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My Turn: Afghanistan, Hollywood and Memorial Day

  • Michael Moffett stands with Fahim Fazli. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 5/29/2017 12:15:11 AM

Recent Monitor opinion pieces have rightly focused attention on Afghanistan, the site of America’s longest war, and a place where President Donald Trump wants to increase our presence to 12,000 troops. So should we? Force level questions bring us back to 2001 and the 9/11 attacks.

Like millions of fellow citizens, I responded to 9/11 by offering to do what I could for our country. I was soon back in a Marine Corps uniform, working for Gen. Tommy Franks at the ground operations desk in the top-secret war room at Central Command at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Fla.

We received updates there on the latest Afghanistan developments – where we had zero troops. We moved some CIA people and Special Forces to Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan, north of Afghanistan, as the first step in engaging Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which provided safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaida plotters who masterminded 9/11. All this was then top secret.

A perilous infiltration brought around a dozen operatives into Afghanistan to connect with anti-Taliban elements. While tracking their progress at CENTCOM, we also noted the defeatist commentary from numerous pundits claiming that a ground war to dislodge the Taliban could take years, countless troops and end up like Vietnam. The Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan, after all, had prompted the end of the USSR. But the remarkable events that then took place are no longer top secret.

Our infiltrators linked up with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and acquired horses. A dozen or so Americans actually participated in cavalry charges, while calling in air strikes on Taliban positions. We tracked these remarkable exploits on a daily basis at CENTCOM. America’s awesome air power vanquished the Taliban, and in December the Northern Alliance rolled into Kabul. Essentially, a dozen Americans overthrew the Afghan regime.

These astounding developments are chronicled in a book by Doug Stanton titled Horse Soldiers, which inspired an upcoming American war drama film of the same name directed by Nicolai Fuglsig. (The film stars Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Austin Stowell, Trevante Rhodes and Rob Riggle, and will be out by the end of the year.)

This 2001 victory did not end the fighting in Afghanistan – a vast country inhabited by 40 million people of numerous tribes and ideologies. The Taliban didn’t disappear. Still, the leaders at Central Command and the Bush administration sought to keep a minimal U.S. presence there. If a dozen people could overthrow the Taliban regime, then we didn’t need a massive occupation force. Within the top-secret war room, it was clear that the administration wanted to minimize our “boots of the ground” to 5,000 or so.

Inspired by how our Special Forces toppled the Taliban in 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sought to replicate the feat in Iraq in 2003. We overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime with only around 120,000 troops, even though the generals had requested three times that number to successfully occupy the country. The subsequent shortage of personnel resulted in five years of bloody battle, before a “Sunni Awakening” in Al Anbar Province in 2008 routed al-Qaida in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan saw a Taliban resurgence. The Obama administration then deployed almost 120,000 troops there after 2009 – while completely pulling out of Iraq.

History will judge as to whether or not the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq led to the establishment of an ISIS state that filled the vacuum left by American forces. But our commitment to Afghanistan clearly turned the tide against the Taliban in 2010-11, when I once again put on my Marine uniform and traveled on special assignment to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

The Taliban was no match for the full power of American and NATO forces. The Hamid Karzai regime there was given breathing room to train an army that might secure a non-fanatical future.

While in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Province, I met an extraordinary person named Fahim Fazli. A native Afghan who escaped to America as a refugee, Fazli became an American citizen and eventually a movie actor with 50 films on his resume, including Iron Man, Argo and American Sniper, among many others. He bravely put on a uniform to return to his native country as an interpreter with the Marines, where the charismatic actor was so successful as a translator – bringing together Americans and Afghans – that the Taliban put a price on his head.

After surviving Helmand we stayed in touch back in America and collaborated on an award-winning book called Fahim Speaks: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back.

It happens that Fahim also has a nice role in Horse Soldiers. I can’t await to see it. And interestingly, my co-author and I share the same birthday – May 30 – the traditional Memorial Day.

Having been in harm’s way, we make it a point to stay in touch and remember those who died in the line of duty. Such is the purpose of Memorial Day. So should we support President Trump’s plan to increase our presence in Afghanistan?

Maybe. But we must be very careful. Eventually the Afghans themselves need to work out their country’s future. And we may need to tolerate war lords in some areas, in lieu of the Taliban. Still a minimal USA/NATO force that prevents the Taliban from retaking the reins of government makes sense. The Iraq pull-out yielded painful lessons.

So on this Memorial Day, we should think of the all Americans who gave their last full measure of devotion to our national interests – including over 6,000 killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. And we should also expect that our national leaders will fully explain and justify any decisions to put any Americans in harm’s way, whether it involves 12,000, 120,000 – or only 12.

(Michael Moffett is a retired professor and Marine Corps officer. He presently serves as a state representative for Merrimack 9, representing Canterbury and Loudon.)


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