Hundreds of thousands of American veterans have served in Afghanistan since 2001, and around 20,000 troops remain there today, though the number plummets daily with the abandonment of bases and the turnover of major installations to the Afghan government. By early next year, there will be only 9,800 American troops left in the country, a number that will be reduced by half no later than the end of 2015. According to the White House, it will be reduced again, effectively to zero, by the end of 2016.
So how are things going?
Major news organizations invest few resources in covering the situation in Afghanistan, and the White House can only be happy about that, because little of the news is good. Among the handful of organizations regularly turning out decent journalism from the region is—perhaps surprisingly—VICE News, which in recent years has moved away from some of its old ways (which I recently heard described as "finding guys in Williamsburg wearing skinny jeans and parachuting them into Congo") and begun to hire talented, experienced foreign correspondents.
One of these hires, Ben Anderson, recently paid a visit to the trauma hospital in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, and filed this report with VICE, called ‘What We’re Leaving Behind.’
Anderson has been traveling to Afghanistan, and in particular to Helmand, since 2007. I met him while serving with the Marine Corps there in 2010. It is amusing to watch his pronounced swagger as he strides up to the edge of a firefight in Jalalabad at the outset of this latest documentary. I recall less swaggering four years ago, but of course by now Anderson has seen at least as much combat as the average Marine, and probably more than most.
His report is entirely grim. From an ebb point in 2012, trauma casualties at the hospital increased by 70 percent in 2013, with 2,100 admissions. By halfway through 2014, the hospital had already admitted 1,700 Afghan men, women, and children with battlefield injuries. Not coincidentally, 2012 saw the beginning of a sharp decrease in the number of U.S. Marines operating in the Helmand "green zone"—the lush and narrow river valleys where the population gathers within a largely desert province. The increase in violence directly tracks with the withdrawal of the Marines.
During its peak period, 30 patients a day are admitted to the trauma hospital, and some are turned away due to a lack of beds. Anderson observes that the nature of the injuries has been changing of late. Fewer have been hurt by IEDs—though there are still plenty of those—and more are coming in wounded by bullets or shrapnel from rockets. When U.S. servicemen were prevalent in the surrounding districts, the Taliban relied heavily on improvised mines, but now that the Americans are gone, the Taliban, the Afghan security forces, and the local tribal networks are bolder and more reckless in their tactics, and more civilians are caught in the crossfire. (Throughout his various documentaries, Anderson has developed a sideline in capturing harrowing footage of Afghan troops firing their weapons wildly, looking like they learned to shoot through a casual study of Animal Mother’s technique in Full Metal Jacket.)
Not all the patients in the hospital are innocent, strictly speaking. Many of the military-age males in being treated got their wounds because they were participants in the fighting on the Taliban side and not because—as all of them surely claim—they were caught in a crossfire. But others have clearly been victimized by the violence around them, and the footage of the pediatric and female ward is difficult to watch: Women and children with burned faces, peppered with shrapnel, shot in the head, suffering double amputations, and more. A young boy who, having been wounded in his throat, will never speak again—and who, to make matters worse, is illiterate, and thus has no means of making himself understood. Life in Helmand has very little to offer him now.
The security situation in Lashkar Gah—a relatively safe place compared to the rest of Helmand in recent years—is such that foreign volunteers at the hospital cannot walk the streets of the city. Anderson reports that while Afghan security forces no longer release their casualty figures anymore, at least 25 are killed every day across the country.
Interviewing the brave man serving as chief of surgery at the hospital, Anderson points out that western politicians are largely bullish when the speak about Afghanistan, and claim that, "We almost finished the Taliban." The doctor breaks out in spontaneous laughter. Anderson asks if there is anything about what is happening in Afghanistan or Helmand that makes him optimistic. The doctor responds, "No."
As of Monday, 2,210 American servicemen and women have been killed in Afghanistan, and many more have been wounded, some grievously. Regardless of the outcome of the war, their sacrifice will always be honorable and meaningful. But has it been worthwhile? Troops do not control strategy and policy, which are in the hands of senior officers, politicians, and their appointees. Afghanistan is sliding towards a civil war reminiscent of the current situation in Iraq, and awaits only our final withdrawal and the decision of the Pakistani security services to collapse entirely. Also, as Anderson has done an admirable job of documenting, we are once again leaving our interpreters behind.
Our troops fight just as well today as at any point in our history. Can their leaders still win?