Since 9/11, 2.77 million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the war in Afghanistan has resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 civilians, military forces, aid workers and journalists.
But the conflict continues without a clear strategy.
Documents obtained by The Washington Post revealed that United States government officials were aware of potential failures early on.
How are local veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom reacting to the revelations in the Afghanistan Papers and to the recent escalations in the conflict with Iran?
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
- TM Gibbons-Neff Pentagon Correspondent, The New York Times Washington Bureau; USMC Combat Veteran
- Jackie Munn Family Nurse Practitioner, Army Combat Veteran
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast Miss America 2.0 is not the beauty pageant you may remember and we'll meet Miss America 2020, who competed as Miss Virginia, and as you may have guessed she is not your average beauty queen. But first since 9-11 2.77 million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the war in Afghanistan has resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 civilians, military forces, aid workers and journalists. Two soldiers were killed in action just this past Saturday. But the conflict continues seemingly without a clear strategy. Documents obtained by The Washington Post at the end of 2019 revealed that U.S. government officials were aware of potential failures early on.
KOJO NNAMDISo how are local veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom reacting to the revelations in the Afghanistan Papers and to the recent escalations in the conflict with Iran? Joining me in studio is Jacqueline Munn who is a Nurse Practitioner and a U.S. Army Veteran. Jacqueline Munn, thank you for joining us.
JACQUELINE MUNNThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is TM Neff. He is a National Security Reporter with The New York Times and a Marine Corp Veteran. TM Neff, thank you for joining us.
TM GIBBONS-NEFFThanks for having me.
NNAMDITM, you were in eighth grade on September 11, 2001. And enlisted in the Marine Corp at the end of you senior year of high school. What motivated you to join the military at such a young age?
GIBBONS-NEFFYeah. I mean, I feel like I have a few scripts for that one, right? I mean, 9/11 happened. I was growing up in Connecticut and I was, you know, about 30 miles from my hometown. My friends lost some parents and it hit the town pretty hard. And my dad was a Vietnam Veteran so there's this kind of, you know, perfect storm of reasons to join. But also at the same time I'm pretty short, you know, trying to prove myself in one way or another, and the Marine Corps just seemed like the right outlet.
NNAMDIWhen you deployed with the Marines to Afghanistan, what did you understand your mission to be?
GIBBONS-NEFFYeah, I guess the first deployment that was 2008. So I was 20. And we had this idea that -- in the Marine Corp you kind of, you know, you fight in battles and you win them. And you kind of -- you're under the guise of your fighting this war, because Al-Qaeda attacked the United States. And you're going to defeat them or you're going to make sure it doesn't happen again. And then the reality on the ground is your fighting a local insurgency and, you know, these guys have no attachment to Al-Qaeda. And I remember there was a rumor one night. We got woken up. I think it was May 2008. And they said, hey, the Seals just killed Bin Laden. And obviously that wasn't true. It was some kind of rumor. So we all just kind of looked at each other and said, do we go home now? And obviously we didn't.
NNAMDIInstead you had to go into march of the last main Taliban stronghold and their theater of operations.
GIBBONS-NEFFYeah. That was on the next deployment and that was February 2010. So that was a big part of the -- President Obama's 30,000 troops surge. Kind of this idea that we would go in and clear out the Taliban and help establish a local government. And then, you know, the Afghan security forces, the Army and police would come in behind us and, you know, setup a modicum of security and run the town that way. And that obviously maybe lasted for a couple of years before the Taliban came back and retook the town.
NNAMDIJackie Munn, you entered the military in a different way than TM. You became a Cadet at West Point, the Army's elite service academy. You graduated and became a logistics officer. What made you decide to attend West Point?
MUNNI come from a long family of military veterans. My father served. I have a sister, who is still currently serving in the Air Force. And for me it was part of the family's business. So when I was a senior I decided to go ahead and apply to West Point.
NNAMDIWhen you deployed to Afghanistan it was to lead a cultural support team embedded with the Green Berets. Can you describe why these teams were created and what you were there to do?
