GENEVA: What everyone feared has happened. A suicide bomber attacked in the midst of the chaos of panicked people at the airport in Kabul. More than 100 dead and over 150 injured, among them 13 U.S. Marines.
A huge blow, says Timothy Kudo, who himself fought in Afghanistan as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. Kudo has received international attention from major news media as one of nearly 800,000 US troops who served in Afghanistan. It was a war in which some 2,500 American soldiers have been killed, 20,000 wounded and thousands returned with physical and psychological scars.
“Everyone knew it could happen. But to lose so many men in a single attack – so unimaginably tragic. I am thinking of all the families who are now getting that dreaded knock on the door.”
“It could have been me there in front of the steel gates. All wars claim victims, especially in Afghanistan. I lost five men in my unit during seven months, you never get over that.” Timothy Kudo falls silent for a moment. Then he talks about his two years as captain of the First Battalion, Eighth Marines in war-torn Afghanistan, which the United States is now leaving.
One nightmare memory in particular has stuck.
“HE WAS ONLY A CHILD”
They knew something terrible was going to happen that day. Timothy Kudo remembers the hours as if it were yesterday, even though it happened ten years ago. The then 30-year-old captain was on patrol in Talib-controlled northern Afghanistan when gunfire began to echo.
They were the target. They threw themselves down on a riverbed, and prepared to attack a building where they believed the enemy was located. Then two boys on motorcycles appeared on the hill opposite. Slowly they drove down the dirt road, stopped and drove again. They then waved with something long. “We shouted and warned them. They continued downhill. Then we opened fire.”
“When we arrived, I saw that they were young, one of them maybe 16 years old. He had a long stick in his hand. They had been on their way home.” From the building where they thought the enemy had been hiding, the families came running, screaming and crying.
“We had killed their sons, in front of their eyes. There was nothing we could do, the boys were dead. A few days later we paid them some money.”
“That was a point of no return for me.”
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“FAILING AFGHANS IN THE WORST WAY”
It is mainly them, the Afghans, Timothy Kudo in thinking of today as he follows the news from his apartment in Brooklyn, New York. “We are failing the Afghans in the worst way. We leave them in the most horrific situation and flee the field with tails between our legs. I feel ashamed.”
“I remember sitting on the ground drinking chai with them in the evenings. Promising that we would stay and fix their land. It was all a lie.” Timothy Kudo is tormented by guilt in front of TV images of chaotic evacuations from Kabul airport. He has watched the lightning-fast warfare on the battlefield, minute by minute, and feels despair as everything “fell apart so quickly”.
Yet it could not have ended differently, he believes. “It was absolutely right to leave Afghanistan. It would not have been easier or less tragic if we had waited. It was an un-winnable war.”
Nor could it have ended any other way. The Taliban had been mobilizing for months, waiting for the Americans to leave, and moving through the country at lightning speed. It is unfair to criticize the Afghan army for leaving, he believes. They had already lost 69,000 soldiers. “They had suffered enormous human losses. The soldiers were unmotivated, many no longer received salaries, there was no fuel for the cars, corruption was rife.”
Another reason why everything happened so quickly was that some areas preferred the Taliban. “Not because people support the Taliban but because it was a better alternative than the corrupt Afghan government. You cannot take over a whole country if there is not some support among the population.”
He thinks the US should have left much earlier, already ten years ago when Osama bin Laden was killed. “To continue was a total waste of money and lives.”
Tim Kudo was in Afghanistan at the time. On 2 May 2011, he returned to Kabul from the battlefield in the north of the country. He was greeted by jubilation among Americans that Osama bin Laden, the brain behind the September 11 attacks in New York, had just been killed in neighbouring Pakistan. “My uniform was covered with dust, and I was exhausted from fighting at the front. It felt strange to be greeted by this cheer. The war should be over now. But I knew it would go on.”
He says there is an overconfidence in the military power of the United States. “For 20 years, we’ve seen that American soldiers can’t achieve the military successes we want – even though we pay billions of dollars.”
