Howard Altman: On invasion’s anniversary, those with much at stake in Afghanistan look back

Bob Pennington, Mark Nutsch and Scott Neil lead the National Anthem during the NASCAR Bristol Motor Speedway Night Race on Aug. 18. The three former Green Berets were among the first U.S. forces to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. [Courtesy of Scott Neil]
Bob Pennington, Mark Nutsch and Scott Neil lead the National Anthem during the NASCAR Bristol Motor Speedway Night Race on Aug. 18. The three former Green Berets were among the first U.S. forces to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. [Courtesy of Scott Neil]
Published October 25 2018

In the early morning hours of Oct. 20, 2001, Mark Nutsch and Robert Pennington were Green Berets assigned to ODA 595. They were stepping off a helicopter to meet with members of the Northern Alliance who were fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida. About a month later, Scott Neil, a Green Beret with ODA 511, also arrived in Afghanistan.

The three were among the first wave of U.S. troops and CIA operatives sent into Afghanistan after the jihadi attacks of 9/11 to help topple the Taliban and dislodge al-Qaida, which plotted the attacks. Since then, more than 2,400 U.S. troops, including eight this year, have died in support of operations in Afghanistan, a fight that has also cost north of $1 trillion.

As they talked about old times during a commemoration at the Bad Monkey bar in Ybor City, Afghanistan remained in the news. Days earlier, an insider attack at the governor’s palace in Kandahar killed Afghan Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq, the province’s powerful police chief and a key U.S. ally.

Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley was one of two Americans wounded and Scott Miller, the four-star Army general in charge of U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, was forced to draw his weapon, according to some media reports.

Meanwhile, four million Afghans braved threats from the Taliban to vote in parliamentary elections, while talks with the insurgent group about the future remain ongoing.

So I asked each of the men, as well as a Gold Star father of a son who was killed in the worst Special Operations Forces disaster ever, now what?

•••

"We have to remain engaged in that country," said Nutsch, now 48 and living in St. Petersburg, where the three are part of a group of former Green Berets who own American Freedom Distillery.

"It will take another generation of American and international support, not just militarily, but economically, to stabilize that country. As long as the Afghan government wants American and international support, I truly believe we need to be there."

What if the United States pulls out?

"I don’t even want to think about it," he said. "It would be abandoning our allies."

•••

"We basically took Afghanistan with less than 100 people then brought in all these other forces," said Pennington, now 57 and living in Atlanta. "We wanted to stay as long as we could. Now we look back and we are bogged down for years and years to come."

Like Nutsch, Pennington feels a strong loyalty to the Afghans and says that the United States should maintain a presence, but not at the current level of about 15,000 troops.

"I think as long as we have Special Forces in there, we don’t need a large group of guys," he said.

•••

Neil, 50, said that "if you look at it, there have been about six different strategies in Afghanistan in 17 years and there was only one that worked — small teams empowered with support through the nation with a very particular mission, to expel the Taliban from power and dislodge al-Qaida. And yet today it is a 100 percent total different mission with no success, no measurable measure of metrics, or anything."

Neil said "some kind of support is needed, but just the volumes of soldiers and the volumes of monetary and political support — that’s not what is needed. So if it hasn’t solved it yet, why is a little more going to help? I don’t know."

Neil has additional perspective. Like his friend, Gen. Miller, he has a son in the Army about to deploy to Afghanistan.

"What I don’t want to have happen, my son sacrifices the best years of his life without the purpose," Neil said.

•••

Scott Bill, 69, of Sarasota, knows all too well what sacrifice means. On Aug. 6, 2011, his son, Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Brian Bill, 31, was flying in a helicopter, call sign Extortion 17, that was shot down, killing Brian Bill and 37 others.

"You just can’t balance out freedom and death and courage and the selfless sacrifice of our guys," Bill said. "The Afghan people deserve to have what they want, freedom from all these other groups out there that want to take control. It’s tough but we have to stay there and I am glad that President Trump increased the number of troops there."

•••

The Pentagon announced no new U.S. troop deaths last week.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 54 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 56 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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