Residents with ties to Afghanistan reflect on chaotic end to US military presence

  • Tom Stone walks with the pupils at the Pomfret School on May 31, 2000, at the conclusion of his around-the-world walk. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Wakil Kohsar/AFP—TNS

  • Afghan people sit as they wait to leave the Kabul airport in Kabul on Monday after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee the group’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. AFP via Getty Images/TNS photographs — Wakil Kohsar

Valley News
Published: 8/18/2021 4:08:45 PM

It was in grief that Rose Loving began her involvement in Afghanistan.

After her partner, Vermont National Guard Master Sgt. John Thomas Stone, was killed in 2006 during his third tour in the war-torn country, she felt a need to honor his sacrifice.

Through Direct Aid International, a Vermont nonprofit, Loving began to sponsor school construction in the country, where Stone served three tours as a medic and treated children and families.

“When I started, I had something I needed to do to honor Tom, and that door flew open and that was it,” Loving said Monday in a phone interview from her home in Tunbridge. Other people connected to Stone walked through that door and contributed, Loving said. So far, the effort has built 40 schools, mostly in rural corners of Afghanistan.

What the future of those schools and the children they educate might look like is unclear, and likely grim, amid the collapse of the U.S.-backed government and the swift takeover by the Taliban. Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C., the movement of religious militants governed Afghanistan by suppressing education and freedom of expression through targeted violence. The Taliban’s return puts at risk lives that were allowed to blossom under Western occupation.

The swift collapse of the Afghan government and military as American troops have withdrawn has left Loving and others who have worked in or were deployed to Afghanistan watching in horror.

“I think it’s just too fast, and too many things just weren’t thought out,” Loving said.

She felt she had seen progress just in the faces of the children who attended the schools she supports.

“You don’t want to go back. You want to pursue those dreams,” Loving said. “I just have to believe that those sparks are still there.”

Most of the schools are so rural that it’s hard to know whether they’ve come under the Taliban’s sway, Loving said.

One school is next to a provincial government building and is protected by a local militia, she said.

The collapse of the Afghan state follows years of effort by U.S. troops to train the army and police forces.

Eric Bates, then a sergeant first class with a New Hampshire unit of the Vermont Army National Guard, was deployed to Afghanistan from fall 2003 to late summer 2004. At the time, the fourth of his six sons hadn’t turned 1; he graduated from Lebanon High School this year.

“It’s not just a matter of a few years,” Bates, 49, of West Lebanon, said Monday. He was then a Hanover police officer and is now a detective with the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department.

Bates served on a task force as an embedded trainer with the Afghan army, which meant he was under fire with his trainees. He earned a Purple Heart during his service for a shrapnel wound to his leg suffered during an ambush.

The events unfolding in Afghanistan are too big and complex to attribute to a single actor, he said. “Unfortunately, on the news, I see that this is a failure of Republicans or Democrats,” or of a particular politician, Bates said.

The U.S. military effort was not a failure, he said, nor was the long struggle to build up a government and a security apparatus.

In 20 years the U.S. hasn’t suffered a terrorist attack that was planned in Afghanistan, he noted.

The swift collapse is “not because of our soldiers,” he said. “It’s not because our government didn’t try.”

The causes, he said, were more social and cultural than military or political.

Even so, he and others who wore the uniform in Afghanistan are looking on in sadness and reflecting on their work and the people they met.

“I feel bad. All the work that we did pretty much was gone,” Royalton Police Chief Loretta Stalnaker said Monday.

Stalnaker deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with a military police unit of the Vermont National Guard to train military and police personnel. Her unit was stationed in Bamiyan, where the Taliban destroyed two massive statues of Buddha in March 2001. They saw only skirmishes, she said, but the Taliban were always there in the background.

It’s hard for ordinary Americans to understand the circumstances confronting Afghan troops, said Stalnaker, who also was deployed to Iraq.

“They face so much more than we did,” she said. The Taliban would threaten to behead the family of Afghan security force members.

“The Afghan people are in my prayers,” she said.

Protection from the Taliban is also on the minds of others who have worked in Afghanistan.

The country’s translators, journalists, artists, musicians, progressive politicians and citizens, anyone who doesn’t fit the Taliban’s narrow views of religion and society, are in danger.

“They say they’re changed,” Rianna Starheim, who first worked in Afghanistan in 2014, while she was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, said of the Taliban.

She spent much of the next five years working mainly in Kabul.

Many of the Afghans she knows fear death at the Taliban’s hands.

To leave is impossible, as the collapsed government can’t grant passports and closed embassies can’t process visas.

“Already in Herat they’re telling women they can’t go to work,” Starheim said Monday. Now a paramedic, Starheim, 29, recently moved to Illinois, where she works for the state Emergency Management Agency and Department of Public Health.

Starheim’s first visit, in 2014, occurred right after a disputed presidential election.

“They called something a success, a democratic transfer of power,” she said. But it wasn’t a success and then-Secretary of State John Kerry had to broker a power-sharing arrangement. All the while, the Taliban operated a shadow government, she said.

The Afghan government was so riddled with corruption that the military and police saw no point in standing up for it, Starheim said.

“There certainly are no easy answers in Afghanistan,” she said. But, “it didn’t have to be this way.”

Rose Loving, too, is watching and hoping that the progress she’s seen isn’t undone.

“I’m still very connected and still in support of Direct Aid,” Loving said. “Who knows what the situation will be and whether it will be safe?”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.


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