Oil and gas are not the reason the US has attacked Afghanistan, but Afghanistan has long had a key place in US plans to secure control of the vast but landlocked oil and gas reserves of Central Asia. Though the primary US motivation is to destroy Osama bin Laden’s sanctuary in Afghanistan, another, rather more pecuniary objective is also on the agenda, particularly in the search for an alternative government in Kabul. With the Taliban out of Kabul and the search for a new Afghan government on center stage, one criterion on Washington’s mind will be how best to make Afghanistan safe for a couple of billion-dollar pipeline investments.
In the case of the great natural gas and oil fields of Turkmenistan, immediately north of Afghanistan, the US government has for a decade strongly supported plans by US-led business groups for both an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to the Arabian sea via Afghanistan and a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. Such pipelines would serve important US interests in a number of ways:
- Drawing the Central Asian oil states away from the Russian sphere of influence and establishing the foundation for a strong US position
- Thwarting the development of Iranian regional influence by limiting Turkmenistan-Iranian gas links and thwarting a plan for a Turkmenistan-Iran oil pipeline to the Arabian Sea.
- Diversify US sources of oil and gas, and, by increasing production sources, help keep prices low
Benefiting US oil and construction companies with growing interests in the region
- Providing a basis for much-needed economic prosperity in the region, which might provide a basis for political stability.
For much of the 1990s the United States supported the Taliban’s rise to power, both by encouraging the involvement of US oil companies, and by implicitly tolerating Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two of its key regional allies, in their direct financial and military support for the Taliban. The Taliban, which is committed to a particularly primitive vision of Sunni Islam, had the added advantage for the US of being deeply hostile to Shia Muslims in neighboring Iran (as well as within Afghanistan).
A crucial condition for building the pipelines is political stability in Afghanistan, and for a time the US believed the Taliban could provide just that. Had it not been for the Taliban’s apparent tolerance of the former US-supported Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban’s highly visible extremely repressive attitude to women and other social issues, the US would most likely have continued its support for the Taliban, and the construction of the pipelines would have got underway in the late 90s. Certainly Iran believed that the US was behind Pakistani and Saudi support for the Taliban as part of a long-term plan to contain Iran. But as so often before, US foreign policy based on the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” helped generate the conditions that allowed the New York and Washington atrocities to be conceived.
The key to Central Asian politics is economic development in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, all of which are amongst the poorest parts of the former Soviet Union. Most are authoritarian dictatorships of the most dismal kind. For the past ten years the US has been wooing the governments of these countries, and opening the doors for profitable investment by US companies.
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan make up the eastern side of the Caspian Sea Basin, beneath which lie oil reserves to rival those of Saudi Arabia and the world’s richest reserves of natural gas. If you read the trade newspapers and websites of the world oil industry, words like “fabulous“, “huge“, “enormous” flow across the pages describing the Caspian Sea Basin gas and oil fields. But more importantly, these words go together with “undeveloped“, “isolated” and “politically unstable“. There are billions of dollars to be made there, but the possibility of realizing these fabulous profits hinges on one crucial issue: how is the gas and oil to get to its potential markets? While the countries of Central Asia may be floating on a sea of hydrocarbon, they are far from both actual seas and centres of industry. – and deep in the heart of Islam
In the past the Caspian republics exported most of their oil and gas to a pipeline grid integrated into the rest of the Soviet Union/Russia. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the terms of trade became very sharp. In the 1990s the ex-Soviet buyers of Caspian hydrocarbons could no longer afford to pay world prices. And Gazprom, the old Soviet oil company that owned the pipelines, was selling its own oil in competition with that of the Caspian republics. In 1997, Gazprom denied Turkmenistan access to its pipelines over a payment dispute, resulting in a devastating 25% drop in the Turkmenistan GDP. The ex-Soviet Russian pipeline network itself is past its use-by date, having been sloppily built with out-of-date technology, and itself needs billions of dollars simply to renovate it.
A small number of new pipelines have been built, but many more are, as they say, in the pipeline. But all have costs in the billions, and each of the possible routes from the Caspian Sea Basin – west, south, southeast and east – has very serious political difficulties. If Afghan political turmoil could be ended, there are literally billions of dollars to be made by US and Japanese companies, by the Turkmenistan, Afghan and Pakistani governments, and one key element of US planning for Central Asian regional hegemony would be achieved.
The Northern Route: from the Caspian through Russia
An existing Russian pipeline to the huge oil terminal on the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk could be linked to the new fields in Azerbaijan and later Kazakhstan. A plan for this “Northern Route” involving the Caspian Sea Pipeline Consortium of Russian and foreign corporations is pressing ahead, but faces several severe obstacles. The first is the war in Chechnya, through which the first phase of this pipeline passes. The second is that the US is opposed to it for precisely the reasons that Russia likes it: it would be good for Russia. The third is that Turkey is uneasy about increasing Russian oil and gas tanker traffic exiting the Black sea through the already over-crowded 17 mile-long Bosphorus/Turkish Straits which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and which now carry 1.7 million barrels/day of oil alone.
The Western Route (2): via Georgia to Turkey
In late September of this year, Azerbaijan and Georgia agreed on terms for passage rights across Georgia of a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey to start exports in 2004. In total, the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline will cost about $1 billion, but would open the way to Azerbaijani gas reaching either Turkish domestic markets or onward to Europe. This would fit with EU planning to create a gas grid stretching from the Caspian to the Atlantic. Georgia is still politically unstable, but more importantly, this route is not especially suitable for the states to the east of the Caspian Sea – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Anything involving the Caspian Sea itself is regarded as extremely sensitive by oil companies because in the mess left by the break-up of the Soviet Union, there is no accepted legal framework for governing the Caspian Sea itself. The US has been pressing hard for the project to come on line quickly, both because it would begin the flow of serious investment funds, and because it would strengthen its current favourite for regional strongman, Turkey, against its former favourite, Iran.
The Eastern Route: China
Another possibility of considerable importance for East Asia and Japan would be a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang in China, and then into the Chinese gas grid to the industrialized east coast – and possibly on to Japan. The problem however is the huge distance involved – more than 7,000 km. – and very rugged terrain in places. According to a study prepared jointly by Mitsubishi, Exxon and China National Petroleum, such a pipeline would cost more than $10 billion. There is also a small problem of providing a tempting and vulnerable target to separatist movements in China’s western provinces. China National Petroleum recently abandoned an agreement with Kazakhstan to construct an oil pipeline east because of disagreements about cost. However, China is seriously interested in Caspian Sea hydrocarbon resources, and has even reported an interest in a pipeline to the Arabian sea, with a view to importing gas and oil by supertanker.
The Southern Route: Iran
Turkmenistan shares a long border with Iran, and there is already a gas pipeline linking it to the northern region of Iran, where most of Iran’s industry is located. Iran, of course, itself has very large gas and oil reserves, but these are located in the south of the country, close to the Persian Gulf. An expansion of the Turkmenistan-Iran relationship could be beneficial to both states. More importantly, it would provide another route to Turkey, and hence Europe, or to the Indian Ocean. However, the prosperity of Iran is not something viewed with great favour in Washington. Nonsense about rogue states apart, Washington’s core concern about Iran is its role as the natural dominant power in the Persian Gulf. When the Shah was in power, this was to be lauded; come the Iranian revolution, to be abhorred. As French, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, Malaysian and Russian companies have moved back into a politically changing Iran, American oil and construction companies have long been nudging Washington to soften its stance toward Iran, and in particular to abandon the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. But until Washington is sure it can control ensure the safety of its own oil interests in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf states, there is little likelihood of Washington supporting a major Iranian pipeline for Caspian Sea Basin gas.
The Southeastern Route: Afghanistan to Pakistan
For gas exporters, cost rises with length of pipeline. The shortest and cheapest export route for Turkmenistan oil and for its vast gas reserves is through Afghanistan, and serious planning for both oil and gas pipeline construction by US companies has long been in place. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed in 1997 to build a large Central Asian Gas pipeline through the less mountainous southern parts of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and then possibly on to the growing market of India. The Central Asian Gas Pipeline Consortium was made up of Unocal (US, 47% share), Delta Oil (Saudi Arabia, 15%), Government of Turkmenistan (7%), Itochu Oil Exploration (Japan, 6.5%), Indonesia Petroleum [INPEX] (Japan, 6.5%), Hyundai Engineering and Construction (5%), and the Crescent Group (Pakistan, 3.5%). Unocal was the lead developer, much encouraged by the US government. In December 1997, senior officials of the US Department of Energy meeting in Washington with Taliban ministers put their blessing on the enterprise.
