History > 2017 > USA > International > War (I)
U.S. Exits, and Iran Comes In
AUG. 5, 2017
By CARLOTTA GALL
FARAH, Afghanistan — A police officer guarding the outskirts of
this city remembers the call from his commander, warning that hundreds of
Taliban fighters were headed his way.
“Within half an hour, they attacked,” recalled Officer Najibullah Amiri, 35. The
Taliban swarmed the farmlands surrounding his post and seized the western
riverbank here in Farah, the capital of the province by the same name.
It was the start of a three-week siege in October, and only after American air
support was called in to end it and the smoke cleared did Afghan security
officials realize who was behind the lightning strike: Iran.
Four senior Iranian commandos were among the scores of dead, Afghan intelligence
officials said, noting their funerals in Iran. Many of the Taliban dead and
wounded were also taken back across the nearby border with Iran, where the
insurgents had been recruited and trained, village elders told Afghan provincial
The assault, coordinated with attacks on several other cities, was part of the
Taliban’s most ambitious attempt since 2001 to retake power. But it was also a
piece of an accelerating Iranian campaign to step into a vacuum left by
departing American forces — Iran’s biggest push into Afghanistan in decades.
President Trump recently lamented that the United States was losing its 16-year
war in Afghanistan, and threatened to fire the American generals in charge.
There is no doubt that as the United States winds down the Afghan war — the
longest in American history, and one that has cost half a trillion dollars and
more than 150,000 lives on all sides — regional adversaries are muscling in.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remain the dominant players. But Iran is also making a
bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor.
Over the past decade and a half, the United States has taken out Iran’s chief
enemies on two of its borders, the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam
Hussein in Iraq. Iran has used that to its advantage, working quietly and
relentlessly to spread its influence.
In Iraq, it has exploited a chaotic civil war and the American withdrawal to
create a virtual satellite state. In Afghanistan, Iran aims to make sure that
foreign forces leave eventually, and that any government that prevails will at
least not threaten its interests, and at best be friendly or aligned with them.
One way to do that, Afghans said, is for Iran to aid its onetime enemies, the
Taliban, to ensure a loyal proxy and also to keep the country destabilized,
without tipping it over. That is especially true along their shared border of
more than 500 miles.
But fielding an insurgent force to seize control of a province shows a
significant — and risky — escalation in Iran’s effort.
“Iran does not want stability here,” Naser Herati, one of the police officers
guarding the post outside Farah, said angrily. “People here hate the Iranian
flag. They would burn it.”
A carpet market in Herat that deals in machine-made Iranian textiles and rugs.
Herat is sometimes called “Little Iran.” Credit Bryan Denton for The New York
Iran has conducted an intensifying covert intervention, much of which is only
now coming to light. It is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons,
money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for
their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni
refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.
“The regional politics have changed,” said Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, a senior
intelligence official who recently took over as the governor of Farah Province.
“The strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.”
Iran and the Taliban — longtime rivals, one Shiite and the other Sunni — would
seem to be unlikely bedfellows.
Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban when their militias notoriously killed
11 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian government journalist in fighting in 1998.
After that, Iran supported the anti-Taliban opposition — and it initially
cooperated with the American intervention in Afghanistan that drove the Taliban
But as the NATO mission in Afghanistan expanded, the Iranians quietly began
supporting the Taliban to bleed the Americans and their allies by raising the
cost of the intervention so that they would leave.
Iran has come to see the Taliban not only as the lesser of its enemies but also
as a useful proxy force. The more recent introduction of the Islamic State,
which carried out a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament this year, into
Afghanistan has only added to the Taliban’s appeal.
In the empty marble halls of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, Mohammad Reza
Bahrami, the ambassador, denied that Iran was supporting the Taliban, and
emphasized the more than $400 million Iran has invested to help Afghanistan
access ports on the Persian Gulf.
“We are responsible,” he said in an interview last year. “A strong accountable
government in Afghanistan has more advantages for strengthening our relations
But Iran’s Foreign Ministry and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps act as
complementary arms of policy — the first openly sowing economic and cultural
influence, and the second aggressively exerting subversive force behind the
Iran has sent squads of assassins, secretly nurtured spies and infiltrated
police ranks and government departments, especially in western provinces, Afghan
Even NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan at the time, Gen. Sir David Richards of
Britain, discovered that Iran had recruited his interpreter, Cpl. Daniel James,
a British-Iranian citizen. Corporal James was sentenced to 10 years in prison
for sending coded messages to the Iranian military attaché in Kabul during a
tour of duty in 2006.
