‘It will happen again’; Southern Utah vet reflects on experience in Afghanistan in wake of evacuations

ST. GEORGE — Though several thousand Americans and refugees have been flown out of Afghanistan by the Aug. 31 deadline, officials estimated Tuesday that between 100-200 citizens remain in the country who still want to leave. For them, President Joe Biden has said there is no deadline and the U.S. will continue its efforts to get them home.

President Joe Biden addresses the nation concerning the end of the Afghan War, Washington, D.C., Aug. 31, 2021 | Photo courtesy of the White House, St. George News

“We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out,” Biden said in a statement Tuesday.

Evacuation efforts began 17 days ago, with the administration estimating 90% of Americans who wanted to leave Afghanistan by the deadline have. The last planes out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in the Afghan capital of Kabul carrying evacuees and troops left Monday, bringing an end to America’s 20-year presence in the country.

Biden had called the evacuation operation, which is reported to have airlifted 120,000 people, an “extraordinary success.”

Opinions over how the evacuation was handled by the Biden Administration have resulted in a feeding frenzy among critics of the president. This criticism increased last week in the wake of the deaths of 13 American soldiers who were killed by a suicide bomber at the airport. Among those killed was 31-year-old Marine Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover of Utah.

The United States sent the military into Afghanistan in 2001 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The mission was to find Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader who orchestrated the attacks. He was found and killed in 2011. However, the United States continued its presence in Afghanistan as it aided in efforts to rebuild the country and its government after ousting the Taliban.

A photo of retired Army Master Sgt. Larry Baker during his 2008-09 tour in Afghanistan | Photo courtesy of Larry Baker, St. George News

For retired Army Master Sgt. Larry Baker of St. George, who served in Afghanistan from 2008-09, he knew the United States would leave eventually, but he said he didn’t think it would unfold the way it has.

Baker served with an Army unit that handled civil affairs. They helped with infrastructure, seeing to it that Afghani girls and woman got to school, digging new water wells and general humanitarian efforts. They were much like “a peace corps with guns,” he said.

When he first arrived in Afghanistan, Baker said the U.S. mission felt like it had a goal and a focus – hunt down bin Laden and other bad guys.

However, halfway in his tour, the mission became convoluted as the military was directed toward becoming involved in “nation building” efforts. Moreover, while a portion of the Afghani people welcomed these efforts, many did not.

Retired Army Master Sgt. Larry Baker shares his experience and thoughts on Afghanistan, where he were was deployed between 2008-2009, St. George, Utah, Aug. 28, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“That’s were it went south,” Baker said. “Trying to do something good for people who didn’t want it.”

Initially, Baker said he thought the Afghanistan War would end soon after bin Laden was found and killed. After all, that was why they were there to start with, or so he thought.

When the government was rebuilt and the democratic process was introduced, some people thought it was great and embraced Western ideals brought by the Americans. But Baker said the majority of the county wanted nothing to do with it and wanted to be left alone.

“It was completely in vain,” he said of those efforts, adding further that he “knew it wouldn’t work” based on the history and culture of the people they were dealing with at the time. “It was a complete waste of time. People don’t want what they don’t want.”

In order to understand a people, Baker said he believes you must study them and their history and learn not to repeat that history. In the case of Afghanistan, the higher-ups failed to learn from history and it was the people below them who paid for it.

Participants in a ceremony held to honor U.S. service members killed in a suicide bombing at the airport in Afghanistan. The ceremony took place in Boston, Massachusetts, Aug. 28, 2021 | AP photo by Michael Dwyer, St. George News

“It’s always been the people on the ground, the men and women in uniform, the ones out there on a daily basis, they are the ones that are going to suffer the most,” he said, adding that while the people in Washington, D.C., and high-ranking officers may have some grasp on what’s happening on the ground, they also don’t have the full picture.

“There’s got to be one smart person somewhere that says, ‘This doesn’t make any sense. We’re not going to do it this way. This way is stupid,” Baker said. “Unfortunately, people like that don’t last long in the military.”

Baker said those in power won’t learn the lessons of Afghanistan or similar events in history and will simply repeat the same folly in the next 10 or 20 years.

“It will happen again,” he said.

As for the recent evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, Baker said every American and those who helped the Americans over the last 20 years need to be taken out of the country as soon as possible. However, American operations in Afghanistan also need to come to an end.

“We need to get all of our American citizens out of that country … But at some point, we’ve got to walk away,” he said.

There should have been better planning leading up to the evacuations as well, Baker said. He never figured the U.S. would “win” in Afghanistan as much as survive its time there and withdraw in a way that attempted to save face among the international community.

“It’s the politicians that lose wars, not the guys on the ground.” he said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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