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Afghan veterans offer stories from 7-year US involvement

WASHINGTON – One held the hand of a dying fellow soldier and told himself that the sacrifice would not be in vain. Another watched an Afghan tribal leader risk his life to seek US protection for his village – only to be told that it was not possible. A third interviewed insurgents who said they expect American troops to get tired and go home. A fourth beat suspected terrorists, only to find out later that they were innocent.

The veterans of the Afghan war testified yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about a seven-year conflict that has attracted little debate, even as President Obama sends reinforcements to take on the Taliban.

The hearing took place as instability in Afghanistan spreads through neighboring Pakistan, and a day after the 38th anniversary of committee Chairman John F. Kerry’s testimony – as a Vietnam veteran – against that war in 1971.

Yesterday, the young veterans offered a sobering picture of the failures of US policy, but none advocated a complete withdrawal.

However, one veteran – Rick Reyes, a former corporal in the US Marines – called Obama’s decision to send 17,000 additional combat troops to Afghanistan “a mistake.”

“At a minimum, this occupation needs to be rethought,” he said.

Reyes, who was among the first US forces sent to Afghanistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks, said he arrested Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorism suspects in their homes based on tips by paid informants.

“Almost 100 percent of the time, we would find that the suspected terrorists were just innocent civilians,” he said. “We began to feel we were chasing ghosts. How can you tell the difference between members of the Taliban from Afghan civilians? The answer is: You can’t.”

In his written testimony, Reyes said he and his fellow Marines sometimes broke “hands, arms, legs” and wrecked homes during their midnight raids. But he did not describe these incidents to the committee yesterday, saying later that he did not want to distract from his message of opposition to a troop increase.

However, three other Afghan veterans argued passionately for a stepped-up US commitment, saying the mission could be saved by more troops and smarter tactics.

Westley Moore, a former Army captain who led a program that persuaded moderate Taliban to pledge allegiance to the new Afghan government, called the 17,000 additional troops “a paltry number” compared with what is required to protect the population in the rural areas.

“We are underfunded and undermanned in Afghanistan,” he told the senators. “We asked two brigades to have coverage over a 1,600-mile area that is . . . the most dangerous terrain in the world.” Moore said it would send the wrong message to the world if the United States were to simply leave.

 

The Taliban’s “entire strategy depends on our political and national will faltering,” he said.

Genevieve Chase, a Pashtun-language specialist who survived a suicide attack in Afghanistan, made an urgent plea for US troops to be sent into the villages to protect the population. She recalled a village elder who asked for help, only to return home “defeated and without hope.”

Christopher McGurk, a former Army staff sergeant, recalled holding the hand of 19-year-old Evan O’Neill of Haverhill, Mass., who was fatally shot during a firefight on the Pakistani border. With his last breath, O’Neill apologized for not completing the mission.

“He was only 19 years old, but he understood that the mission was larger than himself,” McGurk said.

McGurk said a withdrawal would dishonor O’Neill’s sacrifice and put Afghan allies in jeopardy.

“These are real people that I dealt with on a daily basis,” he said. “To just leave them . . . to me, that is very unacceptable.”

Only a half dozen antiwar protesters attended the hearing, underscoring how little attention the war is getting compared to the Vietnam war in the 1970s. But the hearing also highlighted growing discomfort about Afghanistan.

Kerry said he does not believe that withdrawal is the answer, but he raised the possibility of alternatives to a large military build-up. But he also suggested that patience with the war might be wearing thin, saying that Congress will enact “strict standards of measuring the progress” against extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We are no longer offering either country a blank check,” he said.