For Ben Hartford, the fall of Kabul isn’t just a horrifying news story of chaos and tragedy on TV. He’s one of the more than 775,000 American veterans for whom Afghanistan is a part of their lives.
Hartford served two tours of duty in America’s longest war as a member of the 82nd Airborne.
“I feel let down, wondering if it was all worth it. If the things I did that give me nightmares were worth doing,” Hartford told NHJournal Monday.
Despite reassurances from President Joe Biden that, “The Taliban isn’t the North Vietnamese army,” the Islamist radicals needed just one week to seize control of Afghanistan, not the 18 months Biden’s foreign policy team suggested.
Hartford, who lives in Hillsborough with his wife and eight children, thinks the U.S. should have stayed and fought.
There are people in Afghanistan who were able to get an education, who were able to vote for the first time, who had a shot at a free and democratic life thanks to the sacrifices made by U.S. troops, Hartford said.
He blames decades of mismanagement, starting with former President George W, Bush, for the fall of Afghanistan after so much American effort. And despite claiming, “The buck stops with me,” Biden also shifted blame for the foreign policy blunder on previous presidents as well.
“When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban,” Biden said during an address to the nation Monday. “Under his agreement, U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 – just a little over three months after I took office,” Biden said. “The choice I had to make, as your president, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.
“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
Critics note making the decision to withdraw isn’t the same as allowing that withdrawal to turn into a disorganized and deadly rout. At least seven people were killed in the chaos at the Kabul airport on Monday, including desperate Afghans clinging to U.S. military transport planes before plunging to their deaths.
Speaking to reporters at a legislative signing event Monday, Gov. Chris Sununu declared Biden’s evacuation a “botched operation from the beginning.”
“I think I speak for most Americans when I say what we’ve been witnessing in Afghanistan is absolutely tragic. It was a botched operation from the beginning,” Sununu said of the withdrawal operation.
“Two weeks ago, it was ‘is this going to look like Saigon?’ People almost laughed that off. The reality is, it does look like Saigon,” Sununu added.
New Hampshire’s all-Democrat congressional delegation has been reluctant to criticize Biden, despite the distressing visuals coming from Kabul. The exception is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who’s been critical of Biden’s Afghanistan policy for months.
Other members of the delegation expressed concern about apparent intelligence failures that missed Afghanistan’s imminent collapse. They also advocated for safe passage for Afghans who helped Americans and are now in danger as a result.
Rep. Chris Pappas said this isn’t the time to focus on the failures.
“There will be time to re-examine foreign policy failures over two decades that shaped today’s events. But now we must do all we can to ensure the safe return of Americans and our partners and honor the service of all those who deployed to Afghanistan and their families,” Pappas tweeted.
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster said on Twitter the government needs to make sure terrorists don’t return to Afghanistan.
“The United States government must take strategic steps to ensure the region does not return to a haven for terrorists, and that all Afghan citizens — especially women and girls — are safe from violence, persecution, and brutal treatment from the Taliban,” Kuster said.
Biden stood by his decision to leave and said the chaos that erupted in Afghanistan reinforced his decision to remove American troops from the volatile country, even if some of the events took him by surprise.
“We planned for every contingency, but the truth is this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” Biden explained.
Biden said the 6,000 troops currently in Afghanistan are focused on getting Americans, allies, and vulnerable Afghans out of the country.
Shaheen said the U.S. must protect the Afghan people left vulnerable by Taliban rule and get them out.
“As we continue the evacuation, we cannot forget our Afghan partners and other vulnerable civilians whose lives are in danger, due in part to the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. We know what will happen if we abandon them – we cannot leave them to die,” she said.
As the United States withdraws, Hartford said he wants to see the military re-engage and aggressively go after the Taliban as it did in the early days of the occupation. He said the United States could bring peace and freedom to Afghanistan, eventually.
“All we had to do was keep doing what we were doing,” Hartford said.