Reflections on Iraq and Afghanistan

Justin Hughes

America has lost 6,883 servicemen and women in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. "Did the policy match the sacrifice?" asked Kael Weston, a State Department official who spent seven years in both countries during the wars. His answer is no - our strategy for Afghanistan was wrong, he said, and we should not have gone into Iraq in the first place. Weston was speaking to a Global Café breakfast meeting of LAWAC on June 10th.

"I believe Afghanistan was the right war. When we had a coalition of 43 governments Afghans used to say 'the world is here to help us'.... We never heard that in Iraq...I didn't think the Iraq war was the right or necessary war."

Weston, who was first sent to Iraq in the summer of 2003 shortly after the US invasion, spent most of his time living with the Marines in their base in Fallujah, one of the most deadly places in the entire country. He got drawn into the Marines' struggle, and the tortured dilemma of how to behave in a war one doesn't believe in. As the fateful decision was being taken over whether to send the Marines in to clear Fallujah block by block in November 2004, Weston was asked by a senior US official if it was a good idea or not. "I wanted to say no. A big part of me wanted to say isn't there another way?" But from his time there, Weston knew that leaving Fallujah as a safe haven for al Qaeda would lead to more, not fewer US and Iraqi civilian deaths - it was a major production site for car bombs, and harbored snipers and other militants. So he said he thought Fallujah should be cleared - "the tragedy of that is I was around marines who I knew were going to die - as well as Iraqi civilians... when you start a war that you don't need to start, the repercussions are just tremendous."

Weston got further embroiled in the vicious logic of conflict the following January when the US was debating whether to try to support voting stations across al Qaeda-rife Anbar province, in the face of an al Qaeda announced boycott. Weston pushed for the US to send ballots to polling stations all across the desert province, and in the course of one of those missions, one helicopter crashed, killing 30 Marines and a Navy corpsman. Weston takes much of the blame for launching that mission on his own shoulders - the subsequent election was indeed largely boycotted in Anbar - and he writes about his responsibility in the first chapter of his new book, The Mirror Test. "I open the book with that personal accountability because I think that what is missing in these wars is national accountability."

Overall Weston believes the US still hasn't come to terms with its two recent wars. The title of his book is a medical term, and refers to the moment when someone with a disfiguring injury finally gets to look at themselves in a mirror after long periods of treatment and reconstructive surgery. Doctors watch closely to see if the patient expresses some emotion - shock, anger, sadness or resolve - or whether they simply turn away, unable to own their new appearance. Kael cites one Marine who was badly burned by an IED explosion who didn't look into the mirror until his brother and sister were about to arrive from Boston, and he did not want to be unprepared for their reaction when they saw his new face. "After 15 years of war... We as a nation and as citizens need to look hard in a mirror at how these wars have changed us or at least changed some of the things that we think we represent."

Weston was transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan in 2007, by which time the US had squandered its early advantage and allowed the Taliban to reconsolidate and return to the battlefield. The biggest mistake of the US? "We weren't often enough listening to the people who were living in the country full time... Afghanistan could look a lot better if we had done some things differently...." Now Weston argues that the US should be prepared to leave a small force of Americans for many years to come - "Go as low as you can manage, to stay as long as you need to. I think the challenge in that part of the world is decades long. Either we're going to try to have a role in supporting an Afghan government that is basically a partner, or we're going to say it's all up to you." Weston also feels it was a mistake to completely withdraw US troops from Iraq in 2011, arguing that there should be two US bases, one in the western deserts of Anbar and one in the Kurdish north.

When asked about the impact of the war on himself, after witnessing so much violence over so many years, Weston said "War changes everyone...I have issues - I don't wake up with nightmares, but I became numb... As one general said to me, "war will always be part of your archive - it doesn't have to become your screen saver."

When asked about how companies could be encouraged to hire veterans, Weston pushed back on the stereotype of "a PTSD-wracked veteran hiding in a cave, dysfunctional and dangerous - that is not a true picture of most veterans". He said like anyone they have strengths and weaknesses, but one of their advantages is they have experience working as a team: "Veterans have a real close sense of 'we', and we are only as strong as we are as a team." Veterans are also accustomed to "sweating the big stuff, not the small stuff - veterans are not as inclined to get into 'cubicle spats'. If I were a CEO I would want them on my team."

When asked how Iraqis feel about the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Weston said "getting rid of the dictator is something that, if you've lived under a dictator, is going to feel pretty good initially.... But what quickly happened is the disorder and the chaos and the violence was going up and up and up... the violence and the terrorism for most Iraqis gets to that question - do they feel safer today? Iraqis were fearful under Saddam, but they felt safer."