The $1.9 billion Centgas pipeline is to be 120 cm. in diameter, and to run 1271 kilometers from the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border, due south and then east, generally following the Herat – Kandahar road, then cross the Pakistan border at Quetta, terminating at Mulat. The Turkmenistan government has agreed to build a short pipeline to the huge Dauletabad gas field. 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year will flow down the pipeline, and the Turkmenistan government has guaranteed to deliver 708 billion cubic meters of gas to the consortium – equivalent to the entire reserves of the Dauletabad field.
Just how much the consortium stands to make depends on many factors, especially fluctuations in the price and demand for natural gas in the markets of East and Southeast Asia. But there are clearly huge profits to be made. And for Pakistan and Turkmenistan, as well as Afghanistan, the project would be immensely beneficial. For Afghanistan it would be the first major foreign investment since the Soviet invasion in 1979. For Pakistan it could be a key to the next stage of industrialization. Just how much the Centgas consortium agreed to pay the Taliban for transit rights is unknown. But Unocal’s competitor in the race to build an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan through western Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea coast of Pakistan — the Argentinian company, Bridas — was reported to have offered the Taliban $1 billion in transit fees, plus a considerable amount of railroad track, road construction, and a police post building every 20 km. along the pipeline to by garrisoned by Taliban troops.
The US government pressured Turkmenistan to give preference to the Unocal-led Centgas consortium over Bridas. In 1997 Centgas got the gas pipeline contract, but by the time it was ready to commence work, the political situation in Afghanistan that had looked promising to US eyes in the mid-1990s had deteriorated. Civil war continued, the Taliban’s cultural extremism and hostility to women had exploded in the world media, and Afghanistan had become a major terrorist base. In August 1998, the US attacked bin Laden’s Afghanistan camps, and four months later, Unocal pulled out of Centgas. The combination of instability, pressure from the US government and attacks from shareholders and women’s groups in the US was too much.
With Afghanistan at war with itself and the United States, the alluring Centgas project was on hold, despite repeated efforts to re-start the consortium by the governments of Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. With the profits to be made so enormous, Unocal was reported to be trying to edge back into the project last year. But in addition to its obvious problems in Afghanistan, Unocal is being sued in a US court for use of Burmese forced labour over its Thailand-Burma project. (If this case succeeds, it will be the first occasion in which a US court has held a US corporation legally responsible for foreign human rights violations related to its profit-making activities; Unocal could face many millions in damage awards.) And the United States government imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar, banning new investment, largely because of the domestic reaction to Unocal’s exploitation of Burmese forced labour organized by the Myanmar dictatorship.
Meanwhile Unocal remains the lead developer on the consortium to build a 105-cm diameter 1700 kilometer-long oil pipeline from northern Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to a Pakistani port on the Arabian Sea. A Unocal spokesman boasted to Congress that it would compare with the giant (and environmentally risky) Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Unocal – and Japanese – executives regard this $2.5 billion plan as by far the cheapest and least difficult way of bringing Turkmenistan’s oil to the sea, where it can be loaded onto supertankers bound for Japan and Korea, and possibly China..
Oil and gas are not the direct causes of the war in Afghanistan, but understanding the motives of long-term US policy towards that country is important. The pursuit of hydrocarbon interests has been a constant of US policy in the region for more than half a century. Having created the mujahadin resistance to fight the Soviets during the Cold War, the US then lost interest in the country, and allowed its former clients to destroy it. In order to gain the stability necessary for oil and gas operations, it flirted with the Taliban, until finally the whirlwind its earlier support for the mujahadin had created came blowing back home as a terrorist horror.
There is a great map of all the Central Asian pipelines at the end of the following file:
In light of the United States’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, journalist Steve Coll’s podcast appearance from 2018 shows exactly why the U.S. was always doomed in Afghanistan. Ana Kasparian and Cenk Uygur discuss on The Young Turks. Watch LIVE weekdays 6-8 pm ET. http://youtube.com/theyoungturks/live
WASHINGTON The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.
The previously unknown deposits including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.
The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.
While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war.
“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
The value of the newly discovered mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing war-bedraggled economy, which is based largely on opium production and narcotics trafficking as well as aid from the United States and other industrialized countries. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion.
“This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy,” said Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan minister of mines.
American and Afghan officials agreed to discuss the mineral discoveries at a difficult moment in the war in Afghanistan. The American-led offensive in Marja in southern Afghanistan has achieved only limited gains. Meanwhile, charges of corruption and favoritism continue to plague the Karzai government, and Mr. Karzai seems increasingly embittered toward the White House.
So the Obama administration is hungry for some positive news to come out of Afghanistan. Yet the American officials also recognize that the mineral discoveries will almost certainly have a double-edged impact.
Instead of bringing peace, the newfound mineral wealth could lead the Taliban to battle even more fiercely to regain control of the country.
The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. Just last year, Afghanistan’s minister of mines was accused by American officials of accepting a $30 million bribe to award China the rights to develop its copper mine. The minister has since been replaced.
Endless fights could erupt between the central government in Kabul and provincial and tribal leaders in mineral-rich districts. Afghanistan has a national mining law, written with the help of advisers from the World Bank, but it has never faced a serious challenge.
“No one has tested that law; no one knows how it will stand up in a fight between the central government and the provinces,” observed Paul A. Brinkley, deputy undersecretary of defense for business and leader of the Pentagon team that discovered the deposits.
At the same time, American officials fear resource-hungry China will try to dominate the development of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which could upset the United States, given its heavy investment in the region. After winning the bid for its Aynak copper mine in Logar Province, China clearly wants more, American officials said.
Another complication is that because Afghanistan has never had much heavy industry before, it has little or no history of environmental protection either. “The big question is, can this be developed in a responsible way, in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible?” Mr. Brinkley said. “No one knows how this will work.”
With virtually no mining industry or infrastructure in place today, it will take decades for Afghanistan to exploit its mineral wealth fully. “This is a country that has no mining culture,” said Jack Medlin, a geologist in the United States Geological Survey’s international affairs program. “They’ve had some small artisanal mines, but now there could be some very, very large mines that will require more than just a gold pan.”
The mineral deposits are scattered throughout the country, including in the southern and eastern regions along the border with Pakistan that have had some of the most intense combat in the American-led war against the Taliban insurgency.
The Pentagon task force has already started trying to help the Afghans set up a system to deal with mineral development. International accounting firms that have expertise in mining contracts have been hired to consult with the Afghan Ministry of Mines, and technical data is being prepared to turn over to multinational mining companies and other potential foreign investors. The Pentagon is helping Afghan officials arrange to start seeking bids on mineral rights by next fall, officials said.
“The Ministry of Mines is not ready to handle this,” Mr. Brinkley said. “We are trying to help them get ready.”
Like much of the recent history of the country, the story of the discovery of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth is one of missed opportunities and the distractions of war.
In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
During the chaos of the 1990s, when Afghanistan was mired in civil war and later ruled by the Taliban, a small group of Afghan geologists protected the charts by taking them home, and returned them to the Geological Survey’s library only after the American invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
“There were maps, but the development did not take place, because you had 30 to 35 years of war,” said Ahmad Hujabre, an Afghan engineer who worked for the Ministry of Mines in the 1970s.
Armed with the old Russian charts, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006, using advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment attached to an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft that flew over about 70 percent of the country.
The data from those flights was so promising that in 2007, the geologists returned for an even more sophisticated study, using an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface. It was the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.
The handful of American geologists who pored over the new data said the results were astonishing.
But the results gathered dust for two more years, ignored by officials in both the American and Afghan governments. In 2009, a Pentagon task force that had created business development programs in Iraq was transferred to Afghanistan, and came upon the geological data. Until then, no one besides the geologists had bothered to look at the information and no one had sought to translate the technical data to measure the potential economic value of the mineral deposits.
Soon, the Pentagon business development task force brought in teams of American mining experts to validate the survey’s findings, and then briefed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Mr. Karzai.
So far, the biggest mineral deposits discovered are of iron and copper, and the quantities are large enough to make Afghanistan a major world producer of both, United States officials said. Other finds include large deposits of niobium, a soft metal used in producing superconducting steel, rare earth elements and large gold deposits in Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan.
Just this month, American geologists working with the Pentagon team have been conducting ground surveys on dry salt lakes in western Afghanistan where they believe there are large deposits of lithium. Pentagon officials said that their initial analysis at one location in Ghazni Province showed the potential for lithium deposits as large of those of Bolivia, which now has the world’s largest known lithium reserves.