More recently, Iran has moved so aggressively in bulking up the Taliban
insurgency that American forces rushed to Farah Province a second time in
January to stave off a Taliban attack.
“The Iranian game is very complicated,” said Javed Kohistani, a military analyst
based in Kabul.
Having American forces fight long and costly wars that unseated Iran’s primary
enemies has served Tehran’s interests just fine. But by now, the Americans and
their allies have outlasted their usefulness, and Iran is pursuing a strategy of
death by a thousand cuts “to drain them and cost them a lot.”
An Ambitious Expansion
The depth of Iran’s ties to the Taliban burst unexpectedly into view last year.
An American drone struck a taxi on a desert road in southwestern Pakistan,
killing the driver and his single customer.
The passenger was none other than the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar
Muhammad Mansour. A wanted terrorist with an American bounty on his head who had
been on the United Nations sanctions list since before 2001, Mullah Mansour was
traveling without guards or weapons, confident and quite at home in Pakistan.
The strike exposed for the second time since the discovery of Osama bin Laden in
the Pakistani hill town of Abbottabad the level of Pakistan’s complicity with
wanted terrorists. It was the first time the United States had conducted a drone
attack in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, a longtime sanctuary for the Taliban
but until then off limits for American drones because of Pakistani protests.
Yet even more momentous was that Mullah Mansour was returning from a trip to
Iran, where he had been meeting Iranian security officials and, through Iran,
with Russian officials.
Afghan officials, Western diplomats and security analysts, and a former Taliban
commander familiar with Mullah Mansour’s inner circle confirmed details of the
Both Russia and Iran have acknowledged that they have held meetings with the
Taliban but maintain that they are only for information purposes.
That the Taliban leader was personally developing ties with both Iran and Russia
signaled a stunning shift in alliance for the fundamentalist Taliban movement,
which had always been supported by the Sunni powers among the Arab gulf states
But times were changing with the American drawdown in Afghanistan, and Mullah
Mansour had been seeking to diversify his sources of money and weapons since
taking over the Taliban leadership in 2013. He had made 13 trips to Dubai,
United Arab Emirates, and one to Bahrain, his passport showed, but also at least
two visits to Iran.
Set on expanding the Taliban’s sway in Afghanistan, he was also preparing to
negotiate an end to the war, playing all sides on his terms, according to both
Afghan officials with close knowledge of the Taliban and the former Taliban
commander close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.
It was that ambitious expansionism that probably got him killed, they said.
“Mansour was a shrewd politician and businessman and had a broader ambition to
widen his appeal to other countries,” said Timor Sharan, a former senior analyst
of the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan who has since joined the Afghan
Mullah Mansour had been tight with the Iranians since his time in the Taliban
government in the 1990s, according to Mr. Kohistani, the military analyst. Their
interests, he and other analysts and Afghan officials say, overlapped in opium.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest source of the drug, and Iran the main conduit
to get it out.
Iran’s border guards have long fought drug traffickers crossing from
Afghanistan, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Taliban have both benefited
from the illicit trade, exacting dues from traffickers.
The main purpose of Mullah Mansour’s trips to Iran was tactical coordination,
according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and fellow at the Brookings
Institution in Washington. At the time, in 2016, the Taliban were gearing up for
offensives across eight Afghan provinces. Farah was seen as particularly ripe
Iran facilitated a meeting between Mullah Mansour and Russian officials, Afghan
officials said, securing funds and weapons from Moscow for the insurgents.
Mullah Mansour’s cultivation of Iran for weapons was done with the full
knowledge of Pakistan, said the former Taliban commander, who did not want to be
identified since he had recently defected from the Taliban.
“He convinced the Pakistanis that he wanted to go there and get weapons, but he
convinced the Pakistanis that he would not come under their influence and accept
their orders,” he said.
Pakistan had also been eager to spread the political and financial burden of
supporting the Taliban and had encouraged the Taliban’s ties with Iran, said
Haji Agha Lalai, a presidential adviser and the deputy governor of Kandahar
On his last visit, Mullah Mansour traveled to the Iranian capital, Tehran, to
meet someone very important — possibly Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, said the former Taliban commander, who said he had gleaned the
information from members of Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.
