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Veterans Of Afghanistan Conflict React To Negotiations Between U.S. And Taliban


Hours after President Trump's unprecedented call with a Taliban official, the U.S. conducted airstrikes against the militant group in Afghanistan. The strikes were meant to support Afghan forces who came under Taliban attack. But this comes days after the U.S. and the Taliban signed a deal aimed at securing peace in Afghanistan and after the Pentagon announced the start of an American troop withdrawal. Polls show a majority of post-9/11 veterans favor bringing American troops home. But NPR's Quil Lawrence reports if you look deeper, their opinions run the gamut.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Afghanistan vet Andrew Sullens says he generally doesn't watch the news. He figures it's mostly stuff he can't change.

ANDREW SULLENS: So why worry about it?

LAWRENCE: Sullens deployed in 2009 to the mountains of Kapisa province.

SULLENS: When I went to Afghanistan, I went there thinking that I was there to promote democracy. And really, when I got there, it was nothing about that.

LAWRENCE: The mission to get the terrorists who attacked the U.S., Sullens says - that's long over. And he doesn't have any anger toward the Taliban, even if they end up taking back the mountains where a bomb blew off part of his right leg.

SULLENS: I left a lot of blood laying on the ground over there, and part of my body is gone because of it. But that's not where I place my identity. I made peace with that a long time ago.

LAWRENCE: Sullens didn't become attached to Afghanistan. Then, it was all about his fellow soldiers in the Georgia National Guard. Now it's about living his life. He's happy to hear there might be peace in Afghanistan, but he's made his own peace. He's probably going back to not watching the news.

Air Force Lt. Col. Christy Barry's time in Afghanistan was much different, and so is her reaction to the deal with the Taliban.

CHRISTY BARRY: I've been there twice, and I worked with the Afghans that believed in democracy and that were educated and supported what we were doing there. I can't say I'm happy about this.

LAWRENCE: Barry was a specialist on Afghan language and culture. She's since sponsored two of her former translators to come to the U.S. on special immigrant visas, both young women. Her anxiety for women like them is clear in her voice. She's torn.

BARRY: And I will be very happy of no more American or coalition force casualties, obviously. But what does quality of life for those left behind in Afghanistan look like after we leave? We're returning to the state of affairs - what it was that we invaded.

LAWRENCE: That was a state of civil war, with the Taliban controlling much of the country. Barry is afraid presidential politics are driving a rush to withdraw from Afghanistan, and she wishes America had achieved more of its goals.

JASON DEMPSEY: A lot of people are upset that it's not the perfect deal.

LAWRENCE: Jason Dempsey is a retired Army lieutenant colonel with multiple tours in Afghanistan.

DEMPSEY: The Taliban aren't coming to us, hat in hand, in defeat. The idea that we would ever achieve that has led to us being there for nearly 20 years now.

LAWRENCE: Dempsey says it was a fantasy that American military might could deliver or even understand the solutions that will work for Afghanistan. For Dempsey, one of those solutions always had to be sitting down and talking with the Taliban.

DEMPSEY: I'm glad to see it because what this means is it's going to be a messy process. It's going to be an Afghan process. And right now, it's absolutely the best path to peace that we've got.

LAWRENCE: Dempsey says America is not off the hook. He says the U.S. has to show some patience with a peace process that will not only be messy, but likely take a long time.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.