justin Sapp: When things started in 2001, I went in advance with the CIA paramilitary teams in the middle of October. At that time, the war was very much an unconventional warfare kind of domain. We were the only guys on the ground—all told, there were probably less than 20 people. The definition of the campaign wasn't fully formed yet. It was all being put together.

So it was a pretty heady time. It was all new. It was all unique. We were new to the Afghans. They were new to us. We had very broad guidance. And the guidance was to enable the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda. And that was it.

It was sort of like, you knew the first chapter of the book and then hopefully you knew the last chapter of the book. But everything in between was very much ill-defined. It was sort of an adventure.

Jahara "Franky" Matisek: When I first started flying cargo missions there in 2008, I had a very narrow tactical view of the country because I never really had to deal with any of the locals. It was basically deliver troops, take troops home, do helicopter swap-outs. It felt like it was a bureaucratized sort of routine war. I remember thinking on my first combat mission, ‘Oh, we have to get all mentally pumped and prepped.' And it was like, no, FedEx is flying in there! It was not that big of a threat or deal, flying into the bases, for the most part.

It felt like the bulk of my missions from 2008 to 2011, especially 2010, were when the ground forces in Afghanistan were getting ambushed and IED'ed [improvised explosive device] all the time. I spent a good chunk of 2010 and 2011 just transporting mine resistant ambush protected vehicles—they look like those big Humvee vehicles that protect the folks inside. I probably did at least 40 or 50 missions just transporting those things to Kandahar and Bagram.

Being sent back to Afghanistan in 2020 kind of confirmed my suspicions. The Afghan National Defense Security Forces basically is still a paper army, much like when the Soviets built up their version of the Afghan army in the 1980s.

When Covid basically shut down Afghanistan in March of 2020, it seemed like it was almost a relief for a lot of the advisers and trainers. Like, ‘Sweet, now we don't really have to see them anymore, because Covid. We're just going to VTC and FaceTime, just do all our advising through WhatsApp, texting and video calls.' I think it was the nail in the coffin. We were already so risk-averse that it made it almost easier—now there was almost no chance of losing any U.S. or NATO troops to the Taliban or insider attacks.

On my way out in October, I'm like, once we finally pull out of this thing, if we're going to actually follow through on this, the Afghan Air Force is just going to collapse. They are so dependent on on the U.S. military and contractors basically providing air power.

Jess Gonzalez: I had a very different experience. As a combat cameraman, I supported every aspect of the Marine Corps. I did female engagement teams, I did mortuary affairs. I did logistics, I did helicopter drops, I did helicopter recoveries. I've been around that whole country.

I'm going to talk a little bit from the experience of the regular warfighter—the junior enlisted. The "suck." We're here. We got to do it. And then we're going to go home. Being on the enlisted side, you don't understand the policy. You go through your pre-deployment training and you understand what your little piece is within counterinsurgency and all of that. But you feel like a little piece in the game and not someone who's able to see the whole board.

The bin Laden raid happened in Pakistan while I was there. I remember coming off a convoy and everyone's talking and whispering and watching the news on their computers. I was like, ‘What's going on?' And they're like, ‘Oh, bin Laden's dead.' There's some silence. My other photographer that I worked with was like, ‘Oh, well, I guess I get to go home now!' There was this crazy morale boost for a little bit.

Towards the end of my time, I was with the 2nd Marine Logistics Group, and we saw a lot of infrastructure getting built. So we had completed Route One and that connected to Route Red, which were two major roads within Helmand province. I had some friends that deployed last year and they said that the roads are completely destroyed now. That's a little disheartening to hear, because it was this huge accomplishment to attach those two roads.

Jason Dempsey: When I was moving in in January 2009, it was part of the precursor to what became known as the Afghan surge. The mentality both of the military and of our political leadership was that we were getting back to the good war. There was this assumption that the military had become competent at counterinsurgency and had been a learning institution over the previous eight years. And so I was pretty gung-ho to get to Afghanistan and get after these problems. Being there that year was fairly rewarding, albeit frustrating.

But it was clear by the time I got back in 2012-13 that the entire mission was essentially—it was a failure. The question was, to what degree was it a failure and where did the blame fall? I spent years thinking about that, finding out that more and more of the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of the American military. We decided to mirror-image our army structure on a nation and country that simply wasn't set up for that. Instead of doing what needed to be done, we did the mission we wanted to do.