Mullah Mansour stayed for a week, also meeting with a senior Russian official in
the town of Zahedan, said Mr. Lalai, who spoke with relatives of the Taliban
He was almost certainly negotiating an escalation in Iranian and Russian
assistance before his death, Mr. Lalai and other Afghan officials said, pointing
to the increase in Iranian support for the Taliban during his leadership and
But the meeting with the Russians was apparently a step too far, Afghan
officials say. His relations with Iran and Russia had expanded to the point that
they threatened Pakistan’s control over the insurgency.
The United States had been aware of Mullah Mansour’s movements, including his
ventures into Iran, for some time before the strike and had been sharing
information with Pakistan, said Seth G. Jones, associate director at the RAND
Corporation. Pakistan had also provided helpful information, he added. “They
were partly supportive of targeting Mansour.”
Gen. John Nicholson, the United States commander of coalition forces in
Afghanistan, said President Barack Obama had approved the strike after Mullah
Mansour failed to join peace talks being organized in Pakistan.
Col. Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Afghan military attaché in London, said he
believed that the American military had been making a point by striking Mullah
Mansour on his return from Iran.
“When they target people like this, they follow them for months,” he said. “It
was smart to do it to cast suspicions on Iran. They were trying to create a gap
between Iran and the Taliban.”
But if that was the intention, Mr. Lalai said, it has not succeeded, judging by
the way the new Taliban leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has picked up
his predecessor’s work.
“I don’t think the contact is broken,” he said. “Haibatullah is still reaching
out to Iran. They are desperately looking for more money if they want to extend
Intrigue in ‘Little Iran’
There is no place in Afghanistan where Iran’s influence is more deeply felt than
the western city of Herat, nearly in sight of the Iranian border.
Two million Afghans took refuge in Iran during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
Three million live and work in Iran today. Herat, sometimes called “Little
Iran,” is their main gateway between the countries.
People in Herat speak with Iranian accents. Iranian schools, colleges and
bookshops line the streets. Women wear the head-to-foot black chador favored in
Iran. Shops are full of Iranian sweets and produce.
But even as the city is one of Afghanistan’s most decorous and peaceful, an air
of intrigue infuses Herat.
The city is filled with Iranian spies, secret agents and hit squads, local
officials say, and it has been plagued by multiple assassinations and
kidnappings in recent years. The police say Iran is funding militant groups and
criminal gangs. A former mayor says it is sponsoring terrorism.
Iran is constantly working in the shadows. The goal, Afghan officials say, is to
stoke and tip local power struggles in its favor, whether through bribery,
infiltration or violence.
One day in January, Herat’s counterterrorism police deployed undercover officers
to stake out the house of one of their own men. Two strangers on a motorbike
seemed to be spying on the house, so secret agents were sent out to spy on the
Within hours, the police had detained the men and blown their cover: They were
Iranian assassins, according to the Afghans. The passenger was armed with two
Forensics tests later found that one of the guns had been used in the murder of
an Iranian citizen in Herat 10 months earlier, police officials said.
The two Iranians are still in Afghan custody and have yet to be charged. They
have become a source of contention between Iran and Afghanistan.
Iran disowned them, pointing to their Afghan identity cards, but Afghan
officials paraded them on television, saying they were carrying false papers and
had admitted to being sent by Iran as a hit squad.
The Afghan police say they have arrested 2,000 people in counterterrorism
operations in Herat over the last three years. Many of them, they say, are armed
insurgents and criminals who reside with their families in Iran and enter
Afghanistan to conduct dozens of attacks on police or government officials.
Iran is set on undermining the Afghan government and its security forces, and
the entire United States mission, and maintaining leverage over Afghanistan by
making it weak and dependent, Afghan officials say.
“We caught a terrorist who killed five people with an I.E.D.,” a senior police
officer said, referring to a roadside bomb. “We released a boy who was
kidnapped. We defused an I.E.D. in the city.”
Flicking through photographs on his phone, he pointed to one of a man in a mauve
shirt. “He was convicted of kidnapping five people.” Much of the kidnapping is
criminal, for ransom, but at least some of it is politically motivated, he
The 33-year-old, English-speaking Farhad Niayesh, a former mayor of Herat, is
even more blunt, and exasperated. He says the Iranians use their consulate in
the city as a base for propaganda and “devising terrorist activities.”
“Iran has an important role in terrorist attacks in Herat,” Mr. Niayesh said.
“Three or four Iranians were captured. They had a plan against government
officials who were not working in their interest.”
