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Sad, angry and surreal: Spokane residents, local politicians react to collapse of Afghanistan government on Sunday

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 16, 2021

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.  (Zabi Karimi)
Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (Zabi Karimi)

Brian Newberry, former commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base, said watching the collapse of the Afghanistan government felt “surreal.”

As a C-17 pilot in the Air Force, Newberry flew in and out of Afghanistan. One of the most memorable missions of his career involved flying Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld to Bagram Airfield in December 2001 to meet Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

“In my mind it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was in those airfields,” Newberry said.

This weekend, the Taliban took Bagram Airfield.

Newberry, now CEO of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, said the Taliban takeover fills him with sadness for the Afghan people.

He said he fears much of the progress made in the past 20 years for women’s rights and education could be washed away. And he worries about the safety of interpreters who aided the U.S. and are still in Afghanistan.

Michaela Kelso of Chattaroy served in the Army for 23 years. In 2008 and 2009 she worked as a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan.

Kelso said the U.S. had to withdraw from Afghanistan eventually, but even if withdrawal was ultimately the right move, what’s happening isn’t fair to Afghans.

“We came in with really big promises and we let them down,” she said. “You can’t just go in a country and tear it all up and go, ‘OK, we freed you, have a good day.’ … Be prepared for a lot of atrocities. I don’t see how this is ending well for the Afghan people.”

Newberry said he didn’t want to comment on U.S. policy decisions in Afghanistan, but some Washington state politicians haven’t been shy to criticize President Joe Biden’s withdrawal strategy.

“Not only is this a complete and utter failure of President Biden’s foreign policy, but it has severe ramifications at home where we are dealing with an ever-escalating border crisis, and for the women and schoolgirls who have only just begun to recover from the effects of the Taliban’s repressive regime,” said Dan Newhouse, Republican representative for Washington’s 4th Congressional District, in a statement Sunday.

Gov. Jay Inslee turned his attention to the work of those Afghans who helped American-led forces in the region.

“The concerning news from Afghanistan does not diminish the respect for those Americans whose dedication and sacrifice gave the Afghan people a two decade long opportunity to build a stable & fair-minded country,” the governor wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening. “We will not allow that legacy of patriotic service to be diminished.”

Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner worked in Afghanistan in 2009 as a civilian contractor, helping an Afghani counter-narcotics team. He said he’s felt a combination of frustration and outrage at the Taliban takeover.

“I do think it was the correct policy to withdraw from Afghanistan, but it’s really outrageous how it’s happening,” Baumgartner said.

The withdrawal should have been less abrupt, more phased, Baumgartner said, and the civilians who aided U.S. forces shouldn’t have been left to fend for themselves.

Baumgartner, a former state senator, said he and his wife, Eleanor, still stay in touch with Afghan friends and coworkers and have been trying to help their friends get U.S. visas.

“You can just read the panic in their emails,” Baumgartner said.

The U.S. should have had a narrower focus in Afghanistan, Baumgartner said. He said the aim should have been counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency.

“We just need to align our strategy with what’s realistic there,” he said.

On top of that, U.S. efforts in Afghanistan were repeatedly hampered by the dramatically shifting goals of different presidential administrations, Baumgartner said.

He said that Presidents George Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump all had different ideas for the country, and that lack of consistent strategy was devastating.

Kelso said there wasn’t an especially coherent strategy in 2008 when she was in Afghanistan.

“It was quite clear that nobody really knew what they were doing, including us,” she said.

Baumgartner said that despite everything that went wrong in Afghanistan, he’s not critical of America’s intent. U.S. involvement led to the creation of schools, the deaths of bad men and important advancements for Afghan women, Baumgartner said.

“We have a lot of things to be proud of in Afghanistan,” he said. “I wouldn’t say at all that we haven’t accomplished anything.”

Kelso said she doesn’t think America’s involvement in Afghanistan was useless.

“But it’s pretty bad,” she said. “We left so much blood, sweat and tears there.”

Despite the sadness he feels for Afghans, Newberry said he doesn’t think America’s involvement in Afghanistan was a waste.

“I take solace in the fact that our military went over there bravely and made a difference. I take pride in what our military did,” he said. “Despite this weekend’s events, you can’t wash away the heroism of the last 20 years.”

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