It was getting close to Christmas 2001 when 33-year-old Air Force Capt. Brian Newberry got a call at Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina.
At first it seemed like a normal call. The United States and its allies had invaded Afghanistan two months earlier in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and C-17 Globemaster pilots like Newberry, who would go on to become commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base, were flying regular airlift missions to support combat operations in the Central Asian country.
But when Newberry showed up at the base operations center, his crew wasn’t there. He was told only that he had been picked for a special mission, piloting a C-17 with a “rainbow crew” picked from multiple squadrons.
Only when they landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany did the crew learn what their mission was: They would fly to Tbilisi, the capital of the nation of Georgia, pick up Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and bring the Pentagon chief to meet with Hamid Karzai, who would soon become Afghanistan’s president.
Newberry had already logged about 3,000 hours flying C-17s and KC-135 Stratotankers, but this was unlike any mission he had flown before.
“I was a good pilot,” Newberry said. “But it was probably the most pressure-packed point of my entire career.”
It would be the U.S. military’s first daylight landing at Bagram Airfield, a narrow landing strip north of the capital of Kabul that had not yet become the major American base it is today.
Low clouds over Bagram made the high-pressure landing even trickier. As they approached the airfield, Newberry told a White House aide on board the chances were about 50-50 they would have to turn back due to the weather.
The aide said he would defer to the pilot’s judgment, Newberry recalls. “But he said – though he didn’t say it this bluntly – ‘This is just very important for us to show the SecDef on the ground, meeting with President Karzai, and that we are winning this war.’”
Newberry landed the plane.
When they touched down safely at Bagram on Dec. 16, 2001, U.S. and allied forces were nearing the climax of weeks of combat operations that toppled the Taliban government, which had provided a safe haven al-Qaida used to attack the United States three months earlier.
Al-Qaida fighters – led by Osama bin Laden, a scion of a wealthy Saudi family – were still holding out in the caves of eastern Afghanistan’s Tora Bora region.
“Things were very fluid,” Newberry said, “but it very much felt like Osama was going to be caught any time now.”
When U.S. troops took the last cave complex the next day, bin Laden was nowhere to be found. It took the U.S. another decade to find the al-Qaida leader in neighboring Pakistan.
While Rumsfeld met with Karzai, the young pilot started his standard-procedure “walkaround” to check on the plane whose 170-foot wingspan overhung the narrow airstrip. Just before he stepped off the tarmac, an Afghan guard stopped him, pointing out that the runway was bordered with land mines.
Along with the burned-out Soviet MiG jets that littered the air base after the U.S. invasion, the minefield offered a reminder that this wasn’t the first time Afghanistan had been battered by war. After Soviet troops invaded the country in 1979 to support a communist coup a year earlier, militant groups known as the mujahedeen fought a decadelong, U.S.-backed insurgency that eventually drove them out and contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the mujahedeen and other groups fought to control territory until the Taliban, a militia backed by Pakistan, took control of Kabul and imposed a strict version of Islamic law on the country. The Taliban regime gave succor to bin Laden after al-Qaida was forced out of Sudan in 1996, and the group launched deadly attacks on U.S. targets in Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen before Sept. 11, 2001.
When Rumsfeld returned to the plane, he sat directly behind the pilot’s seat in the cockpit. Newberry tried to start up the four massive engines, but nothing happened.
“The perspiration – I mean, my flight suit was like I’d been swimming,” Newberry said. “The nerves must have been going crazy.”
It turned out to be a “minor startup issue,” Newberry said, and his experience paid off to help him get the engines running. When he looked back after taking off, the secretary had fallen asleep.
“I was like, ‘Thank God. Secretary Rumsfeld, sleep easy,’ ” he said. “ ‘You’re making me feel better already.’ ”
When they landed in Tbilisi, Rumsfeld patted Newberry on the shoulder. After flying the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff into Bagram on another mission, the young pilot got special permission to fly home to Charleston, South Carolina, for the holidays. He landed Christmas morning, got home and immediately fell asleep.
Over the next decade, Newberry advanced to the rank of colonel and in 2012 he became commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild. He chose to stay in Spokane when he retired from the Air Force in 2014.
Nineteen years to the day after his father flew out of Tbilisi International Airport with Rumsfeld aboard, 1st Lt. Mark Newberry lifted off from the same airfield in his own C-17. The 26-year-old Air Force pilot deployed to the region in November to support operations as the U.S. withdraws its troops from Afghanistan as part of a peace deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban in February. The next day, on a separate mission, the younger Newberry landed his plane at Bagram.
