US troops’ Afghanistan deployments cut short by pandemic, drawdown in tumultuous 2020
KABUL, Afghanistan — For soldiers who deployed to Afghanistan this year, 2020 was tumultuous and constantly changing, with the U.S. signing a deal with the Taliban in February, a troop drawdown starting weeks later, and the coronavirus disrupting deployments and taking lives as it rampaged around the globe.
“After getting boots on the ground, we had Doha, the reduction of violence, and then COVID gets thrown in the mix,” said Capt. Sam Litz, an artillery officer in the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y.
Units from the 1st BCT deployed to Afghanistan in the winter, as peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in the Qatari capital neared a conclusion, and throughout the spring.
Some of the troops said they didn’t expect the talks to affect their deployments. After all, they said, the war had lasted for nearly two decades — for some, most of their lives — and previous attempts to end it had failed.
But once the deal was signed on Feb. 29, soldiers in the 1st BCT, 10th Mountain said they understood their “mission had changed entirely,” Litz said.
“The deployment we had been training for and were prepared for was about to be drastically different,” he said.
Under the deal with the Taliban, the U.S. and all other international forces would fully withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021, provided the Taliban met certain conditions, including severing ties with al-Qaida. While the terror group hasn't held up its end of the deal, according to the United Nations and other observers, the U.S. began pulling out of the country, and the focus of the troops' mission became pulling out and shutting down bases.
Commanders were told to decide which troops would stay or leave in order to meet withdrawal deadlines, which were spelled out in the deal.
“It hit me that I was going to start making those hard calls, who’s going home,” Litz said, recalling the difficult conversations he had with his soldiers, explaining to them that they were either going home earlier than expected, or that they needed to stay and keep working.
As the drawdown gathered speed, the coronavirus started spreading rapidly across the country. Some troops spent two weeks in coronavirus quarantine and then almost immediately flew back to America, said Capt. Kenneth Braun Stapley of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment. Many were stunned, and some upset, when they learned that they were leaving Afghanistan so soon after arriving, recalled Stapley. They’d gone through intense training in anticipation of a hard fight with the Taliban.
“Your initial reaction is, ‘Oh man, what the heck, I just got here,’” Stapley said. “’I spent the majority of my time in quarantine, then two weeks of walking around and getting hold of things, and then going back.’”
Officers had been pumping up their soldiers to motivate them prior to the deployment, only for everyone’s plans to fizzle.
Spc. Christopher Riggins, a 21-year-old infantryman from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, said America had been at war in the Middle East his whole life and he hadn’t expected the war would end before he got his chance to fight.
“I am still upset about how it happened,” Riggins said. “It was a disappointing deployment.”
Riggins and others whose deployments were cut short, would still receive combat patches, though, his commander Capt. Matthew Dixon said. Even if it wasn’t the mission they had been expecting, they had fulfilled it, he said.
“The nation called for them to quarantine and turn back around,” said Dixon, who was deployed for five weeks and was part of the first wave of soldiers to leave the country. “I tried to reiterate the fact that we were a part of history and this is something that we’ve been working toward for a long period of time, and ultimately what our country wants from us.”
Families were delighted when their soldiers came home early. The drastically shortened deployment meant Litz was back for the birth of his second child.
But concerns lingered among the troops for Afghanistan. After drawing down to 4,500 troops this fall, the number of U.S. forces in the country is expected to be further reduced to 2,500 in January. Some have said that cut, ordered by President Donald Trump this month, could leave a security vacuum.
Stapley, who joined the military after the 9/11 attacks, said he still hoped that the peace process started during his deployment would end the war in the country and Afghans would know peace.
“You start to realize we’ve never been here before,” he said. “You start to realize how big of a historical moment this is. “