Matt Primrose was 21, just a couple of years out of Monadnock Regional High School, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.
Having joined the Army a year earlier, Primrose — a Winchester resident who grew up in Swanzey and Sullivan — said he was initially “pumped” about the war effort. His deployment to Afghanistan in 2003 involved a large amount of active combat. It was an opportunity, he said, to “bring it to the enemy.”
Now 41, Primrose still shows that same passion, proudly recalling his year-long tour as well as later Army postings. But he struck a different note about the war after watching from afar as U.S. troops left the country this past week, ending the longest conflict in American history.
“We should’ve never been there that long to begin with,” he said. “… It wasn’t sustainable. The proof is in the pudding. Here we are 20 years later and for what?”
To some Monadnock Region veterans, like Primrose, the U.S. withdrawal was long overdue after losing 2,500 troops and spending more than $2 trillion. To others, it was a foolish retreat that has allowed the Taliban — the religious fundamentalist group that had harbored al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan, prompting the American invasion — to recapture the country from the U.S.-backed government.
If there’s a common sentiment, it’s that nobody is quite satisfied.
For Antrim resident Jim Creighton, a retired Army colonel who served three decades, including from 2009 to 2011 in Afghanistan, the U.S. exit will likely reverse much hard-earned progress there.
The war was an appropriate way to punish the Taliban for having abetted the Sept. 11 attackers, according to Creighton, 60, now a state representative whose district includes Antrim, Bennington, Francestown, Greenfield and Hancock. He said the U.S. got mired in the conflict, though, because it struggled to identify and defeat enemy fighters and because its subsequent invasion of Iraq drew resources and attention.
Creighton, who commanded about 3,000 troops near the city of Kandahar, said that after expelling the Taliban, the U.S. was right to help rebuild Afghan society by backing democratic elections, providing economic aid and improving education, particularly for girls.
But a lack of patience among U.S. policymakers, due largely to political pressure, kept those efforts from succeeding, he said. Noting that education rates in Afghanistan have risen substantially since 2001 — including from a secondary-school enrollment of 12 percent to 55 percent, according to United Nations estimates — Creighton argued that U.S. forces needed more time to help stabilize the country.
“It’s just an example of layered challenges that you don’t understand from an office in Washington,” he said, adding that the U.S. “just said ‘screw you’ ” to Afghan children.
“The situation was not ideal, but it was moving forward.”
Creighton said the U.S. should accelerate its immigration process so that Afghans who worked with the American military, and now face retribution from the Taliban, can resettle here. He knows some Afghans who escaped during the Biden administration’s recent evacuation effort — during which an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. soldiers and at least 60 Afghans — but hasn’t heard from other friends, he said.
A more prudent policy, Creighton argued, would have been to leave a small residual force in the country, similar to troops who have been stationed in Germany since the 1940s and South Korea since the 1950s.
“I believe that the cost for keeping 5,000 soldiers there is minuscule compared to the disaster that we just suffered,” he said.
To some, however, the risk of losing more Americans was too great.
John Garabrant, whose son, Brandon, was killed in June 2014 after deploying to Afghanistan with the Marines earlier that year, said the withdrawal means “more parents won’t have to experience what we experienced.”
Brandon, who was 19, grew up in Greenfield and had graduated from ConVal Regional High School a year earlier. Garabrant, now of Nashua, said his son was never able to share much about his missions but that he’d thought he might be able to come home for Father’s Day that year.
Garabrant, who has two other children, 25 and 22, was at work in Concord when he learned that Brandon had been killed, he said.
“I’m just glad no more families have to go through it,” he said. “There’s still going to be military tragedies, but it’s not going to be, hopefully, in at-risk situations like they were over there.”
The Taliban’s rapid advances last month should make U.S. policymakers hesitate before going to war again, according to Garabrant, who said the exit plan seemed only to endanger soldiers further. He added that American troops should have left Afghanistan long ago if its government was going to fall anyway.
“There’s a bunch of pissed-off Gold Star families around now that are kind of thinking there was no sense in their kids losing their lives over there,” he said.
Despite recent events, Joyce Lehman of Keene, a former aid worker in Afghanistan, said U.S. efforts made a difference in the country.
Lehman, 77, spent several years there in the mid-2000s running economic development projects for the World Bank and later the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). That included working closely with Afghan communities to distribute funding meant to help locals buy resources such as livestock or sewing kits and grow their wealth, she said.
Explaining that she hoped to create opportunities for people who didn’t have them, Lehman said she views her work as a success — pointing to a chamber of commerce founded by Afghan women she knows as one positive outcome.
“Even a small amount of money … will give people a life that they didn’t have before,” she said. “And we did a lot of that.”
Lehman said she returned to Afghanistan on several consulting trips, most recently in March 2019. While acknowledging the stance that U.S. troops couldn’t stay in the country forever, she said she’s worried that under Taliban rule, some progress will be reversed — especially for Afghan women.
“For 20 years, most Afghans were able to live the life of their choosing,” she said. “Whether that’s important enough for us to keep some sort of a minimal force there … that’s above my pay grade. But [it’s] not true anymore.”
After immigrating with her husband and daughter to Keene in 2016, one of Lehman’s Afghan colleagues at USAID, Patmana Rafiq Kunary, said Thursday she was surprised how quickly the country’s government fell.
Now living in Portsmouth, she said those developments threaten all the progress made over the past 20 years. Her niece, who was set to begin her final year of medical school in Afghanistan, doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to complete that degree, Kunary said.
“I’m praying that hopefully everything stays the same,” she said.
Lehman said she’s received “heartbreaking” messages in recent weeks from other former colleagues who don’t qualify for U.S. visas. She’s now trying to help some of them obtain refugee status so they can emigrate from the country, she said, lamenting, however, that many of those who fled were the people most committed to improving Afghanistan.
“Not only am I concerned that the Taliban are back in power, but I’m concerned that [the Afghans are] losing their future,” she said.
Hope for a brighter future — at least under U.S. supervision — had already stalled, though, according to some area veterans.
“I don’t think it would’ve helped being there any longer,” said Richmond resident Andrew Sellers, citing corruption in the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
Sellers, 32, joined the Army a few years after graduating from Keene High School and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. During his 10½-month tour of duty, he said the priority largely seemed to be on winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, which often meant conducting humanitarian missions like delivering food and water.
Although he had moments of doubts, Sellers said he thinks the U.S. military presence did serve a purpose.
“I don’t think it was all for nothing … If we were able to prevent women from being stoned to death for 20 years, I think that’s a plus.”
Still, he said winning the war in Afghanistan, at least in conventional terms, was impossible — comparing the conflict to the United States’ ruinous efforts in Vietnam.
“We need to stop repeating history … Obviously, you have to be involved in foreign policy to an extent. I don’t know if making home in a foreign country in the middle of a religious conflict is the right idea.”
Twenty years later, Primrose, who retired in 2008 as a staff sergeant and now serves as facility manager at the Keene Family YMCA, said his views on foreign policy have changed. Rather than engaging in so-called “nation-building,” which he argued is costly and often ineffective, he said the U.S. should stick to strictly military operations, such as counterterrorism strikes.
“When I was young, I was all about just waving a big stick and running around,” he said. “As an adult now … all I give a f- — about is here.”
Despite misgivings about U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, though, Primrose noted that there haven’t been any large-scale terrorist attacks on American soil since Sept. 11.
“Even though it’s endless, it’s not fruitless,” he said of the war. “What we went through, it wasn’t for nothing.”