'Shocking': With grief and dismay, US veterans watch Afghanistan fall

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Washington: A decade after returning from Afghanistan, Marc Silvestri was convinced it was time for his comrades to come home too. But watching the chaotic pullout unfold in real time has stunned the army veteran.

"It's been a tough couple days," the 43-year-old head of veterans services in Revere, Massachusetts told AFP.

"I was in favor of the withdrawal, I thought it was time. Twenty-plus years, billions of dollars spent, I never expected the speed and the brazenness of the Taliban would be what it is," he said.

"I never expected that the training and money we put into the Afghan army, that they would just lay down their weapons and turn the country over. That's been shocking to me."

For US veterans of the 20-year war, the lightning Taliban takeover has variously brought shock, anger, resignation and worry, both for their Afghan allies left behind and compatriots at home reeling from the calamitous end to the US campaign.

In just days, the Afghan military and government disintegrated. On Sunday, Kabul fell without a fight as the Taliban entered the city and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

The news spurred desperate scenes, as Afghans converged on the airport in a bid to escape and foreign governments scrambled to evacuate personnel.

For veteran Chad Fross, the withdrawal of US troops "was always going to be a mess" regardless of who was in charge, because of a failure to fully understand Afghanistan.

"A lot of people are going to be asking, 'Why? It was pointless for me to be there. To watch friends die or lose body parts or lose their minds,'" said Fross.

"But at the same time, I have to wonder how much more pointless it would be to stay the course when it would be the same outcome 20 years from now."

The fate of women is a painful point of the Taliban takeover for Fross and others.

During their brutal 1996-2001 regime, the Islamist militants sharply curtailed women's liberty, keeping them behind closed doors and forbidding education.

But the US invasion of 2001 was meant to change that -- and, in urban areas especially, for many women it did.

All those hard-won gains are set to be eroded with the Taliban's return to power, however.

"These kind of ideals that we thought we were going over there to secure, these are the things that I think bother a lot of people," Fross said. "It bothers me too."

Democratic President Joe Biden has stuck by his decision to push ahead with the withdrawal, even as he acknowledged the scenes were "gut-wrenching."

He also pledged that "thousands" of US citizens and Afghans who had worked with American forces and fear Taliban reprisals are to be evacuated.

It is the promise that is perhaps under the greatest scrutiny in the United States. For many veterans, the idea of leaving Afghans who worked side by side with them to contend with the "very real" fear of Taliban revenge is unconscionable.

"They helped us and we're leaving them in the lurch. I just think that's wrong," Fross said, echoing sentiments of other veterans AFP spoke to.

The non-partisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, dedicated to post-9/11 veterans, in a statement Monday called on US authorities to "waste no additional time" in bringing Afghans who worked with Americans to the United States.

"We must keep our promises to those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf," Tom Porter, IAVA's Executive VP for Government Affairs said in the statement.

"I'm hearing so much anger," Porter told AFP, adding it was not because of the withdrawal, but due to the "haphazard and chaotic way that we're taking them out right now."

He pointed to the infamous images of the United States leaving Saigon that have since colored the US legacy in Vietnam, now circulating again as social media users draw parallels with the exit from Afghanistan.

Silvestri said one veteran of the Vietnam conflict reached out to him as the collapse unfolded, saying "I never thought I would see it again... it brings me right back to when I watched Saigon fall."

The Massachusetts native said he's spoken to a number of vets and their families who are questioning now if their sacrifices were worthwhile.

"I think the best thing any of us can do at this time is listen," he told AFP, echoing the many messages from organizations in recent days with reminders of support services available for veterans.

He wants families to know "their children did not die for a lost cause."

"If it comes down to anything they were fighting for us... some were not able to come home and that made it so we could."

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