Phil Caruso: I echo a lot of what Jason said. When I got there in 2011, I was very proud to be a part of what I thought was finally giving Afghanistan its due attention and focus after almost a decade of underresourcing in favor of the effort in Iraq. I did think that we had more expertise and capability than we had early on from a conventional military perspective.

I think there was a series of events in that deployment that made me realize the reality of the situation. I saw a number of things that made me question the viability of our strategy over the long run. I believe then and I still do believe that counterinsurgency can work, but on a timeline and a commitment that I don't think is realistic for the United States, given our system and our interests domestically.

What I came out of that deployment trying to do was just make the piece of Afghanistan I could touch a little bit of a better place, make the lives of the people that I dealt with a little bit better and try not to focus on the larger effort and shoulder the responsibility, the burden of winning the war myself and or with my unit.

I do think we helped people in that deployment. And I do think we made a lot of progress. But at the end of the day, I don't think it was sustainable without a long-term commitment, one that I don't think would be viable.

When I went back in 2014, it was a very different environment. The combat mission was ending. The sense I got was there was a lot of frustration in the military ranks because there was concern about artificial thresholds and micromanagement from Washington. The military, I felt, was being somewhat defensive about trying to protect the gains that it had made when the surge forces were there.

We're trying to literally count billets to figure out, how could they keep a unit viable with five people in uniform and replacing the rest with civilians and contractors? How many helicopters they could have at any given base? These were the things that were dominating discussion of the day as opposed to continuing to try to make progress on the ground. That made it very difficult and demoralizing for a lot of folks that were trying to carry on the mission because there wasn't a clear sense of what we were trying to do.

I think there was a sense of fatigue institutionally. There was a lot more risk aversion. Missions required a lot of higher approvals. A lot of commanders were concerned about the well-being of their soldiers and airmen, sailors and Marines, given what the climate was in Washington.

As I look back on that decade of involvement in Afghanistan, there was for me a decreasing sense of what we were going to be able to achieve. And a decreasing sense of what we were even trying to achieve because the issues just became so complicated and so politically fraught that it made it very difficult to reach clear conclusions.

Sapp: Having watched the arc of the conflicts and being one of the first guys on the ground, I first started questioning things in probably December '02. I know that seems kind of early. But all of a sudden, they were doing the conference in Bonn and they were talking about [writing an Afghan] constitution and so forth. And I thought, wow, that sounds kind of Jeffersonian. But you've got to understand, the attitude of the time was very upbeat and very optimistic. And we had been successful. It was clear that things were shifting to Iraq. I went into Iraq in '03. We were focused on Iraq, and that was also indicative of the overall look of the Defense Department at the time.

When I came back to Afghanistan [in 2011], it was a very, very different paradigm. The IED techniques had migrated from Iraq. You couldn't drive anywhere. When I was [in Afghanistan in 2001], we were on horseback or we're on foot or we're in light-skinned vehicles. Now, you couldn't get from A to B without being in an armored vehicle or flying a helicopter.

But the biggest problem—the big point where I said, things aren't going as well as I had hoped for — was dealing with these district governors, whom I dealt with frequently. They didn't have a long view. They were not invested in the central government. There were a lot of reasons for that. Every day was a new day to them and it was a fight for survival. They had no incentive to build these relationships that we designed for them.

For example, we were paying nine and a half dollars per gallon to ship gas from Karachi to outlying districts. And when I approached the district governor—'Hey, you need to learn how to use your own bureaucratic requisition systems'—he said, ‘Why should I do that when you're doing it for me?' And he was dead serious. And of course, he died a couple of months later, as probably 60 percent of the guys who I worked with did on the Afghan side.

Dempsey: I actually want to push back just a tad. It's absolutely true—the [Afghan] commandos are successful. But they're successful when we provide air support, planning, high-tech weaponry and a ton of in-depth training. And frankly, the question we have failed to ask is: Why are the commandos and everything that we've given them, why are they necessary for defeating a force that's for the most part equipped with AK-47s and flip-flops? It's because we became enamored with [creating] a force that looks like us and is effective by our measures.

