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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Locals Express Frustration, Sorrow Over Afghanistan Withdrawal

Afghan Takover - Shutterstock

By Karen Knight

COURT HOUSE – “Was it worth it?”  seems to be the question, as the U.S. and its allies withdraw from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

Based on comments and interviews of Cape May County residents about their reaction to the current situation in Afghanistan, people are frustrated with some of the decisions, wonder about others, and express sorrow for the families and veterans who lost loved ones during the 20-year war on terror. 

“As a Navy veteran who served on board one of the first ships in theatre at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, it is absolutely devastating to see 20 years of blood, sweat, tears and death nullified in NINE DAYS!,” wrote Erik Delinski, on Facebook (https://bit.ly/2UJPiEm), in response to the Heraldseeking comments. “To be forcefully evicted, by a militant organization, from an embassy is the ultimate black eye on any foreign policy or diplomacy! Sad sad times for America.” 

In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by September 2021. The Taliban, which continued to capture and contest territory across the nation despite ongoing peace talks with the Afghan government, ramped up attacks on Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) bases and outposts and began to rapidly seize more territory.  

In May 2021, the U.S. military accelerated the pace of its troop withdrawal. By the end of July 2021, the U.S. completed nearly 95% of its withdrawal, leaving 650 troops to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul. 

This summer, the Taliban continued its offensive at a speed surprising U.S. officials and allies. 

Biden promised to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until all Americans are out, even if it’s past the Aug. 31 deadline. 

“I don’t understand how there was no intelligence to indicate it would happen that fast,” said Retired Col. Rich Nowakowski, of North Cape May.  

He spent 23 years serving in the U.S. Army before retiring, in 1984. 

“I don’t understand why we didn’t destroy the equipment before we left,” he continued. “I spent my career developing plans for cities like New Orleans and San Francisco if they were attacked and needed military support. The government and military are always developing plans. Why wasn’t this executed better?” 

“Someone should resign,” Nowakowski said. “I just don’t understand how this happened.” 

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jack Killeen, a Cape May resident, who spent a 29-year career specializing in nuclear security, counterterrorism, aircraft security and law enforcement, said he thinks there were three “crucial errors” in what he calls “the worst strategic and tactical decision for the U.S.” 

“The first crucial error was the timing, to get out by Sept. 11,” Killeen, who spent 13 years overseas before retiring in 2017, said. “If we had waited until their winter, in November, when they don’t fight, we could have time to identify where all Americans and our allies were, deployed convoys to get people to the airport and move them out. We would have had minimum conflict to get everyone out.” 

If the “right time” had been picked, Killeen also believes those Afghan translators and interpreters helping the U.S. and allies would have been able to leave if they wanted.  

“My son just got back from about a year serving there, and he’s worried about what will happen to his interpreters and translators,” he said. 

The second error, according to Killeen, was closing Bagram Air Base.  

“This was the only place with room and security for aircraft,” he said. “It is virtually impregnable. It had the capacity for us to bring people in and out without Taliban interference. We could have close air support instead of relying on Europe or the U.S. to fly over there. It should have been the last place to close.” 

Killeen, who will be the keynote speaker at the 9/11 ceremony in Cape May, sponsored by the Kiwanis Club, said the third mistake was leaving the equipment and “the apparent failure to have a plan to get our people out. The Brits and French are doing it, and we appear to be sitting on our hands. 

“Now that the Taliban has the entire country, they can use it against us,” he said. “China, Russia and Iran are already using the situation as propaganda against us. This is all really embarrassing; a huge screw up, in my opinion.” 

According to various news sources, the Taliban takeover of the country could, once again, turn Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven, as the group is believed to maintain ties with al-Qaeda. The takeover also threatens to reverse advances made in securing the rights of women and girls. 

Admitting his opinion might not be popular, Nowakowski said, “If you believe in religious freedom, then you know that it is part of the Muslim religion for girls not to go to school after 12 years of age, to wear burqas. They are following their religion. If we don’t want them to mess with our freedom of religion, why should we mess with theirs? We should let them alone.” 

For 20 years, the weight of the war on terror fell on the shoulders of less than 1% of the U.S. – 2.7 million Americans voluntarily answered the call to serve, or .7% of the U.S. population; 7,057 never came home; another 30,177 came home only to take their own lives, according to a press release issued by Wreaths Across America, a non-political, nonprofit organization known for placing wreaths on veterans’ headstones at Arlington National Cemetery and others nationwide. 

Joe Reagan, director of military and veteran outreach, Wreaths Across America, has over 10 years of experience working with leaders within government, nonprofit, and Fortune 500 companies to develop sustainable strategies supporting national security and veterans’ health. He served eight years on active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army, including two tours to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. 

“It is beyond the obvious in saying that the past few days have been extraordinarily difficult for those with a personal connection to our mission in Afghanistan, Regan said, in a release. 

“Pearl Harbor, Sept. 11, whatever the crisis, Americans have always stood up and found a way to overcome any obstacle,” he added. “Despite the fear, the heartbreak, the anger we’re all experiencing, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our fallen, to be good stewards of our democracy. We must live up to their legacy and be good stewards of our communities. As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, all of us must find a way to serve, we must ensure that the sacrifices made by the .7% were not in vain.” 

North Cape May resident Kim Ford expressed fear of what will happen next and sorrow over the lives lost.  

“My heart goes out to all those American families who lost their loved ones as a veteran or civilian in Afghanistan, who was there to bring peace and democracy,” she said. 

“I don’t think there is anything that will be able to stop the Taliban from coming onto our turf again,” Ford continued. “Our borders are open, we left equipment there, what will stop them? To all those young veterans who served and lost their lives, this is a slap in the face for all they worked and fought for.  

Josh Vandermark, of North Cape May, served in the U.S. Army during the closedown phase of the war with Iraq.  

“I believe things were rushed this time,” he said. “It took years in Iraq, over phases, to shut down. There were transition periods in between each phase until we left. 

“President (Donald) Trump said we would be out by a certain date, and then President Biden missed the date and gave another date,” Vandermark said. “I don’t think the plan was set up like it was in Iraq, and there hasn’t been an efficient transition of power like we had in Iraq. The way the Taliban has taken things over so quickly, it just wasn’t set up right.” 

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com. 

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