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San Diegans reflect on 20 years of service as America's longest war nears an end

Marines from the 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment return fire in Afghanistan after the enemy fired an RPG rocket at their position on July 15, 2012.

NELVIN C. CEPEDA, THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/TNS

By ANDREW DYER, KRISTINA DAVIS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: April 18, 2021

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Travis Horr was a sixth-grader in Maine when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. Ten years later, he was a 21-year-old Marine lance corporal in Afghanistan when the architect of the terrorist attack, Osama Bin Laden, was killed.

The endgame seemed to be in sight.

"That's what we believed the whole mission was," recalls Horr.

But the hunt for bin Laden and defeat of the Taliban turned into a nation-building effort — one that perhaps infantry riflemen were not equipped to handle, and that was far more challenging than leaders envisioned.

Horr and his fellow Camp Pendleton Marines deployed as part of President Barack Obama's 2010 "surge" of troops, a buildup that was supposed to lead to a withdrawal a year later. That year became 10 more.

President Joe Biden's announcement last week that all remaining U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, left Horr, now 32, buoyed by the possibility of finality — but with an unavoidable sense of déjà vu.

"We've been here before," said Horr, the director of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national organization that provides resources for and advocates on behalf of post-9/11 veterans.

"Personally, I'll believe it when I see it."

2,312 dead

The longest war in U.S. history, Afghanistan touched San Diego's military roots deeply.

The first missiles fired against Taliban and al Qaeda forces were launched from the John Paul Jones, a Navy destroyer once based here. Marines from Camp Pendleton's 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were among the first troops to land at a makeshift base, Camp Rhino, south of Kandahar. They were followed shortly by members of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, aboard the amphibious ships Bonhomme Richard, Ogden and Pearl Harbor, all based in San Diego at the time.

Over the years, 2,312 U.S. service member died in the conflict — at least 26 who called San Diego County home and 178 more who deployed from San Diego-area bases. Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, nicknamed "Darkhorse," took the heaviest casualty rate of any Marine unit in the war, losing 25 men during a seven-month deployment that ended in 2011. Some 200 survivors suffered debilitating wounds, including amputations.

Many of those who deployed out of San Diego and other veterans of the conflict met Biden's announcement with mixed emotions — glad that the U.S. involvement will finally end but disappointed that it came at such a cost, without a clear victory.

Time and again, U.S. military leaders promised they were "turning the corner" in the war but — after almost 20 years of corner turning — the Taliban are resurgent and control vast swaths of the country.

In 2020, the U.S. agreed to withdraw in a peace agreement with the assurance that the Taliban would begin negotiating with the Afghan government. Those talks are ongoing, but many experts fully expect that with the U.S. exit the Taliban will seek control, establish a government based on Islamic law, and roll back initiatives introduced by U.S.-backed governments.

Today there are about 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a number that the Pentagon said Friday could increase temporarily to assist in the withdrawal. Since 2001, almost 800,000 troops served at least one tour in Afghanistan. Thousands deployed from Camp Pendleton, home of I Marine Expeditionary Force.

'They don't want freedom'

Abdul Manan, a former Afghan interpreter who assisted U.S. Special Forces from 2004 to 2013, said he's concerned about what will happen to Afghan civilians — who've endured decades of conflict — after the U.S. withdraws. The United Nations says Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a civilian, reporting almost 2,000 civilian casualties — 573 dead — in the country during the first quarter of 2021 alone, an almost 30 percent increase from the same time last year.

Manan opposes the American withdrawal because he fears the Taliban will exact retribution on those who've helped U.S. forces and the Afghan government.

"They (the Taliban) have their own rules and regulations — they don't want freedom," Manan said during an interview Friday. "They don't want to let you watch TV, see the internet or know about the world. They want to keep you in the dark. They will keep the pressure by killing your people — killing them in front of you."

During his service as an interpreter, Manan said he survived several firefights and two hits by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. In 2016, he moved to El Cajon on a special immigrant visa. In 2019, his wife and two daughters joined him.