What we miss is that the Taliban are actually playing the long-term political game. They're not getting money hand over fist, month after month that would incentivize them to be a client of the Americans. They're working inch by inch, working politics. We may not like it, but they're damn effective. And they're much more effective, unfortunately, than a force that we prop up to be tactically efficient in our image, but politically illegitimate and unable to win the battle for hearts and minds in a lot of these villages that are on the edge.

Matisek: The thing that became pretty apparent that kind of shocked me, but I guess it really shouldn't have: We had been there almost two decades. I'm talking to Afghan troops about, well, how do you get jobs in the Afghan military? They’re just like [makes money gesture with hand]. So you mean to tell me that there is no record-keeping in the Afghan military about what you're qualified to do or what you can do? And they're just like, no [makes money gesture again]. You get around the military and get new jobs and promotions just by virtue of paying somebody off.

That's insane—we've done all this for almost two decades and we couldn't get them to do a basic personnel system to make it at least halfway meritocratic. Yeah, that's a bad sign.

If you want to give give props or credit to the Taliban, they did a great job with the green-on-blue attacks—they were able to basically keep turning Afghan troops and policemen against U.S. and coalition forces in a way that didn't really happen in Iraq. Really did a number on the way we tried doing military operations in Afghanistan.

The Taliban seemed to have moved into a phase, by the time I was leaving, of being able to approach government forces and not just kill them and basically make a deal that they couldn't refuse. So, for example, there was an Afghan army NCO [non-commissioned officer] down at Kandahar that had been approached. He came into work the following day and he’s like, ‘Hey, guys, it's my last day at work. Taliban could be in my house. They basically offered to pay me double. They won't kill my family and I'll just go maintain their vehicles and the Taliban maintenance depot shop.' And he was like, ‘Goodbye, guys.' It was sort of like, this is the way it is. And everyone saw the writing on the wall.

Gonzalez: You know, it’s those little things that everyday junior enlisted guys had to deal with that were always these big moments for me within my deployment. I was expecting to go for a six-month deployment. One of the admin guys was like, ‘Hey, where do you want to go for R&R [rest and recuperation]?' ‘Oh man, I’m not going on R&R. I’m only here for six months, R&R is for people here for 10!' And they’re like, Nope, you’re on the year list.' Things like that—how disconnected a lot of the times a junior enlisted is from the decisions that are made within our own lives. It's funny looking at it down the line.

There was a big controversy around the time I was leaving about a giant building that was getting built on Camp Leatherneck, a multimillion-dollar facility [at a time] when the Marine Corps was supposed to be somewhat pulling out of Afghanistan. That was always the big talk—how the Afghan National Army wasn't able to use that facility because we had set it up for American power. There were a lot of logistical problems that junior enlisted heard about through the—we call it the lance corporal underground.

Caruso: We made a lot of efforts to pacify villages that were more hostile to us. And we succeeded in some cases by putting an Afghan National Police checkpoint in a village that didn't have one to help deter the Taliban from launching rockets at the base. [In one instance] we convinced a village elder, who was a Ghilzai Pashtun, to support us, which was a big deal because many of the people to whom he had tribal ties were Taliban supporters.

But he was assassinated. Then his brother stood up and took his place and said, ‘We'll stand with the government, the Americans.' And he was assassinated. By that point, the Taliban had essentially regained control of the village. I spoke to one gentleman on the side of the road one day, and he was subsequently beheaded for talking to me and made an example of.

I saw through that that some of these things were almost Pyrrhic victories because we were doing the things that, [per] the counterinsurgency manual, doctrinally, we were doing the right things. And we were succeeding in some cases. But at the end of the day, the sacrifice and the loss of trust in the villages was starting to hamper our effectiveness in getting people to want to work with us, to follow our goals and objectives, to cooperate with us and to resist the Taliban and ultimately for us to succeed. I think they were going to have to resist them on their own. We couldn't maintain a permanent presence of U.S. forces indefinitely to keep them safe or to deter the Taliban.

Caruso: One of the things we as a society have underestimated over the lifespan of the conflict is just how psychological of a conflict it was. And all wars are psychological. But I think in the military in particular, our default perspective is to focus on the military side of the conflict and achieving the objectives that have been set out for us. At the end of the day, the thing that really affected our operations—all the way from the early stage up to the present—is the sentiment that people had on the ground there about our commitment and how long we would stay.

