Twenty Years after 9/11: Sully’s Reflections on Afghanistan and American Leadership

Nearly 20 years ago, I watched in horror from my high school physics class in Petersburg, Illinois as 4 passenger airliners, packed with hundreds of innocent souls, crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington DC, and a field in Pennsylvania. Terror had arrived on our shores.

With moral clarity and determination of purpose, America went to war.

As the war unfolded, it became clear that part of what was needed was a better understanding of the human landscape in the country; we did not understand the power dynamics, tribal affinities, or the motivations of our Afghan partners. That realization led me to take up a position on a Human Terrain Team, a hybrid intelligence force as an Army civilian, that helped our military understand what was really going on in the counterinsurgency fight. And so it was, that nearly 10 years ago, I was writing a report on the Afghan Local Police in Helmand, Afghanistan, when I heard gunshots nearby. This was the deadliest district of Afghanistan, so I’d grown accustomed to the sound. I wasn’t alarmed — until another soldier told me that men in Afghan uniforms had just shot two of our soldiers and were loose on our base. It was a high probability that I had just recently shared bread with the shooter, as it was my job to understand his motivations.

I reflected then, and I recall now, that we Americans have always struggled to see this war through Afghan eyes. During my tour of duty, I sat for hours drinking chai tea cross-legged on carpets in mud-walled houses, and stood in flowering poppy fields, listening to Afghans talk about their views on the conflict. I learned that our Afghan partners’ mission and motivation was very different from our own.

To most Americans the war was about a two-sided ideological battle: democratic freedom vs. Islamic totalitarianism. Our primary objective and motivation was to stop global terrorist attacks. From this perspective, an Afghan switching loyalties seemed unlikely and unconscionable.

But for the Afghans I met, the decision to fight — and for which side — was not based on loyalty to an idea or to a government. Rather, it was a strategic calculation about the survival of their family. In a land where people struggle daily to feed their families while a war rages, a paycheck has always been critical to survival. So are positions that afford power, status, and networks through which to gain an advantage over competitors. Those were the true motivations of most Afghans who joined the police in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, not because they supported the central government.

As we (temporarily) drew down our forces in 2012, our Afghan partners knew that the risk to them was growing daily, as the number of foreign troops steadily declined. Many Afghan elders and policemen put it bluntly: they knew that coalition forces would eventually leave and take their money with them, but the Taliban would be there to stay. It was this same calculation that led the hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers America had “trained and equipped” over the last two decades to walk away from the rapid Taliban advance over the last few weeks.

I distinctly remember one conversation with a wise old Afghan elder who said, “Look at these young Afghan men. They have no jobs, no opportunity. If you can help us solve that problem then we can move towards peace.” I was reminded of my lessons learned in Haiti trying to deliver charity and aid following the 2010 earthquake. I became determined to empower people, to lift people out of poverty the only way we have historically known how: through job creation.

So five years later, after building my own knowledge base and growing my networks at business school, I was back in Afghanistan, trading my military uniform and M9 handgun for civilian clothes and a laptop, to back the nation’s best job-creating entrepreneurs.

While I’ve long believed that America’s departure from Afghanistan would result in a civil war, I never thought we would so thoroughly abandon those who supported us. The shoddily executed withdrawal over the past few weeks is not just a political failure, but a moral one. The men and women who served admirably over the last twenty years deserve better. The parents, spouses, and children of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of a noble goal, deserve better. The Afghans who risked their lives to support our mission, translated for our service members, worked in our embassy and on base, and who fought alongside us, deserve better.

It is not our nation or our military that is weak, but our politicians. As Americans, we deserve better than political blame-laying and cowardice. Our nation is strong, and our people resilient. When we are at our best, the United States offers the strength of our example to light the way.

It is time for a new generation of American leaders to step into the arena.