Rather than spreading democracy, we spread an imperialist colony: US Afghan veteran
Published: Sep 07, 2021 10:50 PM
A US Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday. Helicopters are landing at the US embassy there as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound as the Taliban advance on the Afghan capital. Photo: VCG

A US Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday. Helicopters are landing at the US embassy there as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound as the Taliban advance on the Afghan capital. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

As the US pulled its last troops out of Afghanistan, it left a chaotic Afghanistan behind. The veterans of the US who have participated in the war in the past 20 years also feel frustrated about their country's repeated mistakes. Chris Velazquez (Velazquez), a veteran who attended War in Afghanistan and now digital organizer of the anti-war organization Veterans for Peace, reflected on how the war failed to achieve its desired goal and the meaning of his individual parts in it with Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

GT: Why did you choose to serve in the War in Afghanistan? Can you briefly tell me about your experience?

Velazquez: I joined the Marine Corps at the age of 17. I was deployed to Iraq in 2006, and then to Afghanistan in 2009. I didn't really get a choice to serve in either of those wars, but my reason for joining the Marine Corps was because I had no other options and a lot of schools and impoverished areas here in the United States are where recruiters tend to recruit the most. The area I was living was a conservative area so tended toward the right side of the political spectrum. And it definitely reinforced this glorification of the military along with American exceptionalism.

When I was in Afghanistan, I was a civil affairs operator. At the time, I really thought I was there to help people, so I would help build wells and help reestablish schools and hospitals and start doing a lot of what I thought was help. And it wasn't what the local people needed. I presented a security risk and a danger to a lot of lives for working with us. The military blueprint there impacted civilian lives more so than anything. That's an intrinsic part of warfare, and regardless of what nation you're from or what national army is, to be in the military means serving one's purpose; and that's to fight a war with violence, no matter what job you're doing.

Unfortunately, in the wars that we have fought over the last 20 years, we're not fighting another government or another military. We're fighting a local population. I'm sure that I did a lot of good whether it was providing food or helping with water, in a case-by-case basis. But when I look at the impact of my presence in the entire area, I did more damage to them whether that was through climate change and assuring sustainable farming land, whether that was destroying relationships between people and creating hierarchy. I'm not somebody who wants to harm people. I don't think most veterans are either.

GT: What harm did war experiences cause to you? 

Velazquez: I was diagnosed with PTSD and it has greatly affected me. I got out of the Marine Corps in 2010. I had no job prospects, so I was trying to go to school. I didn't have the mental health help or support from my friends and family that could guide me through this. I hadn't really held a job for longer than a year at a time. A couple of years ago, I met my partner. It drastically helped turn around my life and now I'm an employee of Veterans for Peace.

I also suffer from moral injury. PTSD and moral injury overlap a lot. Moral injury, knowing that I'm harming a civilian population that doesn't deserve that, lingers with me. The treatment is similar for PTSD, including cognitive behavioral therapy or cognitive processing therapy doesn't necessarily encapsulate the treatment for moral injury, which has to do with righting the wrongs that you did. 

GT: Do you think the US stayed in Afghanistan too long? Or did it pull out its troops too early to create such a chaos in the country?

Velazquez: This question has a lot of nuance and complexity of it. We shouldn't have been in Afghanistan in the first place. I should not have been there. I should have never had the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan. We knew within the first four or five years of being there we had no objective. There's no reason first to be there, and we weren't going to help or succeed in any type of capacity for whatever you wanna call success. We knew that it wasn't gonna happen. We should have gone by 2005. And once again, we shouldn't have been there, the same with Iraq. We need to leave. The manner in which we withdrew borders on negligence and malicious mishandling of withdrawal, knowing what's going to happen.

The way we left seems to intentionally leave a power vacuum with no care toward the population that we had been there to help or no idea of what was going to happen. But we knew what would happen. It is horrible. So we know that when drones fly, civilians die; we know that the US military is only exporting violence. It speaks volumes to what the priorities of the leadership in the United States.

GT: What will you say to the servicemen who will participate in the next war the US will possibly wage?

Velazquez: I would say, first, if I do my job right, there won't be another war. That is the purpose of the peace movement. If we learn the lessons from Afghanistan as a civilian population in the United States, wars won't happen again.