For the geologists who are now scouring some of the most remote stretches of Afghanistan to complete the technical studies necessary before the international bidding process is begun, there is a growing sense that they are in the midst of one of the great discoveries of their careers.
“On the ground, it’s very, very, promising,” Mr. Medlin said. “Actually, it’s pretty amazing.”
Where did Donald Trump come from? Where is the GOP going? Should the whole thing be burned down? A lot had to go wrong before we got a President Trump. This fact, once broadly acknowledged, has gotten lost, as if a lot of people want it forgotten.
Mr. Trump’s election came from two unwon wars, which constituted a historic foreign-policy catastrophe, and the Great Recession, which those in power, distracted by their mighty missions, didn’t see coming until it arrived with all its wreckage. He came from the decadeslong refusal of both parties’ leadership to respect and respond to Americans’ anxieties, from left and right, about illegal immigration. He came from bad policy and bad stands on crucial issues.
He came from the growing realization of on-the-ground Americans that neither party seemed to feel any particular affiliation with or loyalty to them, that both considered them lumpen bases to be managed and manipulated. He came from the great and increasing social and cultural distance between the movers and talkers of the national GOP, its strategists, operatives, thinkers, pundits and party professionals, and the party’s base. He came from algorithms that deliberately excite, divide and addict, and from lawmakers who came to see that all they had to do to endure was talk, not legislate, because legislating involves compromise and, in an era grown polar and primitive, compromise is for quislings.
He came from a spirit of frustration among a sizable segment of the electorate that, in time, became something like a spirit of nihilism. It will be a long time repairing that, and no one is sure how to.
And here, in that perfect storm, was Mr. Trump’s simple, momentary genius. He declared for president as a branding exercise and went out and said applause lines, and when the crowd cheered, he decided “This is my program,” and when it didn’t cheer, he thought, “Huh, that is not my program.” Some of it was from his gut, but most of it was that casual. After the election a former high official told me he observed it all from the side of the stage. This week the official said that after a rally, on the plane home, all Mr. Trump and Jared Kushner would talk about was the reaction. “Did you see how they responded to that?”
The base, with its cheers, said they weren’t for cutting entitlement benefits. They were still suffering from the effects of 2008, and other things. They weren’t for open borders or for more foreign fighting. They were for the guy who said he hated the elites as much as they did.
The past four years have produced a different kind of disaster, one often described in this space. The past six months Mr. Trump came up against his own perfect storm, one he could neither exploit nor talk his way past: a pandemic, an economic contraction that will likely produce a lengthy recession, and prolonged, sometimes violent national street protests. If the polls can be trusted, he is on the verge of losing the presidency.
Now various of his foes, in or formerly of his party, want to burn the whole thing down—level the party, salt the earth where it stood, remove Republican senators, replace them with Democrats.
This strikes me as another form of nihilism. It’s bloody-minded and not fully responsible for three reasons.
First, it’s true that the two-party system is a mess and a great daily frustration. But in the end, together and in spite of themselves, both parties still function as a force for unity in that when an election comes, whatever your disparate stands, you have to choose whether you align more with Party A or Party B. This encourages coalitions and compromise. It won’t work if there are four parties or six; things will splinter, the system buckle. The Democratic Party needs the Republican Party, needs it to restrain its excesses and repair what it does that proves injurious. The Republicans need the Democrats, too, for the same reasons.
Second, if the Republicans lose the presidency, the House and the Senate in November, the rising progressives of the Democratic Party will be emboldened and present a bill for collection. They’ll push hard for what they want. This will create a runaway train that will encourage bad policy that will damage the nation. Republicans and conservatives used to worry about that kind of thing.
Third, Donald Trump is burning himself down. Has no one noticed?
When the Trump experience is over, the Republican Party will have to be rebuilt. It will have to begin with tens of millions of voters who previously supported Mr. Trump. It will have to decide where it stands, its reason for being. It won’t be enough to repeat old mantras or formulations from 1970 to 2000. It’s 2020. We’re a different country.
A lot is going to have to be rethought. Simple human persuasion will be key.
Rebuilding doesn’t start with fires, purges and lists of those you want ejected from the party.
Many if not most of those calling for burning the whole thing down are labeled “Never Trump,” and a lot of them are characterologically quick to point the finger of blame. They’re aiming at Trump supporters in Congress. Some of those lawmakers have abandoned long-held principles to show obeisance to the president and his supporters. Some, as you know if you watched the supposed grilling of tech titans this week, are just idiots.
But Never Trumpers never seem to judge themselves. Many of them, when they were profiting through past identities as Republicans or conservatives, supported or gave strategic cover to the wars that were such a calamity, and attacked those who dissented. Many showed no respect to those anxious about illegal immigration and privately, sometimes publicly, denounced them as bigots. Never Trumpers eloquently decry the vulgarization of politics and say the presidency is lowered by a man like Mr. Trump, and it is. But they invented Sarah Palin and unrelentingly attacked her critics. They often did it in the name of party loyalty.
Some Never Trumpers helped create the conditions that created President Trump. What would be helpful from them now is not pyromaniac fantasies but constructive modesty, even humility.
The party’s national leaders and strategists don’t have a lot to be proud of the past few decades. The future of the party will probably bubble up from the states.
But it matters that the past six months Mr. Trump has been very publicly doing himself in, mismanaging his crises—setting himself on fire. As long as that’s clear, his supporters won’t be able to say, if he loses, that he was a champion of the people who was betrayed by the party elites, the Never Trumpers and the deep state: “He didn’t lose, he was the victim of treachery.”
Both parties have weaknesses. Liberals enjoy claiming progress that can somehow never quite be quantified. Conservatives like the theme of betrayal.
It will be unhelpful for Republicans, and bad for the country, if that’s the background music of the party the next 10 years.
The investigation into Russia’s suspected operation is said to focus in part on the killings of three Marines in a truck bombing last year, officials said.
American officials provided a written briefing in late February to President Trump laying out their conclusion that a Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, two officials familiar with the matter said.
The investigation into the suspected Russian covert operation to incentivize such killings has focused in part on an April 2019 car bombing that killed three Marines as one such potential attack, according to multiple officials familiar with the matter.
The new information emerged as the White House tried on Monday to play down the intelligence assessment that Russia sought to encourage and reward killings — including reiterating a claim that Mr. Trump was never briefed about the matter and portraying the conclusion as disputed and dubious.
But that stance clashed with the disclosure by two officials that the intelligence was included months ago in Mr. Trump’s President’s Daily Brief document — a compilation of the government’s latest secrets and best insights about foreign policy and national security that is prepared for him to read. One of the officials said the item appeared in Mr. Trump’s brief in late February; the other cited Feb. 27, specifically.
Moreover, a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.
A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment on any connection between the Marines’ deaths and the suspected Russian plot. The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, did not answer when pressed by reporters on Monday whether the intelligence was included in the written President’s Daily Brief, and the National Security Council spokesman pointed to her comments when asked later about the February written briefing.
Late Monday, John Ratcliffe, the recently confirmed director of national intelligence, issued a statement warning that leaks about the matter were a crime.
“We are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting, and we will brief the president and congressional leaders at the appropriate time,” he said. “This is the analytic process working the way it should. Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”
The disclosures came amid a growing furor in Washington over the revelations in recent days that the Trump administration had known for months about the intelligence conclusion but the White House had authorized no response to Russia.
Top Democrats in the House and Senate demanded that all members of Congress be briefed, and the White House summoned a small group of House Republicans friendly to the president to begin explaining its position.
The lawmakers emerged saying that they were told the administration was reviewing reporting about the suspected Russian plot to assess its credibility. They also said the underlying intelligence was conflicting, echoing comments from Ms. McEnany that the information in the assessment had not been “verified” because, she said without detail, there were “dissenting opinions” among analysts or agencies.
“There was not a consensus among the intelligence community,” Ms. McEnany said. “And, in fact, there were dissenting opinions within the intelligence community, and it would not be elevated to the president until it was verified.”
Later Monday, Robert C. O’Brien, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, echoed her insistence that the reports were unsubstantiated.
But in denying that Mr. Trump was briefed, administration officials have been coy about how it is defining that concept and whether it includes both oral briefings and the President’s Daily Brief. “He was not personally briefed on the matter,” Ms. McEnany told reporters when asked specifically about the written briefing. “That is all I can share with you today.”
Mr. Trump is said to often neglect reading that document, preferring instead to receive an oral briefing summarizing highlights every few days. Even in those face-to-face meetings, he is particularly difficult to brief on national security matters. He often relies instead on conservative media and friends for information, current and former intelligence officials have said.
American intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan began raising alarms as early as January, and the National Security Council convened an interagency meeting to discuss the problem and what to do about it in late March, The New York Times has previously reported. But despite being presented with options, including a diplomatic protest and sanctions, the White House authorized no response.
The administration’s explanations on Monday, in public and in private, appeared to be an attempt to placate lawmakers, particularly Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans, alarmed by news reports in recent days revealing the existence of the intelligence assessment and Mr. Trump’s insistence he had not been warned of the suspected Russian plot.
The assessments pointing to a Russian scheme to offer bounties to Taliban-linked militants and criminals were based on information collected in raids and interrogations on the ground in Afghanistan, where American military commanders came to believe Russia was behind the plot, as well as more sensitive and unspecified intelligence that came in over time, an American official said.
Officials said there was disagreement among intelligence officials about the strength of the evidence about the suspected Russian plot and the evidence linking the attack on the Marines to the suspected Russian plot, but they did not detail those disputes.
Notably, the National Security Agency, which specializes in hacking and electronic surveillance, has been more skeptical about interrogations and other human intelligence, officials said.
Typically, the president is formally briefed when the information has been vetted and seen as sufficiently credible and important by the intelligence professionals. Such information would most likely be included in the President’s Daily Brief.
Former officials said that in previous administrations, accusations of such profound importance — even if the evidence was not fully established — were conveyed to the president. “We had two threshold questions: ‘Does the president need to know this?’ and ‘Why does he need to know it now?’” said Robert Cardillo, a former senior intelligence official who briefed President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2014.
David Priess, a former C.I.A. daily intelligence briefer and the author of “The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents,” said: “Many intelligence judgments in history have not had the consensus of every analyst who worked on it. That’s the nature of intelligence. It’s inherently dealing with uncertainty.”
Both Mr. Cardillo and Mr. Priess said previous presidents received assessments on issues of potentially vital importance even if they had dissents from some analysts or agencies. The dissents, they said, were highlighted for the president to help them understand uncertainties and the analytic process.
Lawmakers demanded to see the underlying material for themselves.
“This is a time to focus on the two things Congress should be asking and looking at: No. 1, who knew what, when, and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, each requested that all lawmakers be briefed on the matter and for C.I.A. and other intelligence officials to explain how Mr. Trump was informed of intelligence collected about the plot.
The White House began explaining its position directly to lawmakers in a carefully controlled setting. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff; Mr. Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence; and Mr. O’Brien briefed a handful of invited House Republicans. A group of House Democrats was scheduled to go to the White House on Tuesday morning to receive a similar briefing.
There was no indication after the session with Republicans whether they had been told that the information was included in Mr. Trump’s written briefing four months ago. But afterward, two of the Republicans — Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mac Thornberry of Texas — said that they “remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces” and would need additional briefings.
“It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan,” they said in a joint statement. “We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces.”
Other Republicans who attended the briefing were more sanguine. In an interview, Representative Chris Stewart of Utah said he saw nothing unusual about the purported decision not to orally inform Mr. Trump, particularly when the situation did not require the president to take immediate action.
“It just didn’t reach the level of credibility to bring it to the president’s attention,” he said, adding that military and intelligence agencies should continue to scrutinize Russia’s activities.
The Associated Press first reported that the intelligence community was examining the deaths of the three Marine reservists: Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Del.; Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, N.Y.; and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pa.
They were killed near Bagram Air Base when a vehicle laden with explosives hit their truck, wounding an Afghan contractor as well. The huge blast set fire to the truck, engulfing those inside in flames, while their fellow Marines tried to extricate them, a defense official said. A brief firefight ensued.
Gen. Zaman Mamozai, the former police chief of Parwan Province, where Bagram Airfield is, said that the Taliban there hire freelancers from local criminal networks, often blurring the lines of who carried out what attacks. He said the Taliban’s commanders were only based in two districts of the province, Seyagird and Shinwari, and from there they coordinate a more extensive network that largely commissions the services of criminals.
The Taliban have denied involvement. And a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Dmitry Peskov, told NBC News on Monday that reports of the Russian scheme were incorrect. He said that “none of the American representatives have ever raised this question” with their Russian counterparts through government or diplomatic channels.
The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, declined to comment on any connection between the Marines’ deaths and the suspected Russian plot. He also declined to say whether or when Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was briefed on the intelligence assessment and whether the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan resulted from the Russian bounties. But later Monday, Mr. Hoffman issued a statement saying that the Defense Department was monitoring intelligence on the matter and that it “has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports.”
Col. DeDe Halfhill, a spokeswoman for Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also declined to comment on the same questions.
Marine commando Randy Hoffman’s plane took off from Kabul, climbed over the jagged mountains and turned toward home.
Somewhere down there was his tent, a piece of canvas stretched across a pit he had carved into a high-altitude ridge. Randy had spent most of the previous 2½ years in the mountains along the Pakistan border, turning Afghan villagers into soldiers.
Rugs covered the tent’s dirt floor. He had a wood stove for heat and collected catalogs of farm equipment and RVs to remind him of home in Indiana. A metal thermos stored the goat’s milk and cucumber drink delivered each morning by the mountain men who fought alongside him. He and the Afghans would sit on a dirt bench, talking about poetry, faith and honor, and how to make it through the next day alive.
Randy’s camp watched over the narrow passes and smuggling paths used by al Qaeda and Taliban militants to sneak into Afghanistan from Pakistan. He kept mortars aimed at likely approaches. At times, he was the only American for miles.
On Randy’s last trip down the mountains, a caravan of Afghan fighters in Toyota pickups escorted him on the seven-hour drive to a U.S. base. From there, he caught a helicopter to Kabul and trimmed the beard he had grown so he wouldn’t stand out as a target during gunfights.
It was July 2005. As Randy headed home, he couldn’t escape one thought. U.S. troops had been in Afghanistan three years and nine months—as long as they had fought in World War II. Yet the Afghan war wasn’t close to won.
On the flight home, Randy pictured the many villagers lost in combat, men he had come to admire for their courage and strict sense of right and wrong. He thought about those left legless by militant bombings and now facing a life ahead in mud-brick compounds perched on mountainsides.
He turned away from the others on the plane and cried.
Since the first U.S. troops arrived in 2001, Afghanistan has become a generational war. The youngest recruits stepping off the bus at boot camp today were born after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that ignited the war they may soon fight.
Marine Corps Col. Randy Hoffman works with recruits at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C.
Col. Hoffman talks with a drill instructor.
Col. Randy Hoffman served seven combat tours in Afghanistan, six of them highly classified missions, and one stint in Iraq. Afghanistan brought him promotions. It rewarded the rural boy from Danville, Ind., with a bronze star medal for valor. It transformed a middling student into a scholar of history and war.
Afghanistan also nearly cost Randy his sanity. It buried friends. It almost ended his career. It ripped ragged edges around a gentle personality.
It strained his marriage and frightened his children. The family began referring to itself as Hoffmanistan, a dark joke reflecting Afghanistan’s long reach into their daily lives.
Eighteen years after the Sept. 11 hijackings spurred the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies, American troops are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan. Negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban have lurched forward and stumbled backward.
Length of U.S. involvement in major conflicts
Source: Congressional Research Service
Over the course of the war, 775,000 U.S. troops have fought in Afghanistan; 28,000 of them have served five or more tours. More than 2,300 Americans have died there, and 20,000 have suffered wounds, including amputated limbs and brain injuries.
A much larger number, more than 120,000, returned home with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the hidden wounds of America’s longest war.
Call of duty
Randy first kissed Dawn on the night before he left for boot camp in 1985.
She was the little sister of his best friend, and he had known her since she was 6 years old. They grew up during an era of skateboards and mullets in Danville, a town of 4,000 in the center of Indiana.
Dawn was an honor student at Danville High School. Randy brought up the rear. He gathered the nerve to ask her out when she was 15, and he was 18.
After Randy left for the Marines, Dawn waited for him. He earned a spot in an elite Force Reconnaissance platoon. She studied nursing.
They married in 1991, and the couple settled into an upstairs apartment in the house of Randy’s parents. They stocked it with furnishings salvaged from their childhood bedrooms.
Randy attended Indiana University and earned an officer’s commission. Military service was part of his heritage. His father and two uncles were Marines.
He was 2 years old in 1968 when his uncle Terry Hoffman, a helicopter crew chief, was shot down in Vietnam. The aircraft split in half, and Terry’s body was thrown far from the wreckage. He was still listed as missing in action after Saigon’s fall in 1975. Randy saw his grandmother cover her mouth in shock as she watched TV reports of the last Americans boarding helicopters, leaving her son behind.