MUNNYeah, Kojo, so the program was started about 2010. So we had been at war for nine years in Afghanistan, and had realized that because of cultural sensitivities it was improper for a man to engage with a woman. So we were effectively neglecting 50 percent of the Afghan population. So the Marines actually started a program called the Lioness Program. And then the regular Army did a similar program called the Female Engagement Teams. So I joined -- I tried in 2011 and the program was broken into women, who would go serve with Green Berets and women who'd go with U.S. Army Rangers.
NNAMDIAnd you served with Green Berets?
MUNNI did. The mission was a bit different. So at the time Green Berets were conducting -- it was similar to COIN counterinsurgency operations. But it was Village Stability. And the idea is if you can at a micro level within a village help them with security, governance and development. So get them to rely on their own security forces. Tie them back into the Afghan government that they can therefore stand against insurgent forces in the area.
NNAMDIAnd you were there obviously, because you're a woman and as you said men could not interact with women in that situation. But part of what you had to do was to serve and protecting women, who were like midwives, women who delivered babies.
MUNNSo Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal infant mortality rates. And so part of the idea to get people to buy in behind creating security in their area signing up for Afghan local police contracts was tying them back into their services that they had. So their district has several midwives, but because the area was not secure either women were not coming to the district center hospital or the midwives weren't going out into the villages. It was contributing to this large portion of women who were dying because of being pregnant and not having access to care.
NNAMDITM Neff, the documents known as the Afghanistan Papers suggests that public reports from the region over the last 16 years were inflated. Can you give us an overview of how these documents were obtained and some of the revelations within them?
GIBBONS-NEFFRight. So I mean, that was a huge project put together by my colleagues. Before I came to the Times, I read The Washington Post. And, you know, basically at the core of that report are these interviews obtained through the Freedom of Information Act request over the last several years. And The Post had to kind of, you know, fight for them. I believe they sued several times to get them. And they basically are a, you know, an after action report if you will in a lot of ways of the last 18 years where you have these high profile ambassadors, military leaders, state department diplomats kind of weighing in on, you know, how the war had been going, what they thought was going to happen, what actually happened. And it just kind of is a tapestry of these, you know, I guess hopes and dreams that, you know, were kind of destroyed by the reality of the situation.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Maryland State Senator Will Smith who says, "Thank you for covering this. I can't wait to hear what your guests have to say with close to 3 million Afghan war veterans and 14,000 troops currently serving in Afghanistan this is such an important conversation to have as we head into the 19th year of the conflict." TM, from your perspective as a Marine Combat Veteran who lost friends in the war, what was your initial reaction to this report? Did it match what you felt there on the ground?
GIBBONS-NEFFRight. I mean, it matched in a lot of ways. I think ever since you -- and you finished that last deployment or at least for me in the years afterward you kind of have these two decisions of you're either going to try and figure out what happened and why it happened or you kind of take it at face value the way it felt as you felt. You know, I did my job. I did what I had to do. My friends are alive or they're not alive. And that was all part of a bigger plan that I volunteered for. And I guess I chose the former where, you know, especially as a reporter, who covers the Pentagon you're kind of forced to watch this unfold in front of you, and realize that, you know, what The Washington Post reported lined up very well with how I felt, you know, over the last decade. That it was a futile endeavor in many ways and that it's always been difficult to kind of rectify why we did what we did and why some of my friends didn't come home.
NNAMDIJackie Munn, what was your reaction?
MUNNWhen I first read it, honestly, I wasn't surprised. I think my secondary reaction was a disappointment that it hasn't been talked about or engaged. It essentially was a blip in the radar and I'm glad that you're covering this. I think this is very important for the nation to discuss. I know I saw firsthand -- I worked with two separate teams and giving our counterinsurgency operation for it to work in theory you needed to be there for time to see it actually unfold. And our efforts worked one way with one team and then when the new team came in everything changed. So there was no continuity.
NNAMDIWhy do you think it was essentially as you described it a blip on the radar screen?
MUNNHonestly, Kojo, I attributed that to the percentage of people, who actually serve or have skin in this game. Of the American population less than one half of one percent serve, and of that 80 percent come from military families. So I was actually just down in Southern Virginia and interacting with locals, who had no idea we were still in Afghanistan and had never heard of the Afghan Papers before, but they had zero exposure to it.
