As international forces complete a pullout from Afghanistan against the background of a rampant Taliban offensive, campaign veterans remember with emotions veering from trauma to pride a deployment that has marked a generation of Western soldiers.
American, Australian, French, German and Spanish serving and ex-soldiers who talked to AFP shared a complex range of sentiments about a conflict that has raged for two decades and from which no-one has returned untouched.
But remembering extraordinary comradeship and Afghanistan’s landscapes and people, they often far from regret their deployment in one of the most dangerous military missions in the world.
Their feelings as foreign troops pull out are even more acute, as the Taliban takes control of swathes of the country, including provincial capitals, that international troops were supposed to have secured for the Afghan army.
The withdrawal is due to be complete at the end of this month, in line with President Joe Biden’s orders that US soldiers pull out ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
The Al-Qaeda plane hijackings of September 11, 2001 sparked the invasion that toppled the Taliban, whose current offensive has reawakened doubts among some over what the deployment was worth.
However, several soldiers emphasised that their own personal experience and the political outcome were two very different things.
‘Always those images’
The cosy hamlet of Quentel in central Germany with just 500 inhabitants feels as remote from the mountains of Afghanistan as could be possibly imagined.
But it is here on an old farm that Andreas Braeutigam, 58, tends to his four horses, lives with his partner and her child, cooks and reflects on the still burning memories of an eight-month deployment in Afghanistan from 2003-2004.
Braeutigam, who retired this year, came close to death when a shot pierced his ear.
He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and needs to take pills in order to sleep.
“The horses help me when I’m pushed to the edge, when I’m restless, nervous or aggressive, sometimes just seeing the horses or being near them is enough to calm me down," he said.
A battle-hardened serviceman in Germany’s Bundeswehr, Braeutigam also saw action in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo.
But the memories of Afghanistan still loom so large.
Every day brought mortal danger. “You don’t know where to put your feet, because there might be homemade bombs, especially in the places where you least expect them.
“And there are the ambushes. You do not see anyone, then all of a sudden people surge out and disappear again without a trace."
“It’s no fun to think about this and I am always happy when there are days when I do not think about it," he said.
He reflected that personally “the experience was worth it, I got to know other countries, other peoples, other customs. We also received a relatively warm welcome from the population, we could feel that."
But Braeutigam also wonders whether the NATO mission made any difference to Afghanistan, which remains mired in such instability that locals who helped foreign forces are now seeking refuge in the West.
“NATO was not designed to do a lot of things — we cannot make a state bend.
“No one can do it, not even us, and as long as the Taliban are more numerous and supported by other countries. No matter which army comes in, there will be no chance of bringing peace to the country."
‘A soldier’s job’
French lieutenant colonel Jean Michelin, who remains in active service, has less time or occasion to reflect on his 2012 deployment to Afghanistan, as he prepares for a mission in September to join France’s Barkhane force in the Sahel region of Africa.
“We always carry the missions which we experienced deep within ourselves. But we also cannot live with the weight of Afghanistan forever. A soldier’s job is also to be ready to go again. I cannot take Afghanistan in my suitcase when I join Barkhane."
He also insisted that it is not the job of the soldier to ask whether it was right for international troops to be deployed to Afghanistan. “The ‘why?’ is not a military question, it is a political issue."
He added: “Afghanistan’s political future is what it is. It doesn’t take away from what I experienced, brought and left there."
In a nod to the failure of the Soviet invasion three decades ago, he said: “There is a precedent in Afghanistan of digesting and spitting out foreign forces who come. We are not the first ones to have experienced this."
Michelin, who served in Nijrab, northeast of Kabul, said a soldier can always find solace by returning to a battle theatre once peace has returned.
But he regretted that, given the current situation in Afghanistan, this is impossible for now.
“I would like to one day return to Nijrab, smell the air of (the mountainous province of) Kapisa in May, without the risk of being hit by a rocket or being taken hostage. But I don’t know if we will be able to do that one day, before we get too old."
‘Lucky to go, luckier to come back’
Spanish Corporal Gonzalo Seguel spent two six-month terms in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. At the time of his first mission to the northwestern province of Badghis, he was 21 and had just become a father.
He remembers an experience that was sometimes traumatic and painful but which he would not have missed.
“The first thing I think of was the difficulty of the mission, the environment we were in. I think I was lucky to go and even luckier to come back alive," he said on a break from a training exercise on a base outside Madrid.
He also emphasises the constant sense of risk: “We were aware of the risks. I wouldn’t call it fear, but we had quite a lot of respect for where we were."
“Unfortunately, you do see situations you don’t even want to remember," he said, acknowledging “painful memories" of one shooting attack, without giving details.
The worst moment was losing comrades, which happened both times he was there, with one paratrooper killed in 2006 and two more in 2007 when their vehicles hit explosive devices.
“It was really tough, very hard for all of us… it was a time when the word ‘resilience’ takes on a lot of significance because we had to just deal with it and get on with the mission."
But being in a place like Afghanistan helped forge many close friendships, some of which “have lasted until today", he said.
“I had experiences that have helped me a lot to learn as a soldier and as a person. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything that happened, or that I saw and experienced, nothing at all."
James Hintz, 41, was sent to Afghanistan for a seven-month rotation in 2008 for the Australian army, still feeling the effects of wounds sustained in a deployment to East Timor in 2007, when a non-lethal CS grenade he was about to throw detonated early.
After being medically discharged in 2014, Hintz now lives in his hometown of Crows Nest, west of Brisbane, with his wife and their two children.
Their home is dotted with reminders of more than a decade of service, including photographs with fellow soldiers, rifles in a locked safe and medals tucked in a drawer.
After his injury in East Timor, which still requires medical treatment, he said “Afghanistan, in a way, kind of rescued me for a short period of time. It kind of got me going again, mentally and physically as well, while we were focused on that work."
He is critical of the international deployment, saying: “I guess we tried to run before we could walk. We didn’t win anything before we started trying to reconstruct the place."
Hintz believes it was a mistake not to treat the deployment as a “more conventional war, instead of this light footprint".
But Hintz said the transition from military to civilian life was a difficult one, and “having a purpose" was important in order to not get bogged down in the mundanity of day-to-day life “because nothing is as exciting as being on an operation, a deployment".
He remains haunted by the loss of comrades who did not come home.
“Some people got lucky, and I think that luck, it plays on you afterwards because you feel guilty about things like that. Because it’s hard to think about: that could have been me, you know, or why wasn’t that me."
‘A piece never leaves’
Marc Silvestri, 43, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008-2009 after joining the US Army in 2006.
The native of Revere, Massachusetts, said he was sent to the “most-attacked base in all of Iraq and Afghanistan through all the years of the war."
“We were in the mountains of Afghanistan, and we did an awful lot of fighting." At one point they were in a five-hour-long firefight, from which Silvestri earned the bronze star medal for valour. “It was a very tough deployment where we were."
He said leaving Afghanistan now is the right thing to do: “I do firmly believe that it was time to come home. We put a lot of money and training into the Afghan army, where we gave them the tools they need to stand on their own."
“Many guys that I went over there with came home with some major issues," said Silvestri, who is now director of veterans services in Revere, helping others who went to Afghanistan and Iraq.
“War does some dark things, and it breaks all of us. A piece of us never leaves Afghanistan."