A Vietnamese farmer found Terry’s remains and kept them. When the farmer died, his family gave a jawbone to authorities, who passed it along to a U.S. casualty-recovery team.
In 1994, Randy’s first duty as a second lieutenant was to escort Uncle Terry’s remains home. He knelt and handed his grandmother the American flag, folded tightly into a triangle, on behalf of “the president of the United States, the United States Marine Corps and a grateful nation.”
The day of the Sept. 11 attacks, Randy was at a Marine Corps school at the base near Quantico, Va. He had been having premonitions—a heads-up from God, he believed—about a terrible event.
Military officers asked students if any spoke Urdu, Arabic, Farsi or Pashto. Randy had studied Arabic in college, but he didn’t feel fluent enough to put up his hand. The military decided any Arabic was good enough.
Officials hustled Randy to a Navy office near the Pentagon and told him he would likely be deployed overseas on a secret special-operations mission. “We suggest you talk to your wife,” an officer told him.
By mid-2002, Randy was attached to Special Operations Command. He joined about 20 commandos assigned to recruit, train and lead Afghan militiamen who would become the core of an Afghan national guard.
The U.S. military was desperate to learn what was going on in Afghanistan, and Randy was ordered to collect intelligence about who was on whose side in the villages along the country’s mountainous border with Pakistan.
The U.S. had overthrown Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001, with a few thousand troops and Central Intelligence Agency operatives, as well as an alliance of Afghan militias. The fighting ebbed within months, and few people in the George W. Bush administration called for more forces after the surviving Taliban and their al Qaeda allies fled to Pakistan.
When Randy showed up in Khost province in January 2003, there were fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The Bush administration was weeks away from launching a full-scale invasion of Iraq. Afghanistan, if not forgotten, was largely considered won.
Eastern Afghanistan hosted an eclectic mix of allied troops: Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, reconnaissance Marines, regular infantry Marines, 101st Airborne paratroopers, CIA agents, Italian commandos, warlords, militiamen, tribal fighters and Afghan border police.
Randy lived and fought alongside another American for months without asking which secret outfit the man worked for.
While America’s attention was on Iraq, fanatical fighters, including Arabs, Chechens and other foreigners, probed Afghanistan’s defenses, trying to undo the 2001 defeat of Taliban rule.
Ethnic Pashtuns of eastern and southern Afghanistan made up the Taliban’s power base. Randy’s job was to persuade the tribesmen to ally with the U.S., and train them to defend the border against al Qaeda and Taliban militants.
He decided against living at a fortified military base and commuting to local villages. The risk of getting blown up on the road was too high. Instead, Randy set up five tented command posts along 60 miles of border, hiking from one to the other.
To woo the Pashtuns, Randy lived as they did. He let his hair and beard grow. He wore a loose Afghan tunic and trousers for meetings with elders. He slept on a mat on the floor of his tent or in the bed of his Toyota pickup. He ate apples and grapes, and broke four teeth on pebbles accidentally baked into local bread.
Randy visited villages to pick up word of roaming Arab fighters. He and other commandos set up impromptu clinics to distribute vaccines, malaria pills and Tylenol.
In villages hostile to the U.S., he handed out crayons and a coloring book he drew. The illustrations and Quranic verses explained why Americans had come to Afghanistan. “In the year 2001 on the 11 of September, evil and bad people named al Qaeda attacked America,” read the caption for a sketch of the Twin Towers in flames.
Randy explained to village leaders that al Qaeda had killed 3,000 from his clan. “I’m here to extract payment for this blood feud,” he said.
The Pashtuns understood. You’ve got a blood feud? We get it.
Randy came to rely on the son of a village elder to interpret. When the man was a teenager, his father had sent him to work with a U.K. charity that cleared munitions left by the Soviets when they fled Afghanistan in 1989. The village elder saw an opportunity for the boy to improve his language skills.
The son was 23 when Randy met him, and he spoke British-accented English that was unusually good for someone educated in rural Afghanistan.
He soon became Randy’s right hand. He translated when Randy gathered Pashtun warriors on a ridge and drew on a white board to illustrate how to take advantage of the terrain during firefights and how to conduct an ambush.
Randy taught map-reading, using an Afghanistan-shaped piece of peel from a grapefruit to show how a flat map represented part of a round planet.
The American started with a force of 250 village men. By the time he finished his sixth tour in 2005, Randy had trained 3,000. The U.S. paid inexperienced recruits $100 a month, and as much as $250 to a man trained by Soviets in the 1980s to handle explosives.
Enemy fighters wanted to move men and arms through the mountain passes in Afghanistan. The Marine and his Afghans were in the way. Randy’s camps were attacked several times a month. Sometimes it was a single shot or a rocket volley. Other times, dozens of al Qaeda fighters tried to overrun his positions.
U.S. attack helicopters could reach Randy and his men in minutes. During the most violent months, he called for help every other day to defend against attackers.
At first, the militants whom Randy and his men killed were Syrian, Yemeni, Sudanese and Chechen. As time went on, al Qaeda militants tried to stay out of danger by sending boys from Pakistani religious schools to set up ambushes and plant booby-traps in dry riverbeds used as roads. The boys hid nearby and triggered the explosives with garage-door openers.
Randy’s truck was in the lead on a patrol in 2003 when he stopped to check his radio. His Afghan comrades drove past him and over one of the hidden bombs. Eight men were blown to pieces.
A euphoria filled Randy, a feeling of being more alive than he had ever felt. Then a wave of grief washed away his near-death relief. He couldn’t stop thinking about one of the dead, a timid farmer who had volunteered to be a militia commander. Randy had been tough on him, and he wished he had just once told the man he was doing a good job.
In late 2004, Randy and a few trucks carrying his fighters drove down to a base in Jalalabad for fresh food and a break from the fighting. In a valley below, he spotted a convoy of Marine Corps Humvees.
Randy was excited to see some comrades. He found the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Norm Cooling, who eyed the Marine in long hair and beard.
I know that guy from somewhere, the colonel thought. Then it dawned on him. A decade earlier, when he was a company commander, Randy had been one of his most promising young lieutenants.
“Gee, Randy,” the colonel joked. “I didn’t know you had gotten out of the Marine Corps.”
Lt. Col. Cooling was eager for intelligence. With Iraq drawing the bulk of U.S. combat troops, his 1,000-man battalion had to defend six Afghan provinces encompassing 12,000 square miles. He would hopscotch across eastern Afghanistan and spend a few days with each infantry platoon. It was a hard winter, and he sometimes patrolled the highlands in snowshoes.
Randy’s mission was so classified he couldn’t even share details with a superior officer. Yet he gave Lt. Col. Cooling a who’s-who of local Pashtun tribes.
Manning the radio in the Marine convoy was a 21-year-old corporal named Eric Lueken, from Dubois, Ind. A year earlier, Eric, dissatisfied with working the night shift at a water-treatment plant, had walked into the recruiters office in Evansville, Ind., across from the Goodwill donation center and down the street from a strip club, Regina’s House of Dolls.
Eric returned home that night and told his surprised parents he had enlisted. “I’m leaving in three weeks,” he said.
Before shipping out to Afghanistan, Eric stopped by the lakeside house of Ken Bohnert, a family friend. They drank beers on the dock, and Ken gave Eric the combat knife from his own years in the Marines. “You take this with you,” said Ken, who had joined in 1958. “You bring it back to me.”
Randy had greeted Eric the day he spotted the Marine convoy, asking the radio operator where to find the commander.
It was a passing moment that gave no hint of the fates at play, that Cpl. Lueken would form a link in a chain of events that changed Randy’s life.
Randy listens to Scott Nyman, seated, along with Mike O’Brien and Bobby Joe Page, all former members of his Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance unit during a reunion at Parris Island.
Randy, right, passes the battalion colors to Col. Timothy Dremann.
Randy passes photos of the chain of command at Parris Island, S.C.
Randy leaves Parris Island for his new assignment in Tallahassee, Fla.
In 2004, Dawn was home in Fredericksburg, Va., with the children, Shawn and Caroline, when she saw Marines in a government van drive by the house. The van made a U-turn and passed again.
Dawn saw it coming—a knock on the door, and uniformed men delivering a regret-to-inform-you. She and Randy had talked about the possibility. She hid behind the curtains and steeled herself for the children’s sake.
“Your reaction will be their reaction,” she told herself.