“If you would have told me back in 2001 that Mark was going to go and help with the drawdown,” Newberry said, “I would have been fairly incredulous. Wars don’t normally last 19 years.”
The Newberrys are one of numerous American families with multiple generations that have served in the war. A 2013 Pentagon survey found 80% of military recruits have a close relative who served, and more than a quarter had a parent in the armed forces.
As the outgoing Trump administration draws down troop levels after nearly two decades fighting Taliban insurgents and supporting the fragile Afghan government, the war has a complicated legacy that has touched families from Afghanistan to Spokane.
More than 157,000 people were killed in Afghanistan between October 2001 and October 2019, a Brown University project found. That figure includes more than 64,000 Afghan national troops and police, nearly 2,500 American troops and civilians, over 1,100 other NATO troops and 42,000 opposition fighters. An estimated 43,000 civilians also have been killed. More than 21,000 American troops have been wounded in action, according to the Pentagon.
The United States has already spent some $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan and related costs, and services for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq are expected to cost more than $1 trillion more over the next 40 years.
The past 19 years have also seen Afghans make important gains, at least in the parts of the country controlled by the U.S.-backed government. Fewer than 1 million Afghan boys were in school under the Taliban, with girls barred from getting an education. Today, some 3.5 million of the more than 9 million children in school are girls, according to U.S. government figures.
Al-Qaida and like-minded terrorist groups have been unable to regain the kind of foothold they had under Taliban rule from which to launch attacks, a goal a Pentagon report in June called “the vital U.S. interest in Afghanistan.”
Yet despite the economic and human costs to Afghans, Americans and their allies, the Taliban are stronger today than they have been since the U.S. invasion. After a surge to more than 100,000 Americans fighting in the country under President Barack Obama, there are now about 4,500 U.S. troops in the country focused on a more limited counterterrorism mission and a 38-nation NATO mission to train and assist Afghan government forces.
U.S. casualties have dropped as troop levels have fallen, although nine Americans were killed in Afghanistan in 2020. Afghans, however, have continued to bear the brunt of the violence. The United Nations reported in February there were more than 10,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, including at least 3,400 deaths, in each year from 2014 to 2019. Nearly 2.4 million Afghans have fled their country, according to UN figures.
Life changed forever
Jamil Shirzad grew up in northern Afghanistan’s Baghlan province. He was born not long after the Soviet invasion, but he doesn’t remember much from that time. His memories of the civil war that followed are clearer, as rival militias fought over territory.
The Taliban never controlled his district, a stronghold of opposing military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose Northern Alliance forces later helped the U.S. drive the Taliban out of power. Yet essential goods were expensive and hard to come by due to Taliban blockades.
When U.S. and allied forces started bombing the country in October 2001, Shirzad was taking the national college entry test. By the time he got to Kabul University, foreign troops were patrolling the city and everything seemed to be changing.
“When U.S. troops came to Afghanistan, there was a hope that we were going to live our lives as normal people,” Shirzad said. “The young generation started their lives. I was one of them – I joined the university and I did my master’s.”
By October 2020, Afghan universities enrolled some 300,000 students, including about 100,000 women.
In 2008, Shirzad took a job working as an interpreter for U.S. forces, facilitating meetings with their Afghan counterparts. He was glad to have a job and enjoy relative freedom and safety in Kabul after the Taliban were driven out.
“When the U.S. and international troops came to Afghanistan,” he said, “that ideology the Taliban were backing kind of disappeared for a while and we had a chance to live, like, a normal life.
“But in 2011, this rumor started that U.S. troops were going to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. This kind of bolstered the Taliban to get more power.”
A year after winning the presidency on a promise to end America’s “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama announced in December 2009 that he would increase troop levels in Afghanistan.
The approach led to some gains against the Taliban, but by January 2013 troop levels were declining and Obama declared, “By the end of next year, America’s war in Afghanistan will be over.”
By early 2015, fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops remained in the country. As they withdrew, thousands of Afghans like Shirzad who had aided the Americans were left behind and, along with their relatives, became targets of the Taliban.
“Working with U.S. troops and international troops in Afghanistan poses a threat for not only yourself but your whole family,” Shirzad said.
After his employer lost its contract with the U.S. government in 2013, Shirzad was hired as a professor at Kabul University. It was a prestigious job and he wanted to stay, but the Taliban were retaking territory around his hometown, making it dangerous to visit home.
While the Afghan government controls Kabul and most major population centers, the Taliban now control roughly one-fifth of the country’s districts, providing services and even running local courts. Another 40% of Afghans live in a contested district where the Taliban control some territory, according to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Even locked down in Kabul, Shirzad wasn’t safe. Taliban attacks in the capital increased.