Members of Parliament and security officials say Iran bribes local and central
government officials to work for it, offering them 10 to 15 Iranian visas per
week to give to friends and associates. Afghans visit to conduct business,
receive medical care and see family.
The Afghan police have uncovered cases of even deeper infiltration, too. A
female member of the Afghan police service was sentenced to death, accused of
being a secret Iranian agent, after fatally shooting an American trainer in the
Kabul Police Headquarters in 2012.
“Our western neighbor is working very seriously,” said the senior Afghan police
official in Herat who requested anonymity because of the nature of his work. “
We have even found heavy artillery to be used against the city.”
Iran is supporting multiple anti-government militant groups in half a dozen
western provinces, he said. The Afghan police, despite a lack of resources, are
working to dismantle them.
“The same sort of people are still in the city,” he added. “They are doing their
work, and we are doing our work.”
Double-Edged Soft Power
Afghans dream of restoring their landlocked, war-torn country to the rich
trading center it was in days of old, when caravans carried goods along the Silk
Road from China to Europe, and people and ideas traveled along the same route.
If Tehran has its way, the modern Silk Road will once again run across
Afghanistan’s western border, and proceed through Iran. At least that is the
On one side of the Afghan border, India has been building a road through
southwestern Afghanistan to allow traders to bypass Pakistan, which has long
restricted the transit of Afghan goods.
Tehran’s goal is to join that route on the Iranian side of the border with road
and rail links ending at the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf.
“We said that Afghanistan would not be landlocked anymore and we would be at
Afghanistan’s disposal,” said Mr. Bahrami, the Iranian ambassador in Kabul,
stressing that Iran’s contribution to the Afghan road was not stalled even by
its economic difficulties under sanctions.
But Iran’s economic leverage comes at a price.
Afghan officials say Iran’s support of the Taliban is aimed in part at
disrupting development projects that might threaten its dominance. The Iranian
goal, they contend, is to keep Afghanistan supplicant.
The biggest competition is for water, and Afghans have every suspicion that Iran
is working to subvert plans in Afghanistan for upstream dams that could threaten
its water supply.
Iran has raised the issue of the dams in bilateral meetings, and President
Hassan Rouhani recently criticized the projects as damaging to the environment.
With the upheaval of 40 years of coups and wars in Afghanistan, large-scale
development plans, like hydroelectric projects, have largely been stalled since
the 1970s. Even after international assistance poured into Afghanistan after
2001, internal and external politics often got in the way.
But President Ashraf Ghani, determined to generate economic growth, made a
priority of completing the Salma dam in Herat Province, and has ordered work on
another dam at Bakhshabad, to irrigate the vast western province of Farah.
In Farah, despite the two calamitous Taliban offensives on the provincial
capital in October and January, the Bakhshabad dam is the first thing everyone
“We don’t want help from nongovernmental organizations or from the government,”
said Mohammed Amin, who owns a flourishing vegetable farm, growing cucumbers and
tomatoes under rows of plastic greenhouses. “We in Farah don’t want anything.
Afghanistan’s lack of irrigation makes it impossible to compete with Iranian
produce prices, something Bakhshabad could solve, he said.
The project is still only in the planning stage. But the dam, with its promise
of irrigation and hydroelectricity for a population lacking both, is a powerful
dream — if Iran does not thwart it.
“The most important issue is water,” Mr. Lalai, the presidential adviser, said
of relations with Iran. “Most of our water goes to our neighbors. If we are
prosperous, we might give them less.”
Peace or Proxy War?
The death of Mullah Mansour removed Iran’s crucial link to the Taliban. But it
has also fractured the Taliban, spurring a number of high-level defections and
opening opportunities for others, including Iran, to meddle.
An overwhelming majority of Taliban blame Pakistan for Mullah Mansour’s death.
The strike deepened disillusionment with their longtime Pakistani sponsors.
About two dozen Taliban commanders, among them senior leaders who had been close
to Mullah Mansour, have since left their former bases in Pakistan.
They have moved quietly into southern Afghanistan, settling back in their home
villages, under protection of local Afghan security officials who hope to
encourage a larger shift by insurgents to reconcile with the government.
Those with family still in Pakistan live under close surveillance and control by
Pakistani intelligence, said the former Taliban commander, who recently
abandoned the fight and moved his family into Afghanistan to escape reprisals.
He said he had become increasingly disaffected by Pakistan’s highhanded
direction of the war. “We all know this is Pakistan’s war, not Afghanistan’s
war,” he said. “Pakistan never wanted Afghanistan to be at peace.”