NNAMDIBut because there was the military draft in effect during the Vietnam War a lot more American families were involved one way or another with that war. And as a result the release of the Pentagon Papers created a major stir here and internationally as a matter of fact. Here is Jon in Washington D.C. Jon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JONKojo, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak here today and thank you for the hard work you do to make sure you keep people informed. First of all my heart goes to, you know, our military men and women. My heart always aches when I see them going. But I think today our leadership has put America at the highest risk. And the reason why I'm saying that, with many wars we've been through and today the new arms race we have engaged ourselves in, remind me of how we engaged the Soviet Union in arms race, which in the end, you know, got them, you know, bankrupt.
JONSo if today now we engage on many fronts. We're with China, Russia, many other countries in the same thing, where is the money? We already in debt $22 trillion. Let me put it in other numbers, meaning $22,000 billion in debt.
NNAMDIFormer President Jimmy Carter saying in an interview some time ago when asked about why China's economy was booming he said, "Well, China hasn't been at war any place for a very long time." So that is one kind of response to it. Defense Department officials have downplayed the documents. Former Defense Secretary Mattis saying there's nothing revelatory in the Afghan Papers. Here's what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley had to say at a Pentagon press conference on December 20th.
CHIEF OF STAFF GEN. MARK MILLEYAnyone has died in vain per say. As far as military victory, for years we have clearly stated that there's not going to be a rational reasonable chance of a military victory against the Taliban of the insurgency something like signing the surrender documents on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. President Bush said that early on before Christmas in 2001. And that remains true today. There's only one way that this is going to end, and it's in a negotiated solution with the Taliban.
NNAMDIGeneral Milley began by saying I don't think anyone has died in vain per say. But TM Neff, Jackie Munn, what do you think of the response from military leaders and U.S. officials to the Afghanistan Papers.
GIBBONS-NEFFYeah. I mean, that's their argument, right? Their argument is, you know, this isn't revelatory. This has been known. I mean, that might be true. There's hundreds of articles that kind of poke at, you know, the unreality of what was going on in Afghanistan on the ground with American forces there. But, I mean, what the Afghanistan Papers do is they put faces to the names. These are high ranking people saying the same things that, you know, we might have editorialized or that have, you know, kind of dug out through reporting. So I mean, if this is what it takes -- if it takes a sprawling report, you know, that's hundreds of pages of documents to kind of, you know, hit the nail on the head in 2019-2020, then I don't see the issue.
NNAMDISame question to you, Jackie Munn. Response from military leaders and U.S. officials to these papers.
MUNNI think what's important that the papers highlighted -- I had broken it down into sections. And one of them was "Stranded without Strategy." And it illustrates the conflicting strategies that have gone on throughout our time in Afghanistan, and we're still there. And I think the importance of identifying when we first went in 2001 and we accomplished our objectives it was essentially mission creep. And the clearness of our objectives was getting blurred and we kept expanding our missions.
GIBBONS-NEFFRight. And like a perfect example is that -- is, you know, General Milley, in that statement saying, well, the only way we get to end is a negotiated settlement. Well, in 2010 when we were going into Marjah, it was defeating the Taliban. And when you keep zooming out, you know, you talk to officials and military officials today say, well, we went to Afghanistan, because, you know, we were there to defeat Al-Qaeda and we defeated Al-Qaeda and they haven't attacked, you know, from Afghanistan against the American homeland since then. Well, it's like, what did you do in between? You were trying to defeat a local insurgency and establish a government, but it's just moving the goal post.
NNAMDIHere is Ed in Alexandria. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDMorning, Kojo and the guests. I just wanted to share a couple of comments I had about the war in Afghanistan, which I have been involved in personally. I went there in 2010 and then same time 2012. I just wanted to say that when the war initially broke out in 2001, we were sold a very clear picture of who the enemy was. But I can tell that within almost like weeks of, you know, us deploying troops in there, the enemy was already gone. Al-Qaeda was never a product of Afghanistan. And it was -- and the insurgents that flew the plane into the World Tower Centers and the Pentagon none of them were from Afghanistan.