“Living in the war gives you a different mindset,” Shirzad said. “In 2014 and 2015 when I was (at the) university, every time an explosion was going off in Kabul, my mom was picking up the phone and calling me and my brothers and saying, ‘Hey, are you alive?’
“It really is a big problem for a family, because my mom was kind of expecting that we would be dead. In that situation, you cannot make a plan for the next five years or 10 years. That affected not just my life and my family’s lives, but all Afghan people.”
Shirzad said he understands Americans’ frustration with the “endless war,” and Afghans who have lived through it certainly want to find a solution.
“Thinking about it just militarily, solving this problem with Afghanistan is a little bit hard,” he said. “The Taliban is an ideology. We need to change that ideology, and changing that, I think, is much easier than choosing the military option.
“But if the United States (abandons) Afghanistan and leaves them for themselves, this ideology is a threat not just for that region, but for the whole world.”
Shirzad kept teaching but applied for a special visa program designed to help Afghans and Iraqis who have aided American forces move to the U.S.
“I actually was not intending to come to the United States at first, but after the U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the security situation deteriorated, it left me no choice but to come to the United States.”
He had no family in the U.S. and wasn’t sure where to go, but a mentor suggested he consider Spokane. In 2016, his family’s visas were granted and he moved to the Lilac City with his wife, Nazifa, and their daughters Farangis and Katayoon, now 9 and 5.
He now works with unaccompanied refugee children in Spokane Valley and is grateful for the life he has in the Inland Northwest, but Shirzad said uprooting his family and moving away from his parents, who still live in Kabul, hasn’t been easy.
“You’re working the hardest you can do to make something in your life,” he said. “For 30-some years of your life, you’re working to create something, but you leave it all behind to start from scratch again. It is hard. It really is hard.”
From Spokane Valley to Kabul
After studying abroad in Dublin in 1970, Whitman College junior Ryan Crocker set out hitchhiking from Amsterdam to Kolkata, India, with a stop in Afghanistan.
That kind of adventure was nothing new for Crocker, who was born in Spokane Valley but spent parts of his childhood in Morocco and Turkey with his father in the Air Force. In the Kabul of 1970, he remembers seeing women attending college – in miniskirts, no less.
But Afghanistan was changing. Gen. Mohammed Daoud Khan overthrew his cousin, the nation’s last king, in a 1973 military coup. Khan himself would be killed in the 1978 coup that prompted the Soviet invasion. The U.S. ambassador was assassinated a year later and the embassy shuttered.
More than three decades later, Crocker found himself back in a very different Afghanistan, this time to serve as the first head of the U.S. embassy since his predecessor was killed 23 years earlier.
By then a seasoned diplomat who had served as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait and Syria, Crocker landed at Bagram Airfield in January 2002, just weeks after Newberry flew Rumsfeld to meet Karzai. He didn’t recognize the city.
“I’d been there during Kabul’s heyday,” Crocker said. “Well, that Kabul had been blasted into fragments. I was just thinking, ‘Good God, how does this ever get put back together?’ ”
Days later, then-Sen. Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat who at the time led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, arrived in Kabul and met with Crocker.
After touring the city and meeting with Karzai and other Afghan leaders, Biden told reporters he was convinced Afghanistan needed U.S. and allied troops to restore order in the devastated nation.
“I’m talking about a multilateral force with orders to shoot to kill,” Biden said at the time. “Absent that, I don’t see any hope for this country.”
Two decades later, President-elect Biden’s views on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan have evolved. As vice president in the Obama administration he opposed the troop surge, and as a candidate in 2020 Biden said he favored keeping only a small counterterrorism force in the country.
In January 2002, Crocker took the senator to visit a girls’ school in Kabul he had just helped open, where he remembers talking to a 12-year-old who had never been allowed to study. The student told Crocker she wasn’t embarrassed to be in class with girls half her age, just happy to be there.
“I would hope the president-elect remembers that visit,” Crocker said, “and reflects on the difference we made to millions of lives in Afghanistan, particularly females. We basically said, ‘If you step forward, we’ve got your back.’
“Now, what we’re saying is, ‘Oh my goodness, look at the time. We’ve got to go. Goodbye and good luck.’ What do we think is going to happen to those girls and women as the Taliban ride back into town?”
After serving tours as ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq, Crocker retired and moved back to Spokane Valley in 2009, renting the home his parents had built in 1949, the same year he was born.
Two years later, Obama called Crocker out of retirement to return to Afghanistan as ambassador. In May 2012, at the height of the troop surge, Obama visited Kabul to sign an agreement with Karzai.