It turned out the Marines in the van were looking for a lost dog.
Randy’s absence and the constant threat of widowhood forced Dawn to become more independent. She managed the couple’s rental properties in Quantico and Indiana. Dawn sought friends from church. She imagined moving the family back to Indiana if Randy were killed.
U.S. fatalities in the Afghanistan War
Between combat tours, Randy briefed officials at the Pentagon and then returned home for a few awkward weeks with Dawn. She saw disturbing changes in her husband’s personality. He had never been a yeller. Now he was agitated from war and couldn’t keep a lid on his volatile moods.
Eager to resume his paternal role, Randy disrupted daily routines that Dawn had worked hard to construct. He blew up with his wife over small things, such as taking his daughter’s side in an argument over gym class.
During one visit home, Dawn told him: “Could you lighten up a little? My friends think you’re weird.”
Randy shrugged off Dawn’s concerns. He didn’t believe in post-traumatic stress disorder. Anyone who complained of it was weak, and Marine officers weren’t supposed to show weakness.
After a few trips home, Randy secretly wished he could skip the strained reunions and wrenching farewells and stay in Afghanistan for the duration. Life was simpler at war.
Randy felt he had won over the Pashtuns on his stretch of the border and turned them into a weapon to defend Afghanistan and, in turn, America.
Leaving the mountains for the last time in 2005, he worried that the U.S. was failing to secure its early inroads with the Pashtuns. Every villager alienated by a careless raid or an insult was a potential Taliban recruit.
Randy earned the bronze star for his service in Afghanistan. He found it almost embarrassing. The Pashtuns had taken far greater risks on his orders. For many fighters it was a last act that drew no medals. He lost 80 to 100 men over 2½ years, one of them decapitated by a helicopter blade.
Aboard the military transport plane heading home, Randy mourned. “I loved living with those guys,” he said.
The Marine Corps returned Randy to Indiana to help train a company of reservists. He and Dawn figured he would retire there after this one last posting. They bought a farmhouse in Ladoga, Ind., population 1,100.
Randy started a small Christmas tree farm. Dawn wanted chickens and a garden. She imagined herself an old lady in braids selling tomatoes from a stand at the end of their driveway.
At the time, the U.S. was consumed by the insurgencies in Iraq unleashed by Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. By the end of 2006, U.S. fatalities in Iraq surpassed the number of deaths from Sept. 11.
The U.S. military, short-handed and fighting two wars, sent Reserve and National Guard troops into battle. Randy’s job was preparing these part-time warriors—electricians, teachers, cops, prison guards—to fight in Iraq. His men were headed for Fallujah, the site of some of the most vicious urban combat since the Vietnam War.
Iraqi militants, who rarely won face-to-face firefights with American troops, had learned to improvise land mines, burying them along roads or concealing them in buildings.
Advances in booby-trap technology ricocheted from Afghanistan to Iraq and back again. Insurgents fashioned triggers from garage-door openers, cellphones and transmitters for radio-controlled toys. They calibrated pressure-sensitive detonators to explode under the step of a soldier or the wheels of an armored vehicle.
Cost of the Afghanistan War
Note: Fiscal years end Sept. 30.
Source: Neta C. Crawford, Costs of War, Watson Institute, Brown University
In 2006, Brig. Gen. Bob Neller, deputy commander for operations of Marine forces in Iraq, was struggling to stem the mounting toll of Marines killed or injured by roadside bombs. Each week, he held a meeting to bat around ideas.
Electronic jammers could defeat bombs detonated by radio or phone signals. But there wasn’t a reliable way to deal with pressure-sensitive triggers.
Gen. Neller suggested mounting wheeled rollers on the front of Humvees to set off a buried bomb before the vehicle drove over it. Explosives specialists argued against the idea: A bomb set off by a mine roller would spray shrapnel toward the turret gunner, who often rode with head and shoulders exposed.
For a couple of weeks, the general hesitated over a decision. Then he lost another Marine. It was Cpl. Eric Lueken, the radio operator Randy Hoffman had met in Afghanistan two years earlier.
Cpl. Lueken and three other Marines had driven over a bomb hidden on a road running along the Euphrates River. The explosion tore Eric apart; the other Marines survived. When the report of Eric’s death landed on Gen. Neller’s desk, the general was jolted out of indecision.
At the next meeting on roadside bombs, Gen. Neller ordered engineers to start building mine rollers. “You’ve got one week to come up with a prototype,” he said. Eric Lueken’s battalion was the first to test the devices in the field.
In Indiana, Randy’s phone rang. As the senior active-duty Marine officer in the area, it fell to him to inform families in parts of Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky that their loved ones had died in combat. The Marine calling from the casualty section told him to deliver the bad news to Eric’s parents.
Randy and 1st Sgt. Troy Euclide drove two hours to Dubois, Ind. When they got close to the Luekens’ home, they stopped at a bathroom at a Subway restaurant to change into their crisply pressed green uniforms.
Melinda and Jake Lueken lived in an A-frame house surrounded by bean fields and turkey farms. Randy and Troy made a reconnaissance pass of the house and saw an American flag and yellow ribbon outside.
After driving by, they stopped on a side road and prayed. “God, help us give this terrible news to the family,” Randy said.
It was a Saturday afternoon. Jake and Melinda were about to go to Mass. Melinda knew what was coming when she saw Randy and Troy at the front door.
Randy’s words spilled out: “I’m sorry to tell you Eric was killed yesterday in Iraq.”
“Oh, my God, no,” Melinda said. She took Eric’s boot-camp portrait down from the wall and slumped onto the sofa, hugging the frame to her chest as she rocked back and forth.
The bomb had done such damage to Eric’s body that military morticians in Dover, Del., took weeks to prepare it. When Eric’s remains finally arrived at the airport in Louisville, Ky., mourners lined the roads to Dubois. High school bands played the Marines’ Hymn in towns along the route.
Randy warned the Luekens against holding an open-casket wake or even looking inside. Jake’s hand shook as he approached the casket and slipped in some family photos.
The funeral was at St. Raphael Church in Dubois. Marines in dress blue uniforms carried the casket next door to the cemetery.
Over three years of duty in Indiana, Randy buried nine Marines and paid dozens of visits to grieving families. He set up a special ringtone to signal phone calls from the casualty section. He and Dawn jumped whenever it sounded. She hated that ring.
Once alerted, Randy had 24 hours to find next of kin and deliver the news.
There was the widow of Lance Cpl. Josh Hines, a young Marine who had once stood wet-eyed at Randy’s desk and asked permission to see his newborn son before leaving for Iraq. Randy let him fly home. Josh was killed by a hidden bomb weeks after arriving in the combat zone.
Randy sat with Josh’s widow, Caryn Gilbert, and her baby after visitation at the Methodist church in Casey, Ill. When everyone else had gone, Randy walked her to the coffin so she could hold her husband’s hand one final time.
One Marine’s father was imprisoned, and a judge gave him special permission to attend the funeral. The man stood at the open casket in an orange jumpsuit.
While Randy was reeling from the barrage of death calls, Dawn and Shawn narrowly avoided catastrophe. In September 2006, they stopped for gas and Dawn told Shawn to wait in the car. Instead, the boy, then 8 years old, followed his mother into the station to look at a car magazine.
Moments later, a drunken driver traveling at close to 100 miles an hour plowed into the gas pumps and ignited a giant fireball.
Dawn and Shawn were inside the minimart while their SUV burned.
Randy was at home pushing Caroline on a swing when he saw the mushroom cloud. His thoughts went first to the booby-trap bombs of Afghanistan.
He hustled Caroline and 2-year-old Emma, their youngest, into the car and sped toward the gas station. Randy desperately searched for Dawn and Shawn, who had escaped through a back door.
For the next two days, Randy felt almost like he was back in combat. His pulse raced and his hands shook. He was constantly alert to threats in the one place he had thought safe.
Randy began drinking, two or three glasses of wine a day, a lot for him. While driving, he sometimes got heart palpitations and tunnel vision.
“It was death notification after death notification,” Dawn said. “He couldn’t get his head above water.”
One winter day, Shawn and Caroline, bundled in snowsuits, were sliding down the front hill on plaster saucers when some neighborhood boys came by with their own sleds.
Randy heard the older kids swearing. Watching through the window, Dawn saw Randy storm outside, grab one of the boys and scream at him. He lined them up and took their pictures, the same way he photographed captured insurgents in Afghanistan.
“Why?” Dawn demanded, taking his phone and deleting the photos.
Randy apologized to the boys. When they nervously asked permission to sled in the yard a couple of weeks later, he invited them in for hot chocolate.