EDSo I think that actually we ended up just staying there fighting the wrong enemy at the wrong location. We just kept beating at the tail of the snake without actually addressing the problem. The problem with Pakistan supplying insurgents and giving them intelligence through ISIS. The problem that our partners in the Middle East, you know, just feeding the ideology.
EDSo it's been 18 going to 19 years now. And I just lost vision. I lost of why we were fighting and who we were fighting for. And I let -- I personally left on pretty bad terms, because I didn't -- the mission didn't make sense to me anymore, because I didn't see clearly who our enemy was. And I don't think this day we see who our enemy is because we're fighting the wrong war at the wrong location.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Jackie Munn, a lot of people say they joined the military to be part of something larger than themselves. And as our caller Ed was saying as far as he's concerned the mission changed. It's not clear anymore. Has the continued conflict in the region and now the Afghanistan Papers affected how you view your own service?
MUNNI always wonder if I were to go back to my little village on the Pakistan border what it would look like. And I think, you know, there one of the hard things was and the Afghan Paper highlights is how do you measure success? What are metrics for success? And, you know, I do feel good about a lot that was accomplished. But if it is sustainable and it still looks like that today I'd be surprised.
NNAMDISame question to you, TM Neff.
GIBBONS-NEFFI mean, that's always the question. I mean, it's tough to look back and say, well, would I do it differently? Would I join or not join? I mean, I left the Marines pretty much a family of friends and guys that I had served with in combat that, you know, I love dearly. So no, I mean, I probably would do it again knowing what would happen and the people we'd lose, and, I mean, yeah, I don't know. It's tough.
NNAMDIJackie Munn, you are the spouse of a soldier in the Special Operations community. How did you react to the recent escalation of force and the conflict in Iran both as a combat veteran and as a military spouse?
MUNNI think what makes me nervous is again back to that idea is mission creep and not understanding what clear strategies are. We're still in Afghanistan and I similarly to TM having family members, having friends, who've paid the ultimate sacrifice. It makes me nervous. Special operations are a great tool, tip of the spear, but if you keep using that repeatedly it becomes blunt.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from someone who said, "We spent the first four years of our marriage with my husband in and out of Afghanistan as an SF medic. Now we've spent years struggling to get medical care from VA. Was his service worth it? The Afghanistan Papers say no." Jackie Munn, if your children one day decide to enlist would you support their decision? What would you want them to know?
MUNNI mean, statistically has a pretty good chance of going into it. And I guess what I would ask is as a nation, you know, my hope is that more people are engaged and understand what we are asking our soldiers to do. And be more judicious in the use of our national defense and our military might, but at the end of the day I'm very proud of my service. I'm proud of my husband's, my father's. And I think it is a very honorable profession. TM Neff, service in your family goes back to your grandparents it's my understanding. What would you say to young people interested in joining the military today after last week's tensions with Iran?
GIBBONS-NEFFYeah, I mean, talking to a young person, who wants to join the military, I mean, it's late teens, I guess if they're looking to enlist out of high school. I mean, in thinking about myself and kind of this naivety toward service and, you know, what combat would look like. I just feel like it's almost like impossible thing to take my brain and try to infuse it into somebody else's so that they understand, because granted like I wouldn't, you know, be a reporter at The New York Times or, you know, have gone to college without, you know, my service. So I have so many, you know, pros and cons to throw out. I mean, it's just if you're going to do it you're going to do it, and trying to stop them would be difficult. But I guess if you know, someone's on the fence, it's just, you know, get educated, ask as many questions as you can. And just kind of understand that how you think about it going in in the beginning is going to look a lot differently, when they come out in the other side.
NNAMDIAfraid that's all the time we have in this segment. TM Neff is a National Security Reporter with The New York Times and a Marine Corp Veteran. Thank you so much for joining us. Jacqueline Munn is a Nurse Practitioner and a U.S. Army Veteran. Thank you for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back Miss America 2.0 is not the beauty pageant you may remember and we'll meet Miss America 2020, who competed as Miss Virginia. And as you may have guessed she is not your average beauty queen. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.