What we failed to do was convince people from the average Afghan on the street all the way up to government and military leaders that we were committed and that we would stay and that there were incentives for them to make long-term significant changes.

Sapp: There's always a psychological tipping point in any of these conflicts, whether it's Vietnam or here or in Iraq. And clearly the Afghans are approaching it. But my point of view is that we're not quite there yet. However, we're getting pretty darn close. It was kind of sad to hear from some of my guys that I was with in '01. They're fighting for their lives up north against the Taliban.

There are certain ways the Afghan society perforates—whether it's the Uzbeks, the Tajiks or the Pashtuns. If we had only leveraged it, and organized our efforts more along those lines, I think we would have gleaned more benefits. I'm not saying it would've been perfect.

I don't think it's too late. I mean, it's certainly getting close. But I wish we would take a new look at it and try to reinvest. That seems unlikely. Clearly, again, this is my personal opinion. I think we divested from certain programs that were successful. One of those was a grassroots program, Afghan Local Police. I know it had some controversy, but that program had the right mindset of working at the village level to build those familial and those tribal and those village bonds and use that as the basis for establishing security. I don't think we did that to the extent required. And then we divested from that. And that's unfortunate.

Dempsey: I think Justin brought up one of the key points, which is instead of working with Afghanistan the way it was—recognizing where the tribal fault lines lay, identifying those people most likely to work with our interests, those least likely—we decided to ignore Afghanistan's history, culture and the reality on the ground and instead use a template of what we thought was the ideal solution. It was that pursuit of the ideal that led us to the failure we're in, rather than working with the conditions on the ground and being content with something that's more attainable but might not be the perfect solution. I think a lot of that lies with the way we approach this in our arrogance.

We have to ask: In what circumstance did we think that the Afghans were going to be able to maintain a fleet of nearly 100 Blackhawk helicopters without massive external support? There is almost no timeline you could come up with whereby that can happen organically in Afghanistan. But somehow we built a military that relies on those forces.

Trump was saying he wanted to withdraw in 2016. Military leaders had over four years to think about, well, what does that mean if I'm given the withdrawal order? But instead of changing the plans, we stuck to the template. We stuck to what we think an ideal military should look like. And instead of preparing the Afghans for our withdrawal, we led them into this idea that, well, we're always going to be there.

When people talk about timelines and announced withdrawal dates, there's always this idea that somehow that's what led us to failure — that we told the Taliban we are leaving. And what people miss is: The timeline for withdrawal was not messaging for the Taliban. It was messaging to the Afghan government that said, ‘You have this amount of time to get into a condition where you're stable, you're ready to fight, and you're capable of being independent.' Because if you don't give them a timeline, but you're going to indefinitely shovel billions of dollars into a system, what the hell did we think was going to happen? What would happen if you took any city government in America and said, ‘We hope at some point you're effective. But in the meanwhile, we're going to shovel billions of dollars into your economy, into your government and into your hands. We just hope you'll be effective with it someday?' It was not a tenable process for getting the Afghans to step up and resolve a lot of their internal differences and come to an agreement about how they wanted to defend their country.

So, again, a lot of this is a self-inflicted wound. It's the inability of Americans to realize that we can't have absolutely everything we want. We cannot shape the world in foreign countries the way we want them to be.

Gonzalez: A big concern I had about the withdrawal of American troops was: Where does this leave women in the country? I had the opportunity of working with female engagement teams on training midwives, also working to get literacy rates of young girls within Helmand Province up. Within this time, we see that female women dying in childbirth has gone down within the past 20 years with training and making health care more available for these women. We also see that women within the Afghan government do have roles within parliament and within government.

However, within the Taliban, there are no women that were on any of the negotiating teams or anything like that. I'm a little nervous about the retrograde—[about] women having some of these rights or access to health care within these following years. That's been a really big concern: Where are we going to see women's empowerment within the next weeks, both long term and short term?