At a crowded gas station, Randy was overwhelmed by the smell of diesel, a scent heavy with memories of Afghanistan. He got into a spat with an older woman. “Get back in your car,” he yelled.
When he tried to apologize, the woman rebuffed him: “You’re a rude man.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not usually that way.”
The older children saw that the slightest irritation could set him off. They learned to stifle their sneezes in the car and to wake him gently.
Caroline once wrote “Dad is scary” on a piece of paper and hid it in a pink lockbox, where she kept her treasures. Shawn ran off with the note and showed it to their dad.
Randy was horrified. “You have no reason to be scared of me,” he told Caroline.
Dawn wondered what had happened to the man she married.
By the end of Randy’s three-year posting, Indiana didn’t feel like home to him anymore, and he wanted out. Every road brought to mind a mother weeping at a screen door or a shovelful of dirt thumping onto a casket lid.
Dawn wanted to stay close to her family.
The Marine Corps ended the debate in 2008 and ordered Randy back to the Quantico base in Virginia.
Deep in thought
The Bush administration was coming to an end. The Taliban and other insurgent groups were staging the comeback Randy and others had feared. Building and training Afghan security forces progressed slowly.
Mr. Bush believed his troop surge had turned the tide in Iraq, and he tried the same approach in Afghanistan. The 27,000 U.S. troops in the country at the beginning of 2008 had grown to 35,000 when President Obama took office in 2009.
U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan
Sources: Brookings Institution; U.S. military
Mr. Obama campaigned on his opposition to the war in Iraq while pointing to Afghanistan as a conflict the U.S. was obliged to fight.
“Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backward,” Mr. Obama said at a West Point speech in his first year as commander in chief. “I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops.”
The Marines sent Randy to Command and Staff College, a graduate program at Quantico for promising majors. Immersed in his classes, he reflected on the war, and one moment kept coming to mind.
In 2003, he and a patrol of Green Berets came across the ruins of a training camp in Khost province, where Osama bin Laden had given interviews weeks before al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. An Army intelligence officer told Randy that he believed bin Laden had begun planning the Sept. 11 attacks there.
The camp was a pile of rubble, destroyed in 1998 by a volley of U.S. cruise missiles in retaliation for the embassy bombings. Investigators believe the airstrike missed bin Laden by a few hours. Randy stuffed three bricks from the ruins into his backpack.
Randy imagined al Qaeda planners working out details to coordinate four suicide hijackings half a world away, a devastating attack on the world’s greatest military power by 19 men armed with box cutters.
He pictured bin Laden, who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, trying to predict the U.S. response to the attack. Would the U.S. invade Afghanistan? If so, would the Americans fight with the same clumsy brutality that marked the failed 10-year Soviet war? Would the Pashtun rise up against the Americans?
Randy began to think the Afghanistan war was an al Qaeda trap. The jihadist group, he wrote in a research paper, “understood that by killing thousands of Americans, they would ignite a fierce response that would certainly involve American military forces being deployed to Afghanistan.”
He suspected al Qaeda had lured the U.S. to Afghanistan, hoping the Americans would end up, like the Soviets, humiliated by Pashtun resistance. Some in Washington held a similar belief.
At the end of the school year in 2009, Randy and his class heard a presentation on post-traumatic stress disorder. As a speaker listed the symptoms, Randy fought the urge to race out of the auditorium. During a break, he fled to the men’s room and dry-heaved.
Afterward, he found his faculty adviser. “I have to share something,” he said. Randy sat at a table with classmates and, for 90 minutes, unloaded stories of trauma that he couldn’t contain any longer. “Something is going to happen to me,” he said.
A nurse, Kim Bradley, listened at the table. She assisted troops suffering from PTSD for a military charity. Randy, she thought, was a textbook case. She handed him her business card. “Call me if you need anything,” she said.
Randy moved on to the School of Advanced Warfighting, a selective program that takes officers to visit the world’s battlefields. He traveled to Salerno, Italy, to study the World War II amphibious landings. He walked around Wake Island and Peleliu in the Pacific, and Huê City and Khe Sanh, in Vietnam.
By then, Randy’s friends knew he was struggling with anxiety and depression. The Marine Corps still saw him as an officer with an extraordinary record of combat and academic achievement.
In July 2009, the Marines announced Randy would be promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, known since Vietnam as the Magnificent Bastards.
In Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s troop escalation was gaining steam. By the war’s peak in 2010 and 2011, more than 100,000 U.S. troops would be deployed there. The 1,000-man battalion offered to Randy was headed for Musa Qala, a district of fertile river flats and bone-dry desert in Helmand province, the world’s largest source of opium poppies.
The prospect of leading men into battle sent Randy into a panic. He stayed in bed for three days. He woke up every four hours, as he had in Afghanistan, alert to any attack. He lost his appetite and was short of breath.
Randy stopped showing up at school. He felt like he was unraveling in front of everyone at a time when admitting to post-traumatic stress would almost certainly end a Marine Corps career.
Dawn was too worried about Randy’s collapse to fret about his job. Screw the Marine Corps, she thought. I don’t care who knows. I want this fixed.
She called the school’s director, Col. Tracy King. He had noticed Randy’s sullen attitude and the dark bags under his eyes that made it look like he had lost a bar fight. Col. King and his wife began visiting the Hoffman house to check on Randy.
Dawn rifled through Randy’s wallet for the business card of Kim Bradley, the nurse. She called, desperate for help.
Kim set up appointments for Randy with a therapist at Fort Belvoir, Va. A medical team there diagnosed him with acute post-traumatic stress disorder, and doctors prescribed drugs for anxiety and depression.
Randy came clean with one of his oldest Marine Corps friends, Kirk Mullins. Randy and Kirk had been enlisted men who made the jump to officers together.
“Dude, I’m not doing well,” Randy said. He looked haggard and distraught, and he couldn’t explain what was happening.
If this can occur to Randy, there’s not a single one of us who isn’t susceptible, thought Kirk.
He worried that Randy was too agitated to drive. Randy didn’t trust himself behind the wheel, either. For the rest of the summer, Kirk drove his friend to Fort Belvoir and sat in the waiting room during therapy sessions.
On their way home one day, Randy confessed: “I’m in no condition to lead Marines, and I don’t know when I’m going to be in that position, if ever.”
Kirk knew that refusing command would likely end Randy’s career. He urged his friend not to rush into a decision.
Randy arrives for an appointment with his therapist in Savannah, Ga., in June.
He tears up with his therapist, Julie Rubin.
Randy arrives at school for his daughter Emma’s eighth-grade graduation.
Randy and Dawn congratulate Emma.
Randy also told Col. King his doubts about commanding troops in Afghanistan. The colonel escorted Randy to talk to Gen. Neller, who had been promoted to major general and named head of Marine Corps schools at Quantico.
“Sir, I’m considering declining command,” Randy said. “I’m concerned that I will let my Marines down.”
Gen. Neller, who had lost 314 troops in Iraq from 2006 through 2007, including Cpl. Lueken, was sympathetic.
“All of us came back from Iraq and Afghanistan different than when we left,” the general said. He urged Randy to take a few months to decide and to give him an answer after Christmas.
Over the holidays, Randy convinced himself he could do it all: Keep a lid on his post-traumatic stress and lead Marines in combat. The couple returned to Quantico to tell Col. King that Randy was ready to lead the Magnificent Bastards.
Seeing Dawn during their meeting, Col. King recalled his own wife’s dismay years earlier, when she had found herself saddled with the duties of the commander’s spouse. He warned Dawn that her husband’s assignment would be a two-person job: While Randy was in Afghanistan, she would be expected to comfort lonely wives, help troubled children and console grieving families. At the same time, Dawn’s own mother was dying of cancer.
Randy read resignation on Dawn’s face.
That afternoon, he returned alone to Col. King’s office and turned down the job. “I want the Marines to have a battalion commander who’s in the game,” Randy said.
Dawn was fixing dinner when Randy came home and told her.
“What are they going to do with us now?” she asked.
To Randy’s surprise, Gen. Neller worked to keep him in the Marine Corps. The general arranged for him to serve two years as deputy director of the School of Advanced Warfighting.
As soon as Randy felt stable, Gen. Neller told him, he could apply again for command. “In my opinion, you did everything we ask our Marine officers to do,” the general said. “I’m not going to punish that.”
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As word spread, Randy’s decision stunned Marines. It was the first time they had seen an officer decline battalion command because of post-traumatic stress, and, even more surprising to them, continue to advance.
