*This story was first published on August 31, 2021*

As the world reeled from the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and a deadly terror attack, an NZ resident who helped train US troops told Sam Sachdeva they could have done more to evacuate the country – if politicians hadn’t failed them

America’s time in Afghanistan is fast running out, but while some are desperate for US forces to prolong their stay, for others the withdrawal cannot come soon enough.

Thousands of foreign citizens and locals are desperately waiting for an evacuation flight out of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Last week, the airport was the site of an Islamic State terror attack which killed 13 US troops and 169 Afghans, and further attacks have been threatened.

Johanna Wilson, a former aid worker who became a senior stabilisation adviser for civilian and military leaders in conflict settings, sees not just those deaths, but the entirety of the scramble to clear out of the country as an entirely preventable tragedy.

 
 

“Protecting your force is the utmost in anyone’s mind, and this was completely avoidable, and I’m absolutely gutted for the families … it just underscores that it went from chaos to catastrophe, and it just didn’t have to be this way, in terms of the tremendous loss of life.”

Wilson, the daughter of a US Marine who passed away in 2019, says the entirety of her professional career has been shaped by the War on Terror and its long aftermath (all of what she is sharing with Newsroom is entirely unclassified, she hastens to add).

Her first day of graduate school, studying national security at the Bush School of Government and Public Service in Texas, was September 11, 2001 – with that day’s terror attack on US soil serving as the catalyst for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.

After graduating, Wilson spent several years living in the Georgian capital Tbilisi before deciding it was time to get ‘headquarters experience’ in Washington DC.

“I went and did interviews around Washington, and people looked at my resume … and said, ‘That’s great – would you like to go to Afghanistan?’

“And I was not expecting that. I was expecting, you know, ‘That’s great – would you like to go to work on Northwest 18th Street?’ or something like that.”

Based in the eastern city of Jalalabad, Wilson worked as a contractor for American aid agency USAID, supporting its ‘alternative livelihoods’ policy to provide alternative employment and training opportunities for Afghans involved in opium production through poppy growing.

“Just everywhere you looked, it was sadness and devastation and poverty and malnutrition.”

There was limited time in the field due to stringent security requirements: despite living on the same street as her office, she had to make the commute in an armoured vehicle with four armed guards.

But when Wilson did make it beyond the compound, it was clear that despite glimmers of hope like young women studying at universities after education had been off limits under Taliban rule, many Afghans were still suffering.

“The saddest thing I ever saw was a woman … sitting in her burqa in one of the busiest traffic circles in Kabul, holding an infant in her lap, begging.

“Just everywhere you looked, it was sadness and devastation and poverty and malnutrition.”

After leaving Afghanistan in 2008 and taking maternity leave, she returned to work following the Obama administration’s implementation of a temporary ‘surge’ of troops into the country.

Through USAID’s office of civilian-military affairs, Wilson and others were trained as ‘stabilisation advisers’ and tasked with sharing their in-country experience with the tens of thousands of troops tasked with implementing a new counterinsurgency strategy.

“What counterinsurgency meant was that you weren’t fighting the Afghan people, you were trying to win them over to your side and away from the enemy, so the strategy was the best way to do that was providing what they needed, solving their problems, as opposed to having the other side solving them.”

Wilson was part of a mobile training team which visited almost every American military base along with combat training centres in California and Germany, educating soldiers and Marines on how to build relationships with the local elders and work with their civilian counterparts based in Afghanistan.

In recent weeks, a common refrain has been that the Americans sought to impose their own model of governance and society onto the country without a proper understanding of the local dynamics and culture – but that was not for lack of trying, she says.

“Not understanding the local dynamics and the local culture, from my perspective, it wasn’t for lack of trying, because all I did for a decade was go into training, and we would spend hours and hours with them,” Wilson says.

Johanna Wilson, pictured in Kabul in 2008 (other faces blurred for privacy). Photo: Supplied.

Along with discussions about tribal dynamics and lessons on how to appropriately greet Afghans (hand on heart, sunglasses off), there were tactical talks on the complex factors at play within different districts.

“If you’re going into a city like Wellington, you need to understand what your slice of the pie looks like … Miramar versus Eastbourne versus Wainuiomata versus Porirua, you need to understand the differences in each of these: who is important, how are they different?”

But Wilson echoes a sentiment expressed by others involved in the conflict: that the US didn’t fight a 20-year war but 20 one-year wars, with all the disconnectedness that implies.

“You would train these men and women and they would go over, and handoffs between who was there, and who was coming in, were not seamless … to use an American football metaphor, [they were] picking the ball up at the 50-yard line and starting all over again.”

When the counterinsurgency strategy fell out of favour with political leadership, and after the death of four Americans in a 2012 terror attack on the US embassy in Libya sparked a series of congressional inquiries, Wilson’s team started training Marines and soldiers on how to clear embassies and carry out other rapid-response evacuations.

The fruits of that labour have been on display in Kabul, where members of the Marines and 82nd Airborne Division – among those to receive the training – were tasked with evacuating the US Embassy and providing security at the airport while airlifts took place.

Wilson says they were trained to do much more, and could have secured Kabul had there been an order for them to do so. 

“That’s the most frustrating thing: we trained for years and worked with civilians and the military on how to create humanitarian access routes … I read a line in the Washington Post the other day that said the US is relying on the Taliban to keep access to the airport open, and that’s just unacceptable for so many reasons.”

It is a lack of political will, rather than military capability, which explains the alarming images seen at Kabul airport, as well as the July decision to abandon Bagram Air Base despite the difficulty of running evacuations out of Kabul.

“To leave it in chaos like this … is so unacceptable on so many levels. I’m proud of the work I did, but I’m absolutely ashamed of my president at this point, and I think we’ve done damage – so much damage – to our reputation.”

“I don’t buy his line at all, that it was going to be ugly and chaotic either way, not at all. With time and proper planning – and I know they have the plan, and they have the training – our pullout, withdrawal from Afghanistan could have looked a lot different.”

US President Joe Biden has defended his administration’s response, saying “The idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday said the speed of events had taken countries by surprise.

“The situation deteriorated much faster than anyone anticipated and I think even those in Afghanistan anticipated.”

But while previous American presidents share some blame for doing little to address corruption within Afghanistan’s central government and problems with the country’s security forces, Wilson says, it is Biden who is to blame for the current chaos.

“I don’t buy his line at all, that it was going to be ugly and chaotic either way, not at all. With time and proper planning – and I know they have the plan, and they have the training – our pullout, withdrawal from Afghanistan could have looked a lot different.”

Although she is a permanent resident of New Zealand through family connections, she weighs in somewhat reluctantly on whether the Government here could have acted more swiftly to evacuate the Afghan interpreters and others who helped our forces. 

“I think making people wait years and years to go through a process, and these are people that you entrusted your defence force people’s lives with when they were over there in Bamiyan and other settings, I think those kind of political, bureaucratic hurdles are really unfair on people.”

While it will take time to move on from the immediate shock of Afghanistan’s collapse back into Taliban control, there are some critical lessons to be learned – chief of which, she says, is that not every problem requires a military solution.

“Everyone I worked with was the utmost professional and tried to do their job the best they could, but you’ve asked for us to be nation builders, and marines to be nation builders … conflicts are usually best resolved by the people who are in conflict.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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