How American Politics Got Troops Stuck—and Killed—in Afghanistan

As a combat officer, I watched people die in a dysfunctional war. Then I returned to a country unable to end it.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Erik Edstrom graduated from West Point and deployed to combat in Afghanistan as an infantry officer. He is the author of Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of our Longest War and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network, an organization of independent military and national security veteran experts. He holds an MBA and MSc from the University of Oxford where he studied finance and climate change.

Maybe it was the ketamine talking. Or maybe A.J. Nelson, an 18-year-old private, possessed a type of bravery that I did not. Whatever it was, lying on his back, bones broken, blood rivering from his lacerated lips, he said something that I can’t forget.
“I want to come back.” Flecks of blood sprayed in the air with each word, speckling his uniform. “I want to come back to the platoon, sir.”

Two years earlier, in the spring of 2007, I had commissioned from West Point as an infantry officer. Now I was leading roughly 30 men in Maywand and Zhari—poverty-stricken, hard-scrabble districts within Kandahar Province. These districts had developed a sort of infamy, called the “Heart of Darkness.” This was our first week in Afghanistan, and a roadside bomb had just obliterated one of my platoon’s hulking armored vehicles.

The desertaround uswas a yard sale of twisted metal and vehicle parts. The wreck of their vehicle—it’s engine block sheered completely off—looked like poachers had gotten it. As the Blackhawk helicopter hovered to land, we attempted to shield the four wounded men from the sandblasting rotor wash. At that moment, I knelt, looked at A.J., and proceeded to lie directly to his face.
“You’re going to be OK.”
I had no idea what “OK” might even mean in that situation. Did “OK” mean quadruple amputee with a pulse? Did “OK” mean years of horrific facial reconstruction surgeries? Or the loss of only one eye? Paralyzed from just the waist down? Or maybe “OK” meant being really lucky—a traumatic brain injury or a single leg amputation, below the knee, which is what my wounded friends from Walter Reed Hospital would later call a “paper cut.” I would have a lot of time to figure this out. Before our tour was over, 11 months later, 25 percent of my men would become casualties.
It took less than a month, however, to realize that America’s war in Afghanistan was a complete disaster.
On the ground, I participated in a mission nicknamed “Operation Highway Babysitter,” in which the infantry secured the road, allowing logistics convoys to resupply the infantry—all so that the infantry could secure the road, so that the logistics convoys could resupply the infantry.
Worse, whenever a road was blown up—since protecting all the roads, all the time, was impossible—American forces would pay exorbitant cost-plus contracts to Afghan construction companies to rebuild it. It was common knowledge that many of these companies were owned by Afghan warlords guilty of human rights abuses. In turn, the construction companies paid a protection tribute to the Taliban. Then the Taliban would buy more bomb-making materials to destroy the road—and U.S. vehicles. We were, indirectly but also quite literally, paying the Taliban to kill us.

But it was the Afghan people, not U.S. soldiers, who have been the greatest—and most numerous—victims of America’s longest war. Nearly 4 million Afghans have been displaced from their homes. Likewise, amid the fighting, the number of Afghan civilians who were injured or killed by our troops was multiples higher. “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said General Stanley McChrystal, then-senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
When I returned to America, the war came home with me, along with the regret of having harmed the people of Afghanistan. In the spring of 2011, while serving in the Honor Guard, I buried Tyler Parten, one of my close friends from West Point, in Arlington National Cemetery. As the officer-in-charge, I had the somber job of handing the folded American flag to Tyler’s crying mother.
Several months later, I found myself at the same grave, standing next to the man who had sent me and Tyler to war. President Barack Obama and the first lady had come to Arlington on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to pay their respects to the dead. Seeing me and my friends, they approached us.

The Obamas pose for a picture with the author at the grave of his friend Tyler Parten at Arlington National Cemetery in 2011. | Courtesy of Erik Edstrom

The president tactfully asked to hear about Tyler’s life, and I told him. We took a photo, capturing the moment for Tyler’s family. It felt like a touching gesture from a genuinely decent man. And yet I could not shake a rotten feeling that this was also the man who had pushed the number of troops in Afghanistan beyond 100,000. And though he had just announced his intention to bring that number back down, the violence would not really diminish, just be replaced by drones and special forces. The tableau was thick with irony: The politicians who sponsor pointless wars are the same ones who must be seen “power grieving” for fallen troops on days of remembrance.


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