Facing re-election, Obama was eager to wind down the unpopular war – and to remind voters U.S. troops had killed bin Laden in Pakistan exactly a year earlier. Speaking at Bagram Airfield, Obama promised “a future in which war ends, and a new chapter begins.”
“It’s important to remember that President Trump wasn’t the first president to say we’re pulling all our troops out,” Crocker said. “That was President Obama.”
Obama ultimately decided to keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through the end of his presidency, saying in July 2016, “The Taliban remains a threat. They’ve gained ground in some places.”
President Donald Trump railed against the war in Afghanistan during his 2016 campaign. In the White House, he has pushed for a speedy exit even as Pentagon advisers urged patience.
Crocker and other U.S. negotiators had long insisted the Afghan government be part of any peace talks with the Taliban. But Trump, prioritizing a swift U.S. withdrawal over lending legitimacy to the government in Kabul, opted to strike a deal directly with the Taliban.
Trump even invited Taliban leaders to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, in September 2019, before canceling the summit after the group took credit for a car bombing that killed an American soldier and 11 others in Kabul.
In February, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. troops within 14 months in exchange for an assurance that the militants would not give al-Qaida or other terror groups safe haven.
U.S. officials have called the withdrawal “conditions-based” without saying what conditions could change the plan, and the agreement contains secret annexes that even members of Congress have not been allowed to read. Although the deal includes a temporary ceasefire, Taliban attacks increased after the signing, averaging 55 attacks a day in March and April.
Crocker said Trump, a self-styled master dealmaker, seemingly didn’t care about the specifics of the agreement.
“You do not start a successful negotiation with a huge concession,” Crocker said. “It didn’t matter for the president what terms he got. Good, bad or indifferent, he was gone.”
In November, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned White House officials in a classified memo that a hasty withdrawal of more troops would endanger Americans who remain in Afghanistan. Days later, Trump fired Esper and replaced him with an acting Pentagon chief who promptly announced the U.S. would withdraw all but 2,500 troops from the country before Biden’s inauguration, though the defense bill Congress passed despite Trump’s veto in December withholds funding for the drawdown until the administration submits a report to lawmakers.
“When you go down to 2,500, you really no longer have an effective field force,” Crocker said. “They can continue some of their train-and-equip stuff, but the overriding consideration now for troops is protecting themselves.
“It’s a de facto close-out, even though it won’t completely end our footprint in Afghanistan.”
Crocker worries that a rushed U.S. withdrawal will not only endanger the Afghans who have stepped up to build a better future for their country, but could also jeopardize the security of Americans.
“If your policy is based on the emergence of a capable Afghan central government as the guarantor of no 9/11 coming to us again from Afghan territory, it doesn’t just undercut (that goal), it virtually destroys it.”
On top of the troop drawdown, the Trump administration threatened in April to cut U.S. aid to the Afghan security forces – which accounts for roughly three-quarters of their funding – by $1 billion.
“In the face of horrific casualties, you’re not seeing the kind of collapse in Afghan army or police units like you did in Iraq,” Crocker said. “They’re holding together.”
Crocker is particularly concerned about the impact on women and girls if the Taliban retake power.
“One of the great things about our policy in Afghanistan, with respect to women, is it was one of those all-too-rare points of intersection between American values and American national security interests.
“To toss that away at a human cost that I don’t even want to think about, that’s really rough.”
For both moral and strategic reasons, Crocker said, the United States also needs to uphold its commitment to the interpreters and other Afghans like Shirzad who worked for the U.S. government. As of September 2019, a backlog of nearly 19,000 such workers were waiting for their visas, according to the State Department.
“If we don’t do a better job looking after our interpreters who put their lives on the line for us,” he said, “it’s going to be really difficult to get anybody to sign up to our cause anywhere in the world, any time in the future.”
In second or third grade, Victoria Pinckney – “Tory” to her friends and family – went on a field trip to a space and science museum. When she got home, she told her parents, Michelle and Larry Castro, that she had her future planned.
“She never wavered from what she wanted to do,” Michelle Castro said. “She wanted to fly and be an astronaut.”
The Castros were a military family. Larry and Michelle met and got married when they were both serving in the Army at Fort Carson in Colorado. When their daughter decided she wanted to go to space, they told her the best way to get there would be joining the Air Force.
Pinckney started pilot lessons at 16 and took to flying like a natural. She joined the Air Force Academy prep school and graduated from the academy in 2008 with a degree in space systems engineering. She married Rich Pinckney, her prep school classmate, three days later.