Matisek: We have pretty much all lost a friend or two or more in Afghanistan. You're obviously torn because you make friends with the Afghans and other local forces—all the blood, sweat and tears that you've put into Afghanistan. But the same time, it's also tough to not get caught in the gambler's fallacy of well, we've already done all this, we should just keep going. It speaks to Jason's point about, we never really figured out what we were going to do there and we never really figured out the politics and the context and the cultures and what we were really having to work with. I think it is indicative of where this war is likely heading post-America.

Caruso: We got on a convoy one day. We got into a high-speed accident on Highway Four with an Afghan National Army pickup truck, with a bunch of Afghan National Army soldiers riding in the back. It was a pretty devastating collision. We stopped and I dismounted to try to provide medical attention to the people that I could. And while we were doing that, someone tried to breach security perimeter and the gunners and our vehicles started firing warning shots. And when those shots rang out, the Afghans instinctively picked up their weapons and pointed them at us because they thought we were shooting at them.

This was the middle of the first wave of green-on-blue attacks. I realized the level of mistrust and some of the issues that we were facing, even with our partners on the ground. Thankfully, they realized pretty quickly that we weren't shooting at them and we put our weapons down and went back to work helping people.

Gonzalez: I helped train Afghan National Army troops, spent a lot of time with them. Working with the Afghan National Army, I worked with one particular unit, the 105th Kandak. They were a logistics unit. We went to pick them up in Kabul after their graduation. Coming back down from Kabul to Camp Leatherneck was a little bit of a circus. It took us three days to get up there and it took us about three weeks to get back, just because of how some of their convoy operations go—a lot of stopping, a lot of, ‘Oh, there's a watermelon stand on the side of the road! We're going to stop for the day.' At that time, we were trying to get them to be more independent within their convoy operations.

I got mistaken as the interpreter a lot of times, being a brown person. I was the only female on the training team. So there was always a lot of confusion because I had the bun. That was always really interesting.

I never was with the same unit very long. I was with that unit for about a month and a half. Saw a lot of growth, but also saw a lot of staying in the same [place]. ‘We're going to listen to what the Marines have to say'—but at the end of the day, they're very much going to run their operations how they want to. It's all very independent from each other. One unit will run something one way and another unit will run something another way.

Dempsey: One caution I have is a lot of folks look at the Afghans—they look at patronage networks, they look at a lack of adherence to the chain of command, they look at a lack of belief in structures—and they impute a moral judgment upon the Afghans for that. It took me a long time to realize that Afghans are no different than us. Their incentives are no different than ours. The challenge is, what is it that's causing them to act that way? The reality was we tried to build a military and a security force for a state that didn't exist. We forget the things that enable our military to exist the way it does. Our military relies on a strong and legitimate central government. It relies on effective bureaucracies. It relies on lack of corruption and commitment to rule of law, the absence of sectarian division, a literate population and recruiting base. Those don't exist in Afghanistan.

And again, this is not a moral judgment. But for us to walk in and say your tribe, your people, your family, all these things that have kept you alive for the last 20, 30 years of war, we would now like you to ignore all of that and pretend that you're going to be loyal to a chain of command structure that we drew out of thin air and wrote down on paper, that doesn't account for ethnicity, tribal loyalty, the way the world works?

There's a whole ton of hubris, arrogance and ignorance that drives the way the American military dealt with the Afghans. We built a system that worked for us instead of thinking about: What can we build for the Afghans, what's feasible, what's attainable, what's realistic? Instead, we just said what we want, what's perfect. And we never got it. Not even close.

Gonzalez: This is an inevitable end to a conflict that may have seemed like the right thing at the time but was relegated to the back burner in favor of the Iraq war. I am displeased by the way we handled evacuations of Afghans that were seeking asylum as well as American citizens still in the country. It's a gut check to see the Taliban using weapons, vehicles and aircraft that were left in order for the Afghan government to fight against them. I mourn the loss of the marines, corpsman, and sailor who were killed in the [Aug. 21 airport] bombing and hope that they didn't die in vain. In the end, this really feels like it was bound to happen from the get-go 20 years ago.