Last year, Manan and his wife welcomed a new baby — a U.S. citizen.  He's grateful for the opportunities his family now has.

"I don't have to worry anybody's going to come and kill my family — we have a beautiful life here," he said.

'It's a hot mess' 

Marine veteran Jason Lilley echoed the views of several veterans who spoke to the Union-Tribune about news of the drawdown: "It's about damn time."

"It's a hot mess over there," Lilley, 41, said Friday in an interview from his Orange County home. "It's time to pull out."

Lilley was boots on the ground in 2009 under Camp Pendleton's Marine Forces Special Operations Command — a few years after earning a Silver Star for combat bravery in Iraq. As highly trained Marine Raiders, Lilley's unit spent about 10 months in the Farah province of western Afghanistan, where Taliban troops went to recuperate from the front lines of heavy battle waging in Helmand province to the southeast.

"They would bed down in Farah and rest when they weren't fighting, farm and take it easy," Lilley recalled. "But we wouldn't take it easy. We'd find where they lived and take the fight to their doorstep."

Lilley returned to Afghanistan in 2012 with the State Department, working out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

While he didn't lose any comrades during his combat tour there, a "pretty high" number of Marines he served alongside at one point or another perished in Afghanistan.

"Was it worth it? That's going to be an individual question for each person," said Lilley, who now helps run a nonprofit, Reel Warriors, that offers support and respite through deep-sea fishing trips for veterans returning home or transitioning to civilian life. Many of them served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "My answer: probably, no."

Overall sentiment on the matter is mixed, according to a recent survey of members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. When asked if the conflicts in Afghanistan were worth it, 28 percent said yes and 34 percent said somewhat.

Nothing changed

With the drawdown imminent, it's hard for veterans like Horr who were embedded in villages to process what it might mean for the Afghan people.

"They have been stuck in this terrible position, have been for generations," Horr, who now lives in Washington, D.C., said. "You hate to see all the progress those people fought for and to lose all that progress. But the other side of the coin is, how do you complete that mission?"

Connor Sorahan was an Army infantry squad leader when he deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, a year he described as "one of the several" that leaders said would see the end of combat operations. At the beginning of his nine-month deployment, Sorahan said his platoon suffered an attack by an Afghan insider, something that jaded their views about the deployment.

"No matter what stage we were in, things didn't change," he said. "Big political goals they'd label 'the end of combat operations' — those terms were just thrown around and didn't mean anything to us on the ground."

Sorahan, born and raised in San Diego, now works in real estate and coaches high school football. He said he doesn't feel like he made much of an impact while in Afghanistan but that the country made an impact on him.

"A part of me will always kind of be there," Sorahan said. "We were so invested emotionally and physically in what we were doing. It's one of the most beautiful places in the world."

Graveyard of empires

Jeff Le, a national security expert in Washington, D.C., is a UC San Diego grad who went to Afghanistan twice as a civilian — in 2010 with USAID to work on infrastructure projects and again in 2012 to work on human rights issues. To him, the cliché that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires" rings true.

"This has been a quagmire," he said. "These are tough decisions and there are no good options."

Le's work in Afghanistan touched on two key U.S. goals — road building across the country and creating educational opportunities for women and girls. Both became targets for Taliban militants.

For Le, the failings of U.S. policy in Afghanistan can be pinned on those at the top, whose goals, he said, shifted as frequently as the men assigned those leadership roles.

"At the highest level, we had multiple one-year strategies with different commanders that would rotate in and out," he said. "Institutional memory wasn't the top priority."

Without cohesive, long-term goals, Le said, lessons would be learned, un-learned, and learned again.

"It's a very hard thing, on the ground level — you need everyone rowing the right direction to do the work," he said. "So much of this is community and tribal-based. You need buy-in."

Le said some good can still come of the conflict if the U.S., even after it leaves Afghanistan, upholds its commitment to the Afghan people — especially its women and girls.

"These things don't just end, there are still people who have struggles and challenges," he said. "We have a responsibility. I'd like to think my work out there really meant something."

San Diego Union-Tribune staff researcher Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report.

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