Rochester Marine saw Afghan Army's failings
"The Afghan Army wasn't doing much," former Marine Capt. Ian Cameron said.
Former Marine Capt. Ian Cameron never predicted the fall of the Afghanistan capitol to Taliban forces, but what the Rochester native did see while serving there caused him to question what the U.S. was trying to accomplish in the country.
For him, there was a clear disconnect between what government and political leaders were saying about the fighting capabilities of the Afghan army and what officers like him were seeing on the ground.
"That was a stark contrast," Cameron said. "That was my experience. I can tell you that was the experience of the people that I worked with."
A Mayo High School graduate, Cameron served in Afghanistan from October 2018 to June 2019. He served in country during the 18th year of the war, four years after the United States and NATO declared an end to combat operations in the country. And "yet, we were still dropping bombs on a daily basis, and it wasn't clear why."
Now, as the U.S. scrambles to evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghans from Kabul, the question that will haunt the U.S for years, if not decades, will be: How did it go wrong so fast? How did a 20-year commitment that cost the U.S. $2 trillion collapse so completely?
In 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to uproot al-Qaida leaders, who had masterminded the 9/11 attacks, and their Taliban sponsors who were sheltering them. On May 2, 2011, U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader. For 10 more years, U.S. troops stayed in Afghanistan, providing security and training for that nation's troops.
Cameron, 31, served eight years in the Marines after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. In Afghanistan, he belonged to a contingent of 300 Marines whose job it was to train, advise and assist the Afghan Army. Cameron ran an operations center in Helmand Province, in the south of the country, with a range of air assets, including airplanes and drones, at his disposal.
And what he saw gave him little confidence that the Afghan Army was capable of standing on its own.
"In reality, it wasn't doing much. And we're just kind of freelancing and killing low-level fighters on a daily basis," Cameron said.
It wasn't for lack of trying to cobble together a fighting force. U.S. advisers would spend weeks with their Afghan counterparts building up the combat capabilities ahead of an operation.
Then an operation that was supposed to involve thousands of Afghan soldiers would produce a token show of force. Maybe a couple dozen soldiers would move out to engage a handful of Taliban fighters. There would be sporadic gun fire. And then, Afghans would report their inability to overtake the Taliban fighters.
In Helmand Province, some of the battle plans were focused on retaking areas that the Marines had fought for and taken in 2011.
"It's very clear even then, this train, advice, assist was really the United States continuing combat operations," Cameron said. "At no point did the Afghan Army demonstrate the political will to actually stand on their own."
It also became evident to Cameron that what he was seeing in his corner of the country echoed the experiences of others, "over 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan," he said.
"(The Afghan Army) wasn't interested in changing the status quo. The leadership was too corrupt. The organizations are too inept," he said.
Cameron left the Marines last year and now works for a San Francisco start-up tech company. He admits to watching the scenes of panicked Afghanis scrambling to board planes to escape their country with regret. He was lucky, he said. He served only nine months and didn't lose any close friends. Others paid a much higher price.
"I regret the cost," he said.
He doesn't regret his service in Afghanistan.
"I'm proud to have served. I'm proud of the work I did. I'm proud that I served the United States," he said. "From the perspective of what we were doing in Afghanistan for 20 years, that's a question that I'm not sure anybody is able to answer."