The question now: Does Iran?
Citing the threat from the Islamic State as an excuse, Iran may choose, with
Russian help, to deepen a proxy war in Afghanistan that could undermine an
already struggling unity government.
Or it could encourage peace, as it did in the first years after 2001, for the
sake of stability on at least one of its borders, prospering with Afghanistan.
For now, Iran and Russia have found common cause similar to their partnership in
Syria, senior Afghan officials and others warn.
Emboldened by their experience in Syria, they seem to be building on their
partnership to hurt America in Afghanistan, cautioned the political analyst Mr.
As American forces draw down in Afghanistan, jockeying for influence over the
Taliban is only intensifying.
“Pakistan is helping the Taliban straightforwardly,” said Mr. Jehan, the former
Afghan intelligence official who is now governor of Farah. “Russia and Iran are
indirectly helping the Taliban. We might come to the point that they interfere
“I think we should not give them this chance,” he added. “Otherwise, Afghanistan
will be given up to the open rivalry of these countries.”
The former Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, warned that the
country risked being pulled into the larger struggle between Sunni powers from
the Persian Gulf and Shiite Iran.
“Afghanistan should keep out the rivalry of the regional powers,” he said. “We
Some officials are optimistic that Iran is not an enemy of Afghanistan, but the
outlook is mixed.
“There is a good level of understanding,” Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan
government’s chief executive, said of relations with Iran.
“What we hear is that contacts with the Taliban are to encourage them to pursue
peace rather than military activities,” he said.
Mohammad Asif Rahimi, the governor of Herat, warned that if Farah had fallen to
the Taliban, the entire western region would have been laid open for the
Iran’s meddling has now grown to the extent that it puts the whole country at
risk of a Taliban takeover, not just his province, he said.
But it could have been prevented, in the view of Mr. Sharan.
“The fact is that America created this void,” he said. “This vacuum encouraged
countries to get involved. The Syria issue gave confidence to Iran and Russia,
and now that confidence is playing out in Afghanistan.”
Ruhullah Khapalwak contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
A version of this article appears in print on August 6, 2017,
on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline:
Iran Flexes in Afghanistan As U.S. Presence Wanes.
In Afghanistan, U.S. Exits, and Iran Comes In,
AUG. 5, 2017,
Still Fighting, and Dying,
in the Forever War
MARCH 9, 2017
The New York Times
SundayReview | Opinion
By BRIAN CASTNER
In November 2016, Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Dayton
became the first member of the United States military to die in the continuing
conflict in Syria. Chief Dayton was killed by an improvised bomb in the northern
part of the country, during a raid against the Islamic State. He was an
explosive ordnance disposal technician, a member of the elite bomb squad, as was
I, and everyone called him Scotty. He left behind a wife and two children. He
was 42 years old.
Forty-two. Scotty served 24 years, most of them at war, and he did it by choice.
In the days after his death, I spoke to a number of his friends and fellow
E.O.D. technicians to ask why he made that choice, to go back after already
completing at least five tours in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. They all gave
basically the same answer, and if you are as war-weary as I am, you may be
surprised to hear it: Scotty wanted to go to Syria, they told me, to finish the
long fight, to do his part until the job was done.
The longest conflict in American history — from Afghanistan to Iraq, to
high-value target missions throughout Africa and the Middle East — has resulted
in the nation’s first sustained use of the all-volunteer military, wounding and
killing more and more service members who resemble Scotty: parents, spouses,
career men and women. When compared with casualties of the Vietnam War, the
average age of our dead in this conflict, and the proportion who are married,
have both risen 20 percent. And that trend is accelerating as the burden of the
fight shifts more and more to older, highly trained counterterrorism forces. As
The Times reported recently, of the 18 service members lost in combat since
2016, 12 were Special Operations troops like Scotty.
Our country has created a self-selected and battle-hardened cohort of frequent
fliers, one that is almost entirely separate from mainstream civilian culture,
because service in the Forever War, as many of us call it, isn’t so much about
going as returning. According to data provided by the Center for a New American
Security, of the 2.7 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, half have done
multiple tours. More telling, 223,000 have gone at least four times, and 51,000
have done six or more deployments.
