In 2005, when now-Congressman Jason Crow left Afghanistan after serving two tours as an Army Ranger, he couldn’t imagine a scenario that would take him back there.
He was 26 years old and months away from marrying his fiancé, Deserai. He remembers interviewing the minister, who would end up marrying them, over a satellite phone from a bunker. He’d soon attend law school, become an attorney, have two kids, and, more than a decade later, be elected to Congress. It’s a life a long way from the Pakistan border where Crow and other special operations soldiers would go on daily missions for Osama Bin Laden and top al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders.
“I never thought I’d go back,” Crow said. “I thought I was leaving and would never return. It was surreal for me to not only return, but return 14 years later as a member of Congress.”
U.S. troops have been stationed in Afghanistan for 18 years, starting after the 9/11 attacks. Today, somewhere between 12,000 to 13,0000 troops still remain in Afghanistan. At the peak of the war in 2010 there were about 100,000 troops. That could drop to less than 9,000 troops in the coming months. U.S. and Afghan officials say the number of troops have been quietly decreasing, despite President Donald Trump’s declaration last month that peace talks with the Taliban are “dead,” throwing the entire conflict into uncertainty.
Early this month Crow led a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House Armed Services Committee on a trip to Afghanistan, Turkey and Jordan. While they were in Afghanistan they visited with soldiers, met with Afghan ministers and participated in a roundtable with General Scott Miller, commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and United States Forces in Afghanistan.
“Des was not enthused because much like me, she thought that in 2005 I was leaving Afghanistan for the last time,” Crow said, explaining that he had to reassure his family that he’d be safe on his trip.
Few soldiers who return from being stationed in Afghanistan get to go back as civilians. It’s not an easy experience to prepare for, partly because it’s difficult to know what to expect. Afghanistan still remains one of the most deadly places in the world. Between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, a week after Crow and the congressional delegation returned from their trip, 42 pro-government forces and 17 civilians were killed across Afghanistan. The United Nations, which has been tracking deaths in the country for a decade now, reported deaths and injuries increased 42 percent in the third quarter of 2019 compared to the same time in 2018.
Those numbers aren’t lost on Crow. He said he doesn’t see any good options left for the U.S. there, but tackling that issue is one where his experience as a combat soldier helps him as a lawmaker.
“Now that I’m in Washington, helping to oversee that policy, I always think about the impact on the ground,” he said. “I remember what life was like as a lieutenant and thinking, ‘the things I’m seeing in the news don’t match my reality on the ground’ and that’s why it’s important to go right to the front and talk directly to the soldiers on the ground and get their perspectives.”
Crow said he left for Afghanistan earlier this month with an open mind for what it’d be like to return. “I’m not sure I prepared for it,” he admitted, joking that it’s a pretty busy time in Washington, D.C. right now.
“On a personal level, flying over Kabul and the mountains for the first time in over 14 years was challenging to some extent,” Crow said. “I thought about the battles I had, the people I served with and the friends I lost. It made me reflect in a way that I hadn’t in a long time…I’m still reflecting and processing what I saw and my conversations and my meetings about this challenge and not really having any good options left…how it is we do the right thing,” he said.
As Crow and the delegation returned from the trip, news was breaking about Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Crow said the lack of policy direction and process in each country is troubling.
“What’s very clear to me is that President Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing with national security and our military policy. There is no policy right now and, in fact, there are top commanders in the region that have told us that. Since the president blew up the discussion between the Taliban and the U.S. military, there’s no policy in place. Our military is just kind of holding ground right now, waiting for some direction.” he said. “There’s no policy in Syria either. I’m very worried about that and the president’s lack of process and policy in regard to the region.”
Trump has declared that the U.S. will no longer be engaging in nation building. Crow said while he also believes it’s not the duty of the U.S. to partake in nation building, it is “in our best interest is to make sure we get the Afghans to a point where they’re addressing corruption, addressing the rights of women, children and minorities and we’re protecting vulnerable populations and we’re helping them build self-governance.”
While a decade-and-a-half have meant a lot of changes in the region, there are many ways Afghanistan is still the way it was when Crow left in 2005.
“We’re living in a world of 24 hour news cycles in the U.S., and life moves fast. Things move slower there. They have a much different view of history. They are cultures that are hundreds and thousands of years old. So in some ways they have changed but in many ways things have not,” he said. “We can’t think that Afghanistan will someday look like the U.S.”