The war in Afghanistan has cost US taxpayers a total of $2.3 trillion, according to an analysis by Brown University. In addition to fallen American soldiers, more than 47,000 Afghan civilians, nearly 450 aid workers and over 70 journalists have been killed in the war. Around 51,000 opposition fighters also have been killed. This means that around 241,000 people have died as a direct result of this war.
Both Vietnam and Afghanistan must be a lesson for Americans, he says. There needs to be more thinking about the costs and risks of military action. “Many Americans think we are invincible. But the cost in human lives, money and moral scars of Afghanistan will forever be a millstone around our necks.”
Future military action must be much more limited and short-termed, have clearer objectives or be in self-defence. And more humility is needed in the view of what the US military can achieve”, says Kudo.
But this wasn’t just America’s war. Western allies have also failed and overestimated the strength of the US military, including Britain, France, Germany and some 1,000 Swedish troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Tim Kudo says many are now looking for words of comfort, but there are none. “We have all fought in vain and now abandoned the Afghans.”
But that doesn’t mean that all international military interventions are in vain, he says. One should not judge today’s operations in Mali, the Horn of Africa and Iraq, for example, even if they are cumbersome.
What will happen next in Taliban controlled Afghanistan – and what can the world do? It is a mistake to believe that American involvement in Afghanistan will now cease, says Kudo. Now they will turn to more diplomacy, economic sanctions, humanitarian and economic aid and possibly shorter military actions.
But Timothy Kudo is also skeptical. As the media spotlight fades, the clock is likely to be turned back to pre-terrorism 2001. Back then, the Taliban ruled with an iron fist leaving women with virtually zero rights. Now many may be forced to return to lives they had never experienced.
At the same time, a new generation has grown up without the Taliban who still need the outside world. Social networks exist in a different way than they did then. Tim Kudo points out that social media can be a double-edged sword. It can just as easily be used for radicalization and disinformation as spreading correct information.
Nor does he think Afghanistan will be central to US foreign policy once the troops are out. Americans will soon return to worrying about closer issues such as the coronavirus, unemployment, crime and safe schools, he believes. And the focus shifts to other, more important countries. “China and Russia are much bigger threats. Afghanistan has been a distraction for many who wanted to talk about these powers and the power struggle that is going on.”
Both China and Russia are expected to maintain a presence in Afghanistan, after the US and the rest of the West have left. For the West, the country will become a black hole without transparency, he warns. “Our eyes and ears in the ground are gone”.
And what about him – how does he carry on with his guilt and heavy heart?
“CAN’T KILL AND GO BACK TO NORMAL”
When Timothy Kudo returned to New York, he first worked for a veterans’ organization, then looked for other jobs. But his CV, which said he had commanded more than 200 soldiers in perhaps the world’s most complicated conflict, was no help. No one cared, not even the army. Some who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder were helped, but Tim Kudo says he was not depressed. Nevertheless, he struggled with moral and existential issues, where “no medication or therapy helps”.
“You can’t kill innocent people and then go back to a normal life.”
Towards the end of his time in Afghanistan, he also occasionally began to feel a kind of sympathy for the people he was fighting. “Sure, there were hardliners. But the average Taliban fighter was often a poor farmer, people who had been paid, or someone who wanted to fight to honour or avenge his killed cousin or his village.”
Tim Kudo himself went back to university in New York after the war years and got a master’s degree in business & public policy. Since then, he has mainly worked in consulting. He is currently working on a novel about Afghanistan. “I think about my time in Afghanistan almost every day. Especially the 16-year-old boy we killed in front of his mother.”
He also says he ponders a lot. “Am I a good person or a bad person? How can I live in harmony knowing that I killed the young sons of devastated mothers?” Yet he describes his time in Afghanistan as the most meaningful thing he has done in his life. “But at the same time, in the end, it meant nothing. You just have to live with that.”
One of Sweden’s leading journalists, Gunilla von Hall is the Geneva-based correspondent of Svenska Dagbladet reporting global issues, including the United Nations. A version of this article was first published in Swedish.