“There are some 40-year-old sled dogs that Uncle Sam has been relying on since
9/11,” one of Scotty’s friends said. “They’ll pull and they’ll pull till their
The Forever War is unlikely to end soon, and for those not in the military,
continued voluntary service in this perpetual conflict can be hard to
understand. Popular explanations — poor outside job prospects, educational
enticements, the brashness of youth — don’t hold up under scrutiny. Unemployment
has returned to historic lows, there are many ways to go to college that don’t
involve prolonged combat, and take it from me, bluster fades the first time you
pick through the carnage from a bomb blast in a playground. No one truly wants
to go back to see more of that.
If survival instincts were all-powerful, no one of sound mind would volunteer
for military service in wartime. This is the crux of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel
“Catch-22,” set in World War II. The main character, Yossarian, and his fellow
bomber pilots count their missions. They are told they can go home after a
certain number of bombing runs, but just as the end seems in sight, commanders
raise the number. Yossarian experiences a certain bureaucratic horror of being
stuck in a system, trapped, knowing he’ll die before reaching the always
out-of-reach final run. The only way out is to say you’re crazy. Crazy pilots
can’t fly, but, as Heller writes, “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty
isn’t really crazy.” This is the Catch-22. Heller’s point is that
self-preservation is not merely sane, but the only sane response to never-ending
war. If this logic held sway now, all of America’s soldiers would have left Iraq
at the first opportunity and stayed home.
So why did Scotty continue to do one of the most demanding and dangerous jobs in
the United States military, in Syria of all places, when he could have retired
“He wanted to stay in the fight,” said a current member of his E.O.D. unit who,
like all of his active-duty comrades, asked not to be named. “Not to be a
daredevil. To lead men. It’s service.”
At its core, explosive ordnance disposal work is about lifesaving, not killing.
It is not simply feral id, but rather id ennobled, harnessed in the interest of
protecting others. In Iraq and Afghanistan, many explosive devices are meant to
harm civilians. Every bomb is defused, no matter the intended target, and in so
doing the country is left just a little safer for everyone.
The job shifts a bit, though, when you’re working as part of a Special
Operations team, as Scotty was when he was killed. The E.O.D. technician becomes
the defender of some of the toughest men produced by our nation’s military. He
or she has to do everything the assault force does — rappel from the helicopter,
clear the room, snatch the target — but backward. Instead of turning away from
the bomb, the technician runs in. “Scotty could admit when he was scared,” said
Clay Swansen, a longtime friend, “but he never backed down.” E.O.D. technicians
always prefer maximum distance and time when disarming a device, but on a raid,
you have neither. The work is often done by hand, in seconds.
“When you do a job like that,” a fellow chief said, “you accept the
probabilities. The standard is death. It’s not bravado. That’s kid stuff. It’s
functionality and responsibility.”
It is sadly appropriate that an E.O.D. technician should be the first American
military casualty of the Syrian war. Since the roadside bomb became synonymous
with terrorism, the men and women who disarm those devices, catalog them,
exploit their intelligence and track the bomb makers have played a central role
in the so-called war on terror. In response, the war has extracted an outsize
pound of flesh. There are only a few thousand of us, but Scotty was the 133rd
E.O.D. technician killed since Sept. 11.
Friends describe Scotty as funny and humble, but also fiercely protective. “He
wanted to be the guy downrange so other people didn’t have to be,” another
comrade said. “The most experienced of us don’t feel comfortable sending the
junior guys alone into harm’s way.”
Those junior members of the team would be in more danger because they lacked
experience. Several members of Scotty’s unit told me that only about two dozen
E.O.D. technicians have the qualifications and experience to do their
clandestine missions in Syria.
Scotty went back to combat because the volunteer list was short, and he could
shield his younger teammates and fulfill his particular duty to Iraq.
“It’s not vengeance,” a fellow E.O.D. chief said, “but we do have unfinished
In our current war, American service men and women have been killed in combat in
Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, the Philippines, Jordan, Yemen and now
Syria, at least. It’s hard to nail down a full list, because our Special
Operations forces work in obscure places with minimal public knowledge. The wars
have been going on so long that we Americans have had time to cheer, and then
protest, and then cheer again when we thought they might end, and then forget
when they didn’t.
Meanwhile, our country has trained the men and women of the military to never
give up. For many of those who served, then chose to go back for another tour,
and another, and another, there is meaning to be found in living up to that
Brian Castner is a former explosive ordnance disposal officer and the author of
“The Long Walk” and “All the Ways We Kill and Die.”
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 12, 2017,
on Page SR3 of the New York edition with the headline:
Still Fighting, and Dying, in the Forever War.
Still Fighting, and Dying, in the Forever War,
MARCH 9, 2017,