'In a blink:' Gillette reflects on 20 years in Afghanistan erased


GILLETTE —  When Jonathan Decker first stepped foot in Afghanistan in 2013, the status of the War on Terror was in a malaise between the purpose it began with and the debacle it is in now.

The conflict was still active and the U.S. military presence was high, but efforts to scale back would soon be set in motion.

A Gillette native and Westwood High School graduate, Decker, now 29, entered the U.S. Army in 2011, as many of his family members had done before him.

During his nine-month, mid-war infantry stint in Afghanistan, Decker said that even then it became clear that a withdrawal eventually would be in the cards.

He didn’t claim to know how or when to pull out the military presence. But now, on the eve of President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to leave the country the U.S. has occupied for nearly 20 years, he knows one thing for sure.

Just not like this.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” he said. “An absolute disaster.”

With the clock ticking, U.S. and Afghan lives lost, the Taliban in control and the Kabul airport immersed in chaos, it is difficult to make sense of how 20 years of effort could dissipate in a matter of weeks, Decker said.

“It’s disgusting. It really is,” Decker said. “It was not supposed to happen like this.”

Within a matter of months, as the U.S. decreased its presence in the country, the Taliban seized power.

“You don’t pull the troops out first,” Decker said. “They’re the last to go. It was just completely done backwards.”

The Taliban swept across the country, taking over provincial capital cities. And hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled their homes in fear of what awaits them under Taliban rule. The group last was in power from 1996 to 2001, when it ruled the country under a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

“The jury is still out, but the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” Biden said on July 8, the day that he said the U.S. would withdraw by Aug. 31.

The U.S. has been trying to get out of Afghanistan for several years.

American troops ousted the Taliban in a matter of months when they invaded to root out al-Qaida, which orchestrated the 9/11 attacks while being harbored by the Taliban.

More than 160 people, including 13 U.S. troops, were killed in an attack carried out by the Islamic State at the Kabul airport Thursday.

Among those deaths was Rylee McCollum, a 20-year-old expectant father from Jackson.

“It’s tragic nonetheless,” Decker said about losing a Wyomingite in the airport bombing. “It hits a little closer to home, having lost someone from Wyoming. It doesn’t make it any more tragic. The whole situation is just horrible.”

More than 100,000 people have been evacuated so far, but thousands more remain trapped.

“It makes us look like a laughing stock right now,” Decker said. “We were there for 20-plus years. For what? All of it just fell apart pretty much overnight.”

Denton Knapp, a Campbell County High School graduate and a U.S. Army veteran, served three combat tours, including one in Afghanistan in 2012-2013, where he commanded NATO’s Regional Support Command-East.

He ran the training sites for the Afghan police and army along the country’s eastern border with Pakistan, helping with recruiting and basic training, as well as teaching them the logistics of operations and working with the U.S. government.

Even then, the U.S. had begun scaling back its presence in Afghanistan, he said.

Knapp, who retired from the Army in 2017 as a colonel, said the current situation in Afghanistan is unbelievable.

“Watching this is very frustrating,” Knapp said. “It really makes me angry, knowing the blood and sacrifice that were given not only by us but by our allies.”

In his July 8 speech, Biden said the U.S. “did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”

Two decades of work has now gone down the drain, Knapp said.

“We spent 20 years of blood and treasure trying to help Afghanistan reestablish its government,” he said. “Our commander in chief has given that all up in weeks.”

And it’s not just that. All of the billions of dollars in vehicles and equipment that the U.S. had given to the Afghan government is now in the possession of the Taliban.

“It’s just unreal that we just outfitted a terrorist organization in Afghanistan,” Knapp said.

This whole situation is a blow to America’s reputation among its allies, Knapp added, and trust has been lost.

“Around the state and across the country, people are angry and it’s nonpartisan anger,” he said. “It starts with the commander in chief, and it goes down from there.”

Donald Trump had a plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in a phased approach, rather than all at once, Knapp said, and he also had a plan to bring back interpreters and other contractors on the Afghan side.

Biden has stuck by the deadline of Tuesday to completely withdraw from Afghanistan.

“We’ll never have our people out by then,” Knapp said. “If we’re leaving it up to the Taliban to dictate what we’re going to do with our Americans overseas, it’s a lost cause.”

He has friends in Afghanistan who can’t get out, including an Afghan general that he went to college with for a year.

“He’s trapped over there right now,” Knapp said. “He’s gone to five U.S. military schools in his career. That will be held against him (by the Taliban).”

He said he’s been getting calls from friends who are in hiding because they can’t evacuate, and there’s thousands more that are in the same situation.

“They stood by us and fought for years and years, and we’ve now abandoned them. It’s just unbelievable,” he said.

The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 20 years, which might seem like a long time, but it’s actually quite short in the grand scheme of things, Knapp said.

“If you think about it, 20 years is one generation,” he said. “We’re talking about cultural change, which has to cover multiple generations.”

If the U.S. chose to do so, it could go in and take over, Knapp said, but “we just made it a lot harder to start over again.”

Despite the chaotic “s---show” of an ending to the last two decades in Afghanistan, Decker said the helter-skelter finale has not changed how he views his service, or the service of countless others.

While the boots on the ground, so to speak, followed orders, he said it was those at the highest levels who created the mess that crescendoed this month.

Not just the current administration, but the administrations before. Four presidents presided over the war in Afghanistan and each one had their hand in the muck, to some extent.

“We did our job,” Decker said. “We did what we were asked to do. They didn’t. They completely failed the situation.”

“In a blink of an eye, it’s almost like we were never there,” he added. 

But they were. Decker, Knapp, McCollum and thousands more were all there. Some still are and some will never return. The U.S. tried to change Afghanistan and did. Just not as intended.

It took 20 years and thousands of lost lives to figure that out.

“It was way higher than us who failed,” Decker said. “It wasn’t us who did this.”