After a young Harvard graduate named Jake Auchincloss deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps in 2012, he commanded patrols in the southern province of Helmand, guiding infantry through villages that the Taliban were seeking to control. Now a Democratic Congressman representing the 4th District of Massachusetts, Auchincloss was one of several Jewish Afghan War veterans reflecting on a dramatic turnaround since their days overseas. In a weeklong offensive earlier this month, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan following President Joe Biden’s decision to end a 20-year American military presence.
“This president took office and faced a stark, wrenching decision,” Auchincloss said. “He could either ramp up the U.S. military presence in the country to launch a third decade of counterinsurgency and to counter the Taliban fighting season, or he could draw down our troop presence. In recognition of what has long been understood, which is that you cannot win a counterinsurgency when there is no political endgame, he made the high-integrity decision to end a failed forever war.”
Yet the way in which Biden ended the war has drawn criticism for multiple reasons – from the relatively short time in which the Taliban gained control of the country to images and reports of the fall of the Afghan capital of Kabul. A widely circulating photo showed over 600 Afghan refugees crowded into a transport plane, amid reports that individual Afghans had died clinging to airplanes in hopes of escape.
Auchincloss called such images and accounts “distressing.”
“This president is winding down a two-decade effort in a country whose moniker is ‘a graveyard of empires,’” he said. “There was never going to be a ticker-tape parade out of Afghanistan. It was going to be rocky. What’s critical is how he adapts to a highly fluid situation and the U.S. military has adapted well and was gaining control over the airport.”
Auchincloss and fellow Jewish veterans are concerned about Americans and allies who remain in Afghanistan – including an estimated 11,000 U.S. citizens. The congressman said that the military has resumed daily evacuations from Kabul’s international airport.
“I have confidence this president will work with both his diplomatic and military people and be able to evacuate American personnel as well as allied personnel,” Auchincloss said. “I will be holding the administration to account for that.
“I feel confident that I can speak for my Jewish constituents when I said we welcome refugees from Afghanistan. That is a core to the Jewish faith, that we welcome the stranger and provide a solace and strength to them. So I know I represent their values, and I say Massachusetts welcomes Afghan refugees,” he said.
The Jewish War Veterans, a 125-year-old advocacy organization, has been urging the rescue of Afghan translators who aided the U.S. On July 13, the organization tweeted a statement calling on Biden to act quickly.
At the JWV’s annual convention held earlier this month in New Orleans, attendees got a briefing about evacuations from Afghanistan by a staffer from the office of Democratic Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Salem.
Swampscott resident Jeffrey Blonder – the commander of the Massachusetts JWV and an Afghan War veteran – described Rep. Moulton as “very interested in trying to get” American citizens to the airport, “and trying to relocate all the interpreters, people who were serving America over there.”
Blonder voiced concern over the fate of Afghans who helped the U.S. “Will they be discovered and hurt now, and the Taliban will say ‘You helped America’? What is their future? Seth Moulton is working hard to get them out of the country.”
The fall of Kabul has drawn comparisons with the rapid defeat of a U.S.-backed government following an American military pullout – the fall of Saigon in 1975 that ended the Vietnam War. In a response to a reporter’s question on July 8, President Biden said he saw zero similarities between the situations in Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Auchincloss said, “The right contrast, to me, is not between today and 50 years ago, but between today and 50 years from now. Without this president’s clear-eyed assessment of the national interest, we would be risking a scenario in which the U.S. had forces in Afghanistan indefinitely, and another 20 years of fruitless conflict.”
However, Blonder said that many Vietnam veterans attending the JWV convention had expressed concern about Afghanistan.
“I think a lot of bad memories are coming up for Vietnam veterans, as they are coming up [for] Afghanistan veterans,” Blonder said.
He served in Afghanistan as a combat advisor to its military from 2008 to 2009, in its fourth-largest city of Mazar-e-Sharif and the nearby Camp Mike Spann, named after CIA operative Johnny Micheal Spann, the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan.
Blonder characterized the Afghan strategy against the U.S. as one of patience, a successful defense against occupiers from Genghis Khan to today. He recalls an Afghan general’s comment: “You have all the watches but we have all the time.”
Auchincloss said that when he was in Afghanistan, “The Taliban at that time were waiting us out. They knew they could not outfight Americans but they knew, also, they could outlast us, and they could outlast us because to counter an insurgency, you don’t just need military superiority, you need to offer better governance – and the Afghan leaders in Kabul offered, instead, corruption and incompetence.”
He noted that there had been tangible improvements over the past two decades – “the literacy rate in Afghanistan was doubled, infant mortality was halved, access to electricity tripled, the rate of education increased by an order of magnitude for boys and girls. The Taliban are taking over a country that is different from two decades ago.”
“The important thing, as an Afghan War veteran, I don’t feel my service was in vain,” Blonder said. “I don’t believe my friends who lost their lives in service were in vain. Remember, one of the reasons we went into Afghanistan was to find Osama bin Laden, and we did.”
On Wednesday, Aug. 25, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the number of American citizens still in Afghanistan is about 1,500 following recent evacuations.