Matisek: Having worked at the airfield in 2020 at Kandahar, we felt the pressure from the administration to rapidly reduce the "boots on the ground" on an accelerated timeline up to May 2021. So in many ways, we were watching the tragic events unfold in summer 2020, shutting down U.S./NATO airfields in a way that many of us started to feel uncomfortable—especially when Kandahar Airfield’s closure timeline got moved up to November 2020, without being able to discuss all the details with Afghan partners at the base in an open and transparent fashion. So, many of us running U.S./NATO airfields in these meetings were expressing concern about ending up in a Saigon situation at the end of the pullout because we wouldn’t have the airlift capacity anymore to get everything out that we wanted.

Caruso: I felt extreme remorse for leaving behind so many Afghans and families—perhaps hundreds of thousands in total—who worked for international forces and foreign governments. I am remorseful that we, as the international community, were unable to get all deserving Afghans out despite numerous promises to live up to our moral obligations, and that I as a board member at the organization No One Left Behind could not do more.

We believed so much in helping them and did everything we could to do so, but in the end, we successfully helped only a precious few escape. I felt like we had given them false hope by trying to get them through the gates at Kabul’s airport, on flights out of Afghanistan to start new lives elsewhere, only to deliver them to a crushing blow of abandonment. I received thousands of desperate emails, social media messages, voice messages from people terrified of the future, begging and pleading for help, but I felt powerless to help them. Resettlement is far from over, and I will continue to help, but I will always be ashamed.

Dempsey: What we saw with the rapid collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan government was that our approach was so fundamentally flawed that it was really a question of when, not if, the ANSF would collapse.

That doesn't mean that seeing it now wasn't painful: Turns out that losing a war sucks, particularly for those Afghan allies that bought into our vision and now have to suffer the consequences of our failures.

Perhaps most distressing is that after failing to learn the lessons of Vietnam, our current discourse seems so simplified, partisan and superficial that I do not have much hope for true accountability or the degree of introspection required to prevent us from doing this again in another generation.

Sapp: It's part of the continuum of conflict in Afghanistan. We were just one act or two acts or a long act in that play. But it will continue. I would hope that we could look at Afghanistan as not necessarily a binary choice—all in or all out. We had a time when we had a modicum of people on the ground that were successful in a way that when we had 90,000, we weren't. I'm not saying that's a fair comparison, but it is something worth considering: How can we leverage things in Afghanistan to be successful without imposing inordinate requirements on our nation or our people and the young men and women that serve?

Dempsey: There's so much intricacy, nuance and detail in Afghanistan and the way that war goes. And it's unfortunate that we served them so poorly. On the domestic side of this war, we see what happens when we think that the military is an all-powerful tool that can reshape nations in our image. And a lot of that comes from the American public's both respect and, ultimately, indifference to what the American military is doing overseas. I think what the public needs to realize is that engagement and criticism of the military is required for respecting the military, because if you're not engaged and you don't know enough about it to criticize what the military is doing, that means you don't care enough to actually understand what it's doing. Because it is an institution like any others that makes mistakes, has bureaucratic inertia and is prone to failure without sustained oversight, both from our politicians and from American taxpayers.

Caruso: Jason used a couple of words earlier: arrogance and hubris. My hope is that the legacy of this conflict is that we are able to somehow shake those traits, especially in our foreign policy and national security establishment.

We need to shake loose of some of the fallacies that have begun to take root in our experts. I hope that we divorce ourselves of this notion that we are all-powerful, that we can build nations, we can remove governments and replace them with something that is far more palatable to us because, while we may be able to do that in some cases, the blueprint is far from perfect. The outcomes and the factors involved are far from foreseeable and easy to deal with. And we have to understand that when we make decisions about waging conflicts like these abroad.

Gonzalez: For me, again, it's going to be a little bit more personal. The most important conversation I had, as far as my life journey, was in Kyrgyzstan with a staff sergeant. [We were discussing] wanting to work on policy afterward. She had mentioned the State Department and the Foreign Service. When I joined the Marine Corps, it was like—I wasn't going to go to college, I wasn't going to be one of those kids that went to college right after high school. The Marine Corps was the last ditch. And talking to her, it kind of put my life on this track. Now, I work at the State Department on policy. Everything that happened in Afghanistan and working with women has always really stuck with me. I carry [my patches] around to remember why I do the things I'm trying to do in the world.

Phil said it perfectly. You can't win the war on your own. Your unit isn't going to do it. You aren't going to do it. But it's about finding that one little piece and how you can shape the world and make it better.

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