Pinckney and her husband, both KC-135 tanker pilots, moved to Spokane County, where they were stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. She earned the rank of captain in 2012, and later that year their son Gabriel was born.
Capt. Pinckney never slowed down, her mother said, serving meals at a soup kitchen and finishing a master’s degree while she was pregnant.
In April 2013, Pinckney deployed to the Transit Center at Manas, a U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan from which KC-135 crews supported operations in nearby Afghanistan.
Two weeks later, she took off along with two other airmen for a refueling mission in a flight with the call sign Shell 77. Shortly after takeoff, a problem with the flight-control system caused the aircraft to yaw, its nose drifting back and forth.
Capt. Tyler Voss and Pinckney, his co-pilot, tried to regain control of the plane, but the movement worsened until the tail separated from the plane, causing a crash that killed Pinckney, Voss and Tech. Sgt. Tre Mackey, the refueling boom operator.
An Air Force investigation found that despite Voss and Pinckney’s accolades as pilots, they had each received just 10 to 15 minutes of training on the problem they encountered that day, which Air Force flight simulators couldn’t replicate at the time.
Brian Newberry served as operations group commander at Manas from 2011 to 2012 and was commander at Fairchild at the time Shell 77 went down. After retiring in 2014, he decided to stay in Spokane partly so he could visit the memorial at Fairchild on the anniversary of the tragedy every May 3.
“The most important thing for me, with Shell 77 and the airmen that I lost,” Newberry said, “is for me to be able to go remember them out at the base and to stay a touchpoint with their families.”
Three years ago, Michelle and Larry Castro moved to Spokane, where they can visit monuments to their daughter and others who have lost their lives at Fairchild and at the Illuminating Courage memorial outside the Spokane Arena.
Looking back at 19 years of war in Afghanistan, the Castros said the sacrifices have not been in vain.
“I believe it was the right thing to do,” Michelle said. “I believe in protecting this country and our rights. It’s a shame it’s still going on and has lasted so long, but I think we’re in a safer place than if we had not.”
Larry Castro, a retired air traffic controller, said he considered rejoining the military after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I’m still for the troops being there,” Larry said. “People in the U.S. just don’t realize what would happen if the U.S. did not take a stand.”
“They just don’t realize the cost,” Michelle said. “Even those that don’t die, that come back injured, they have a struggle all the rest of their lives.
“In the beginning, in 2001 when the war started, people knew what the sacrifice was,” she said. “But as the years have gone on, people have forgotten.”
A complicated legacy
Newberry, now CEO of Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, makes regular trips to the memorial outside the Spokane Arena.
“There’s a lot of names on there,” he said. “It’s a place that I visit quite often to be reflective of this complicated question.”
Everyone whose life has been touched by the war in Afghanistan grapples with some version of that question: Was it worth it? Was it the right thing to do?
Crocker said that to help preserve the gains Afghanistan has seen, the U.S. needs to exercise “strategic patience.”
“For a not-very-big investment, I think we can uphold our values and guarantee our national security,” Crocker said. “But we’re not going to do it with 2,500 troops, and we sure aren’t going to do it if we pull all the way out.”
For his part, Shirzad said American involvement in Afghanistan has left a complicated legacy.
“You cannot say in black and white that it was all failures or all success stories,” he said. “There was some hope … for the young generation and some people who created businesses because the international forces were there, but after a while it kind of faded away.”
Shirzad said he doesn’t blame U.S. leaders for prioritizing their own country, but he hopes future administrations will understand that the fates of Americans and Afghans are interconnected.
“If I’m Joe Biden or Donald Trump, I would mainly focus on the United States,” he said. “But in a strategic way, I must think about this threat that raises in that part of the world, because we cannot lock ourselves in one country in this new world.”
He also wants people in Spokane and around the U.S. to understand that the Afghan immigrants who have become part of their communities don’t represent the likes of the Taliban.
“There’s a difference between the people who are running away from those monsters,” he said, and the violent people they’re escaping. “These people are the first layer of people who are affected by the monstrous situation there.”
In a year when so many Americans have gone through the holidays without seeing relatives because of the pandemic, Larry Castro said he hopes people remember those who have lost loved ones in the war.
“Think about the people that don’t have those family members around for those holidays anymore,” he said.
Whatever someone thinks about the war in Afghanistan, Newberry said, the most important thing is that all the lives it has touched are never forgotten.
“It’s all just incredibly complicated,” he said. “We were securing national interests, but it obviously expanded into a mission that was about much more than that, where we were trying to ensure democracy, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“The fact that American blood was shed for it, I think, is a very noble thing but it’s also very tragic, particularly if things don’t end up well. I just never, never want to forget.”