I would say to somebody that is looking at the deployment in the future that is getting told that they're going into the military or if they're already in the military or about to get deployed: There are options for them. There's just going to be a war and do not participate. I would point at 20 years in Afghanistan, and the previous lessons that the US government failed to learn and the fall of Saigon. We got to see that replicate itself after 20-year time in Afghanistan. I hope that service members that are watching this now or veterans deployed to Afghanistan start realizing that a lot of the things that they're dealing with have moral injury cap and will inhale more injury. 

GT: Where were you when the September 11 attacks occurred? What was your perception of the September 11 attacks? Has your perception shifted since you arrived in Afghanistan?

Velazquez: I was in school. I was in my cafeteria when the announcement came over. We got dismissed and went home. And I spent the rest of the day at home watching the news. I understood that we were attacked. I understood that we were gonna be going to war. Like I knew that before, I knew that we would have a military response to this.

Over the course of those 20 years after 9/11, I would definitely say that the majority of my community was pro-war. Therefore, I became pro-military. But for me, it wasn't an execution of vengeance. It was trading the material conditions of the people. We are very much told a lot more about spreading democracy, through that violence and the military initiative. And what we're not doing is actually spreading democracy. What we're doing is spreading an imperialist colony and helping the oligarchy maintain its power. So as you can tell, my position has radically changed. 

Personally, I'm pretty on the left side of the political spectrum through my indoctrination. And unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the majority of Americans. There's a lot of political fracturing, largely because of lack of political education and lack of political will among the average American.

GT: Twenty years later, ISIS is still thriving in Afghanistan and carrying out terror attacks. How do you feel about the way the US "war on terror" ended? Why the harder the US strikes, the more terror there is? 

Velazquez: I don't think the war being fought against terrorism is ironic, but conducting a war against a civilian population for the actions of a few individual actors. It became very easy to just use this nebulous concept of terrorism to export the violence of the military and to enrich the military-industrial complex. Just like the war on drugs - it's the same exact thing. And what happened with the war on drugs in America is that drugs won. It's the same thing when we took overseas into Afghanistan, into Iraq, into these other nations. It's the same thing that's happening here in the United States. We just don't call it terrorism. Here we call it the war on drugs and we target black and brown communities. We're talking black and brown communities because they're perceived and labeled by some as "terrorists." What comes around goes around. What's the worst part about it? The government isn't going to learn a lesson from it and is going to think of it as a success.

GT: Do Americans feel more secure? US war on terror prevents its own land from being attacked, but brought miseries to other countries. What do you think?

It's hard to say that it actually brought security to the United States. What we've actually seen out of the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan and the war on terror is the United States military is the largest carbon footprint. That's not included in the carbon numbers. We don't even know how much carbon pollution we're doing. The climate change around the world has caused water shortages, more refugees, our borders are more porous. So I would say that we didn't even get security. We've caused global damage and made everybody more insecure. Last week, a military base in Okinawa just released thousands of gallons of chemicals into the waterways around the space. We have burn pits throughout Afghanistan. Nobody is more secure out of this. 

GT: Will the US draw a lesson from its overseas imperialist adventure? 

Velazquez: Unfortunately, I don't think our current government will. When I watch the media, I see both sides of the American political spectrum beating the drum for war, maybe not necessarily for war, but for continued military intervention. Nothing that I've seen in the last month has me thinking that Biden isn't going to plan on dropping more missiles and more bombs using drones. 

The population is currently so disillusioned and disenfranchised from the political process and from the media process. It's easy to be swept up. I don't believe the current way our politicians conduct themselves will have any change. I think change will come with newer generations coming in. It's going to be a long battle for that to happen. It's going to be a long political drawn out process of civil rights, social justice, politics, and climate change. And it's going to be on the Generation-Z and millennial stepping into positions of power and recognizing that they have to do it.

GT: With the US withdrawal, many US soldiers feel betrayed. US Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, has been relieved of command after he posted a video online questioning military leader's handling of the situation in Afghanistan. Is Scheller's view representative among the US army? Is the US military morale affected? 

Velazquez: I think what he talked about was fraud, negligence and bad command, but not that what we were doing was wrong in the first place. Younger veterans and service people are realizing that something is wrong. The problem is that the overwhelming voice of the American population still believes in American exceptionalism and military glorification. This is going to keep the service members that are trying to deal with the moral injury that they have sustained in a very small hole of a bad situation. This was handled very badly. But there's some more conversation that we can have. Why was it handled badly? Who benefited from it being handled badly? How was this going to play out in the future? I hope that more service members and veterans see what's happening. It's a catalyst for them to grow and evolve in their position.