Local Marine reflects on 2 tours in Afghanistan and what U.S. withdrawal meant to those on the ground

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan - Matthew Palozola
U.S. Marines in Afghanistan - Matthew Palozola(Matthew Palozola)
Published: Jan. 22, 2022 at 5:35 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, which came to an unofficial end in August of 2021, was a defining chapter, not only for the countries involved in the conflict, but also the men, women and children who were part of the ongoing fight. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan wasn’t an end for everyone; for some, it was a beginning to a new, all familiar round of chaos, tragedy and oppression.

This article will not address the political history of the conflict. We instead aim to show how it shaped life for those physically present for the bullets, bombs, and myriad other weapons of war over two decades, and beyond. It’s been weeks since the U.S. withdrawal overwhelmed news headlines and social media feeds, but those who are directly affected by the conflict want the conversation to continue.

To see it from the eyes of those who fought the war, you’ll hear from Matthew Palozola, a local Marine who served two deployments in Afghanistan. We also talked to an Afghan refugee who was forced out of his home and resettled in St. Louis in 2000. You can read his story at this link. The following has been edited for clarity and flow, and will often just be Palozola’s story, as it was told to us.

“The country of Afghanistan was and still is in infancy”

Matthew Palozola’s first deployment to Afghanistan was in 2009, when the country held its first democratic election, the first time the country would officially, on-paper, be ruled by an entity other than the Taliban. During his second deployment in 2010 and 2011, Palozola and his fellow Marines increased their efforts to train the Afghan army and police force but were still primarily running operations.

“We’ve been fighting there for 20 years, yes, but as far as the country of Afghanistan and their new government, military and security forces, it was- and still is- in its infancy.

We were working with the Afghan National Police and training them, putting on classes, but we were pretty much running the show as far as operations went. That was in the initial push in southern Afghanistan when the Taliban still had a heavy presence there.

Then when I went back 2010 to 2011 was really when the start of the training, trying to let them handle their own country type of situation started. Once certain areas were pretty stabilized, we started letting the Afghan forces kind of lead their own patrols after receiving months of training from us. We would only send out maybe three or four Marines in an advisory capacity and kind of try to let them run things. Now they wouldn’t be significant operations, just security patrols in the area.

We wanted to make sure they were capable and knew what they were doing, but at that time they were 100% not ready and that was 10 years ago and it takes longer than 10 years to establish a national army and a national security force for a country to be able to defend itself against anybody.

It’s going to take a long time to be able to establish the proper protocols, the proper training, the proper vetting, which is another issue we ran into. Not where I personally was but during the timeframe I was there, there were a lot of insider attacks where the Taliban had infiltrated the Afghan National Army because there wasn’t a lot of security and vetting because they needed to grow their numbers and they didn’t really have a good system of doing it.”

“They know nothing but war”

The Taliban harshly enforce strict Islamic Sharia laws within their own interpretation, including repressive measures on women and culture. During the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they prevented girls from getting an education, banned women from working jobs outside healthcare, forced women to wear a burqa in public and required them to always be accompanied by a male relative.

“The Taliban, they know nothing but war. The Taliban don’t know democratic process, they don’t know freedom, they know war and their ideals that they live by.

We got to see it firsthand when we’d go into different villages we were occupying and fighting against the Taliban and trying to push them out from these areas. We’d get to these areas, the locals were scared, they were scared to go outside, they were scared to come out and do the farming or anything because they knew the Taliban was always watching.

A lot of people didn’t want to talk to us. People are being kidnapped and executed because the Taliban was still trying to control the area and they needed to do everything they could to prevent us from pushing them out. They were operating in a certain capacity where they were hiding in the shadows, but their presence was still there.”

“We knew why we were there”

Palozola, like thousands of other veterans whose mission was to defeat the Taliban, witnessed communities come out of turmoil and injustice and slowly step into stability and freedom. He struggled to watch all the progress erased as the Taliban’s oppressive regime swiftly retook the country when America’s military withdrew.

“We would established security in these areas to where the people went from being scared to talk to us, being scared to come out of their homes, to where they’d be coming out, kids playing outside. They’d be just living their lives like normal. The people were excited to see us walking by. They’d come out and talk to us, they’d offer us chai, the elders would invite us over to their homes.

For those of us who were on the ground, in the villages, out on patrol bases, interacting with the locals, doing security operations, we knew why we were there. We were giving these people the ability to live a life that they choose under their own terms instead of under intimidation and fear. I got to see the transition on two different deployments.

To help these people be free and live a free life but then to see that ripped away from them. I just feel bad because these people who got to have this taste of freedom for 10, 15, maybe 20 years depending on what area they were in, they lived this life of freedom and it’s getting ripped away from them in a matter of weeks and it’s a failure of leadership from our country.

We won on every aspect of the ground, of taking ground from the Taliban. We were fighting a war with our hands tied behind our backs and we still won ground. We gave these villages back to the people who lived there.

From a political side, how they handled things from the top down, whether it be pulling troops out to make people happy for political reasons because they don’t think we need to be there, it’s frustrating to see those things have an effect on so many lives of the local people in Afghanistan.”

“They’re just people like you and me”

“I just worry about them because there’s a lot of great people. They’re just people like you and me. I’ve been over there. I’ve seen these people. Yeah they live a different lifestyle but they just want to live their own lifestyle the way they want to and it’s sad and disheartening to see now that so many people are not going to have that life anymore because of hasty calls and judgement calls.

The bad thing is that we can only get a handful of people away from that and there’s still an entire country of people who are still stuck there and that’s a failure on our part for doing a hasty withdrawal, withdrawing our troops when the country wasn’t ready for that yet.

The people of Afghanistan who are still there, who are going to be living under this tyrannical rule, they’re not going to be able to live the life they want, they’re going to be living a life under an extreme threat at all times. Little girls aren’t going to be allowed to go to school, women are going to be treated as property. Men who want their daughters to learn can be punished for teaching them.

It’s at the point of no return because the way we withdrew, the way the Taliban overtook the country so fast without the local forces putting up any fight and the Taliban seizing all the hardware and assets, vehicles, etcetera, that we left for the local forces for them to use to resist the Taliban, now the Taliban is stronger than they’ve ever been.

Like I said, the Taliban knows nothing but war. They don’t care about petitions, they don’t care about governments talking to them. They know war. They know that they are going to rule the country the way they want to rule it based on their ideas and beliefs. They don’t care about anything else. They don’t care about how other countries feel about how they do those things. So you have all these people who are still in this country, who are under these people’s rule and they have no way of escaping that without risking their lives.”