The Afghans I Trained Are Fighting for Putin in Ukraine

U.S. Army soldiers from the 2-87th Infantry overseeing the training of Afghan National Army soldiers in 2016 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
U.S. Army soldiers from the 2-87th Infantry overseeing the training of Afghan National Army soldiers in 2016 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

I am an American Special Forces soldier, a volunteer knowing well the hazards of this profession in which I’ve served quietly for 14 years.

And I helped build Vladimir Putin’s foreign legion.

Green Berets — the “Horse Soldiers” who toppled the Taliban in 2001 — are not Army Rangers or Navy SEALs. We specialize in training and fighting alongside indigenous forces, and our greatest strength is the trust and camaraderie we develop with our counterparts. For years, the Green Berets and the commandos of the Afghan National Army were a bulwark against the Taliban. It was a partnership forged at immense cost in American and Afghan lives.

Since the precipitous departure from Afghanistan, and in the absence of meaningful government support to the nonprofit organizations who have worked to aid our former allies, many of those highly trained commandos have accepted recruitment offers to fight with the Russian Army in Ukraine. For the 20,000 to 30,000 men that we trained, a steady salary and the promise of shelter from the Taliban is often too good of a deal to pass up — even if the cost is returning to combat.

As the next Congress prepares to investigate the withdrawal and how it went so disastrously wrong, they should examine not only the lead-up to those dramatic days in August 2021 when the Taliban swept into Kabul, but also what happened — and is currently happening — in the wake of their victory. How those who safeguarded American troops are actively hunted. How they’ve suffered under the Taliban. How our government turned a blind eye. How Afghans were forced to pay nearly $600 per person to apply for humanitarian parole, while Ukrainians had the fee waived.

Following the gross malfeasance of the withdrawal, I didn’t think that there were more red lines to cross, any further moral injury that could be inflicted on those of us who served or worked to save our allies. Yet, with this soul-sickening revelation that our closest partners will now bleed for Russia, here we are. Again.

We should have seen it coming. We abandoned our closest partners wholesale: what choice were the commandos left with? Those left behind are suffering destitution, famine, persecution from the Taliban.

Mr. Putin, suspect though his promises may be, provides hope. If they fight for Russia, their families might live under better conditions, they might earn the $1,500 recruitment incentive and they might earn Russian citizenship. The irony is that those who head to the front lines in the Donbas will be shredded by the very same American-built weapons that once supported them in battle.

I cannot blame those Afghan commandos who fight for Russia; to do so would deny them agency in their own survival.

And it was a deft and cunning move from Mr. Putin, who increases the lethality of his frontline soldiers without risking Russian lives. These soldiers are not amateurs, conscripts or convicts. This is a battle-tested special operations force, trained by America’s best. They might not tip the scales of Russia’s war, but they are competent. Ukrainians will die by their hands.

The Taliban must also be rejoicing. The most dangerous core for a resistance movement is fleeing the country.

Meanwhile, our national shame is perpetuated and a generation of Special Forces is saddled with mitigating the damage from America’s previous conflict while their task of winning the trust of allies — present and future — is made more difficult and more dangerous.

Compounding the tragedy is the fact that there is an army of volunteers, grass-roots organizations, and boutique nonprofits (including one that I founded) champing at the bit to help. Yet we are stymied at every turn by cowardice, political dysfunction and a lack of resources.

In July, during a video conference with members of the various nongovernmental organizations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced his gratitude toward these groups, acknowledging our assumption of the State Department’s responsibilities, and expressing that “We need you to continue to do so”. Why though? Why is it incumbent on American civilians, veterans and active service members to dedicate our own time and resources to rebuild our nation’s honor?

The private refugee sponsorship initiative known as the “Welcome Corps” touted by Secretary Blinken as the “the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades” is a missed opportunity. At the very earliest, by-name sponsorship will not take effect for Afghans until at least mid 2023, effectively dooming hundreds who could be saved with immediate, decisive action. Aid at an indeterminate point in 2023 is not good enough. They need it now. If our leaders intend to wash their hands of Afghanistan, they should support the nongovernmental organizations who have stepped up to do their job for them.

I don’t know if our efforts in Afghanistan were in vain, and the memory of a fallen brother in arms complicates that question. I see the improvements to infrastructure, the generation of women and girls who received an education. But the motto of the Green Berets is “De Oppresso Liber” — To free the oppressed. The country we bled for to keep free is gone, and the very weapon we created to keep oppression at bay has been co-opted by tyranny.

Deploying to Afghanistan was easy. Trying to hold a government-size moral failing at bay feels like running a relay with no one reaching to receive the baton. Our morality has been taken for granted and we are tired. Tired of swallowing our anger. Tired of an endless moral injury. Tired of the red lines and red tape.

I can only imagine the betrayal our Afghan counterparts must feel.

I have little more to give. I’ve sacrificed finances, career opportunities and medical school aspirations. Relationships and my well-being have borne the brunt of it. I don’t begrudge those who carry on with life as usual, though I sometimes feel disconnected from them. To keep myself in equilibrium, I often feel as though I must put on a mask to hide the shame, humiliation and rage.

Tremendous advances in military medicine have been made during 20 years of war, but there is no coverage offered for a battered conscience. If I want help from the Veteran’s Administration, I lie. I lie and say this impotent, lonesome anger bloomed from a tunnel outside Kandahar where some Taliban fighters thought they were safe from the explosives I carried.

I’ll look to the healing of my own moral wounds as best as I am able. I hope that Congress in turn can lead, and help our nation start healing in it’s own right by honoring the promises we made to those who went into combat on our behalf.

It is the very least we can do because if we don’t offer our allies hope and meaningful action, someone like Vladimir Putin will.

Thomas Kasza served as a Green Beret in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now in the National Guard and founded the 1208 Foundation, which provides humanitarian aid and immigration advocacy to Afghans who served with American Special Forces.

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