It was a turning point for Randy—and for the Marine Corps. About 15% of those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq returned home with post-traumatic stress symptoms, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Col. King, now a major general, said Randy’s honesty led the Marines to become more accepting of the emotional damage that war inflicts on those who fight. He has told Randy’s story to hundreds of young officers.
Having disclosed his own secret, Randy preached mental health to other Marines. After one presentation at a veterans retreat in the Pennsylvania woods, two vets told Randy they had planned to kill themselves. His talk, they said, changed their minds.
A Vietnam vet grabbed his arm and said he wished someone had delivered Randy’s talk to him in 1969.
“How are you doing now?” Randy asked.
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out pink antianxiety pills. Randy showed him two pink pills of his own.
As part of his teaching duties, Randy escorted a group of officers on a tour to Huê, Vietnam, where he came across a celebration of war veterans. Children sang to the elderly North Vietnamese soldiers in their old uniforms.
Randy posed for a photo with two veterans who had fought against U.S. Marines in 1968. One had lost a leg; the other had been badly burned.
Randy’s pedicab driver, a former South Vietnamese marine, waited in the parking lot, left out of the festivities for having fought on the losing side. He had survived a re-education camp and now could find only menial work. Randy worried about his Pashtun fighters should the U.S. pull out of Afghanistan.
By 2012, Randy felt stable, and he again put his name in for battalion command. Such assignments are determined by a panel of 21 generals and colonels in secret deliberations.
When Randy’s name came up, the debate was heated. “There were some officers in the room who couldn’t get past the stigma that he had declined his first selection for command,” said Lt. Col. C.J. Williams, Randy’s former commander in Indiana, now a full colonel.
Randy’s supporters prevailed, and the Corps gave him command of 750 Marines who taught leadership to new lieutenants at a school in Quantico. He created and led a course on combat stress and filled in the curriculum with details of his own struggle.
Some of his students had already served in Afghanistan or Iraq as enlisted Marines before becoming officers, and the relatively slow pace at Quantico gave their troubles a chance to blister to the surface.
Alarmed wives began calling Dawn about their husbands. Randy made sure they contacted Kim Bradley, the nurse, for help.
In 2012, Gen. Joe Dunford, then-assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, visited Quantico for Mess Night, a traditional dinner where Marines donned evening dress uniforms and ate prime rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. Ending the meal, the Marine Corps Drill and Ceremonies Manual dictates “a savory, rather than a sweet dessert is served, as the latter spoils the taste of the port.”
Randy sat next to Gen. Dunford at the head table. They had served together aboard the USS Whidbey Island in the Mediterranean in 1987. Randy was a young corporal on a reconnaissance team. Then-Capt. Dunford was a company commander who noticed Randy’s expertise with weapons.
Now, as assistant commandant, Gen. Dunford focused on how the Corps cared for its wounded, including those with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. When they dined at Mess Night, he already knew Randy’s story.
“It’s officers like Randy who have encouraged others to come forward, get treatment and have confidence when they did get treatment that their professional careers wouldn’t suffer as a result,” Gen. Dunford said.
At dinner, their talk was all about Afghanistan. Gen. Dunford didn’t let on that within a few days Mr. Obama would name him commander of U.S. and allied forces there.
When the nomination became public, Randy sent the general an email: “I’d like to go.” He sought to ease any concerns about his post-trauma stress, referring instead to his “post-traumatic growth.” In part, though, Randy wanted to return to Afghanistan to see if he had fully put his trauma behind him.
Gen. Dunford had extensive combat experience in Iraq but had never served in Afghanistan. Before shipping out in early 2013, the general had lunch with Randy and took notes, peppering him with questions about Pashtuns on the Pakistan border.
Months later, Gen. Dunford invited Randy to join his planning staff in Kabul.
The city in 2013 didn’t resemble the Afghanistan of a decade earlier. The nimble commando campaign that followed the Sept. 11 attacks had stalled behind concrete blast walls and checkpoints. Randy visited Jalalabad, where the outpost had grown into a sprawling U.S. base with a coffee shop and souvenir stands.
Mr. Obama was looking for an exit and had scaled U.S. forces back to 68,000 troops by the end of the 2012 warm-weather fighting season. Under the president’s plan, the U.S. presence would drop to 10,000 troops by the end of 2014, leaving the U.S.-trained Afghan military to battle the Taliban. U.S. special operators and American air power would hunt al Qaeda and other terror groups.
Hundreds of U.S. bases and outposts were bulldozed, closed or turned over to the Afghans. Among his jobs, Randy had to figure out how to move out a decade’s worth of war materiel.
Insurgents were spreading havoc with high-profile bombings and attacks. In 2014, they sneaked weapons into the Serena Hotel in Kabul, a popular spot for expatriates, and killed nine people.
Note: 2019 data through Sept. 30
Source: United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan
From his perch near Gen. Dunford, Randy better appreciated the war’s complexity. What seemed like a simple path to victory—fight hard, show respect and win Pashtun allies—wasn’t so easy to achieve amid the ethnic hodgepodge of Afghanistan. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Nuristanis, Hazaras and others had competing agendas. The violent rivalry between India and Pakistan played out on Afghan soil.
Randy wondered if he had been too harsh in his impatience with the U.S. approach.
During a foray out of Kabul, an obliging helicopter pilot flew Randy over the ridges and valleys where he had lost many friends. The contours of the Spīn Ghar range were still carved deep into his memory.
At the time, a charity was bringing veterans of the Afghan war back to visit places where they had fought. The men had been carried off the battlefield on stretchers; now they returned with prosthetic limbs and disfiguring burns, seeking emotional healing to match their physical recovery.
Staff at Gen. Dunford’s headquarters turned out to applaud the arriving vets, and the general spoke with each of them. Randy wrote briefing cards for the general that detailed each man’s injuries and progress toward recovery. He arranged the group’s travel to villages, mountainsides and farm fields.
“I knew how they felt coming back,” Randy said. “It was almost like medicine to me.”
When Randy packed for home in 2014, Gen. Dunford, who recently retired after serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a short speech.
Randy’s return to Afghanistan, the general said, “was good for him, a little closure.”
For years, Gen. Neller dwelled on Cpl. Lueken’s death and his own initial reluctance to order mine rollers to protect his men. In 2014, he had Eric’s name and the date of his death engraved on a black metal bracelet. The following year, Gen. Neller rose to commandant, the top officer in the Marine Corps,
Jake Lueken, Eric’s father, heard about the bracelet and sent word that he wanted to talk. Gen. Neller took a week or so to get up the nerve to call. When he did, he told Jake about his hesitation to order mine rollers until Eric’s death spurred him to action.
In 2016, a decade after Eric died, Gen. Neller traveled to Indiana to meet Jake and Melinda, as well as the family of another fallen Marine. The general wanted to comfort the Luekens, but he didn’t know what to say. Their hourslong drive together from the airport to Dubois was filled with uneasy silences.
During their visit to St. Raphael cemetery, Gen. Neller knelt in the grass, balled his fist and hit Eric’s polished black-granite marker. “Sorry, Eric, it took me so long to get here,” he said.
Time revealed a series of connections among Randy, Gen. Neller, Lt. Col. Cooling and the Luekens. Gen. Neller realized that Randy’s breakdown had been sparked, in part, by the visit to tell the Luekens that Eric had been killed. Randy learned that Gen. Neller, the man who had saved his career and perhaps his sanity, was himself haunted by Eric’s death.
Randy stayed at the Luekens’ house during a later visit by Gen. Neller to Indiana in 2017. Looking at family photos with Melinda, Randy realized for the first time that Eric was the same radio man he had met on the road to Jalalabad early in the war.
The next day, Lt. Col. Cooling—Eric’s commander in Afghanistan and Iraq—visited the St. Raphael cemetery with Randy and the Luekens. Over dinner, Lt. Col. Cooling, by then a brigadier general, told Jake and Melinda that mine rollers had saved many lives since Eric’s death.
In 2017, Randy was promoted to full colonel. He moved his family to the Marine Corps boot camp set among the swamps and palmetto trees on Parris Island, S.C.
From there, Randy would drive to see his therapist in Savannah, Ga.
On Good Friday this spring, his need to talk turned urgent. His longtime friend, Lt. Col. Brett Hart, had arrived early at his Arizona office that day and posted a sign on the door warning people to stay out. Then he killed himself.
Dawn had gone to high school with Brett’s wife, Molly Hart, and had set up the couple on their first date.
Brett, a helicopter pilot, was days from retirement when he died. Randy and Kirk Mullins had planned to attend the ceremony. