'They're scared to death': WI retired Army colonel who served in Afghanistan worries about friends overseas
MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- As Taliban forces take Kabul, Wisconsinites who served in Afghanistan are reflecting on their time there and thinking about the people they care about who are still overseas.
Col. Chris Kolenda is the first American to have fought the Taliban as a commander in combat and negotiated with them in peace talks. Kolenda, a retired Army colonel, lives in Milwaukee and now works as a consultant. He's feeling a number of different emotions following the news that Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this week.
"I've got friends in Kabul and other places who are -- they're scared to death right now with the uncertainty," he said. "The 20 years and a trillion dollars in effort just simply melts away overnight."
Kolenda said he contacted a Taliban senior leader to help get his former interpreter and his soldiers to safety.
"I'm upset, angry about just all of the missed opportunities that we've had over the past 20 years, squandering opportunity after opportunity. And here we are with the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Afghanistan," he said.
He said three reasons are to blame: the Afghan people's lack of faith in their leadership, the Taliban's strategy and the Afghan military becoming too dependent on the U.S.
"We, as a country, need to reflect on 'why.' 'Why these interventions keep turning into quagmires?' 'Why can't the most powerful and best-funded military defeat these ragtag militants in Iraq and Syria, in Afghanistan?" Kolenda asked.
He addresses some of these questions in his book "Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War."
Nearly 50,000 Wisconsin veterans served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Saul Newton, president of the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce, spent 13 months in Afghanistan starting in 2010. He said he also has conflicting emotions about the Taliban seizing control.
"Frustrated with military and political leadership that let it go on this long and without being honest and forthright about what was happening. Heartbroken for the people that are that are left there now: the American civilians, the Afghan civilians, the folks that served alongside us and supported us," Newton said.
Newton said he's thinking about the interpreters, the translators and the contract workers who are still in Afghanistan. He believes there have been 20 years of political leaders making mistakes that affect many lives.
"I'm glad that future generations won't have to, hopefully, fight this fight, and we can finally put an end to the Forever War," Newton said. "At the end of the day, I think that this was the inevitable outcome whether we left 10 years ago or 10 years from now."
But despite the Taliban taking over, Newton said he does not believe his service was in vain.
Col. Kolenda said six of the soldiers under his command were killed in action in Afghanistan. He said some of the policies were in vain, but his soldiers' deaths were not.
"They died supporting the people that they loved. They died supporting their comrades, and nobody could ever tell me that they died in vain," Kolenda said.
When CBS 58 asked what lessons can be learned from this week, Kolenda said:
"In 2001, the Taliban offered just surrender. And we said, 'no.' In 2003, the Taliban offered to support the government in exchange for just being able to go back home and live in piece, and we said 'no.' In 2011 and 2012 in then negotiations I was involved in, their demands for a peace process for at least talking with the Afghan government were very modest. So we we've squandered opportunity after opportunity after opportunity. We're at another opportunity now in Afghanistan to work with who the Afghan people have said they would prefer to be in charge and work with them to alleviate the humanitarian disaster that's unfolding.