I remember how I felt on 9/11/2001, as I watched in horror as the twin towers burned and collapsed. I remember wanting revenge. Plain and simple I wanted to bring justice to those responsible for such evil and cowardly acts of terror.
Then, a short time later, on the ground in Afghanistan, we were given the opportunity to help bring payback to the Taliban.We were not there to bring the Afghan people out of their third world ways, or to build a free society. We were there to collect payment due for the loss of American lives inflicted on 9/11. Period.
But as the days went on, something began to change in my mind. As the Taliban retreated and became fewer and further between, I found myself paying more attention to the Afghan people. They cheered for the Americans who were crazy enough to stand up to their oppressors, and the children were now happily playing outside, smiling and waving as we went about our business.
It was then that a new feeling started to replace the anger I was holding onto: Hope.
It soon became clear to me that the Afghan people now had so much more than before our arrival a short time ago.
With the Taliban (who once owned and occupied the cities and surrounding areas) dead or hiding, the Afghan people could begin to live their lives without fear. They could now decide for themselves what to teach their children, and their daughters could attend school for the very first time in a lifetime. They could decide what books to read, they could fly a kite. Things that seem so trivial and entitled to westerners and Americans were so very shiny and new to these people. They were extremely grateful and happy with their newfound freedoms.
After a few more years, we went on to give them an elected government, as an alternative to being ruled by an iron fist. The Afghan people had come so far so fast, and we were glad to give them these amazing gifts. And through all the American blood, sweat, and tears- we hoped we had done enough to create a new democracy on the planet.
But now, 20 years on, just weeks from the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are leaving Afghanistan, and it appears as though our extraordinary efforts may have been in vain.
It’s difficult for me not to feel a sense of failure, with the speed of the capture of the Afghan capital Kabul, and the fleeing of their President from the country. It seems as if those who we have given their freedom to are simply not willing to fight for it, and that to me is truly sad.
Many Americans gave their lives. Many more Americans have returned home from Afghanistan with serious physical and emotional disabilities. Daily reminders of the battles they fought in the streets, villages, and mountains of Afghanistan.
Once again, under Taliban rule, there will be no more freedom to vote, to practice a different religion, to love the person they choose to. Females once again will be treated no better than animals. It’s infuriating even to think about.
But remember what the Taliban did when Americans first arrived. When they realized they were outgunned, they fled. They blended in with the population. They hid. They planned and they organized in secret. They took to the caves and they waited. They knew if they played our game they would lose every single fighter they had, and they would lose quickly.
The Taliban did what Afghans have done for centuries, and while this seems strange, even cowardly to westerners, guerrilla type fighting is very effective against larger forces and technologically advanced invaders. Afghanistan has been playing the long game throughout history, and they are exceedingly good at it. No empire that has tried to lay claim there has ever succeeded. Not one.
And so, the Taliban took the lessons of their predecessors and used them to their advantage. They waited.
Now, 20 years later with the American withdrawal, the Taliban have come back, to take back what we took from them. The major difference is that NOW, after two decades of American military presence, Afghans have had a powerful taste of freedom. They have seen true happiness in their children’s eyes, and felt great pride in standing up their own government. For better or worse, we have planted a seed in Afghanistan. The seed of freedom. That seed may yet grow to become a towering tree of liberty.
But here’s the stone cold truth about freedom. Something so precious as freedom cannot simply be given to others. It must first be earned if it is to be cherished, and then carefully handed down generation to generation, as it has been here in America. It is said “To those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor that the protected will never know”.
I believe this to be true.
The Afghan people will now need to decide for themselves what their freedom is worth to them. Those who witnessed first hand the taste of freedom are the vast many, and the Taliban are the very few. As of now, the Taliban have control once again, and that is one hell of a tough pill to swallow. But again, the tiny seed we have planted there may still become a giant tree, in time. And it may take a long time. But remember, Afghanistan plays the long game. And they are exceptionally good at it.
Do not be surprised to see the Afghan people taking a play straight out of the Taliban playbook. They can wait, and shine the light of freedom in dark places, and use that light to read to their children about freedom, and teach their daughters how to read and write in secret, until the time is right for that tiny seed to become their very own magnificent tree of liberty.
No one can predict the future, and things are far from easy to be happy about right now. It’s hard to say what happens next, or how it might end for the good people of Afghanistan. But as for me, after seeing what I’ve seen, I’m always gonna bet on freedom to win out in the end.
De Oppresso Liber.
About the Author:
Cadre Aaron Hand served as an Army Ranger in Mogadishu (1993) and a Green Beret in Afghanistan (2001). He is currently an RN for the DOD and lives in Tennessee with his family.