Harvard professor who served in Afghanistan reflects on the end of the war

Kit Parker, a Harvard professor of bioengineering and applied physics who served in Afghanistan as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, shares his thoughts as the war officially comes to an end.

Video transcript

KIT PARKER: I don't want to speak for all veterans, I don't want to speak for veterans, but I'm so sick of being told, thank you for your service. I'm so sick of it. When 9/11 happened, my unit got deployed into Afghanistan. So I took a year to go fight. 2002, we were running missions in civilian clothes and pickup trucks. We weren't doing nation building. We were looking for bad guys. We were trying to feed hungry kids. This was before the influx of money. So you got to see pure, raw Afghanistan in those villages.

I thought it was tough in 2003. It was rougher in 2009. We had industrialized the war and all this money was pouring in for reconstruction projects. So we were unfortunately, in a paradigm of money as a weapons system, putting money against problems, thinking that we were going to buy friends. And anyone who's been involved in like a dating life, can tell you money as an enticement to build a relationship on is not going to give you a relationship of much depth. And we did exactly that in Afghanistan for two decades.

You know, there's two armies. There's fighting army and there's Beltway army. And don't think that they're the same. And I don't know at one point in time when people in the army, at what rank they started drinking the Kool-Aid of reconstruction. I was lower down on the totem pole when I got there and I wasn't seeing it. You'd go to the school and there'd be like one girl enrolled in the school. And you walk out of there thinking, right on. That's some real courage on the part of that family. You want to believe it can change.

And then you drive to another village an hour and a half away and you see things that I don't want to talk about today. And you think, it's never going to change. The dots aren't connecting. You're not seeing the trajectory where they're going to move towards civil society and the rule of law. I think that that was the biggest problem, is that no one was asking the hard questions about Afghanistan, and no one was asking the hard questions about ourselves.

What does it take for us to maintain the democracy? What kind of commitment are we willing to show? Do we really want to fight an idea? Do we really want to impress our cultural values and our system of leadership and running a nation on another culture that might not want that? We just made this ignorant assumption that, hey, don't you want to be like us? The first problem is not in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. The first problem is here in the way we as a nation accept responsibilities as individuals for our nation's fate and our nation's actions.

Who is accountable for losing the war? Is it the president? Are we holding Congress accountable? Are we holding all these generals accountable? One of my colleagues in the military wrote a piece one time that a private who loses a rifle suffers a greater punishment than a general who loses a war. That's true! That's true. I've had so many phone calls from civilians asking me how I felt about this.

I just want to say, how do you feel about it? What did you do for 20 years? Where were you? Where was your skin in the game? Did you get a piece of this war? After 9/11, what did you do? And we broke it. You got to own it. This, we broke this war model that we tried in Afghanistan, and we as Americans need all the responsibility of that and we need to endeavor to make sure it doesn't happen again.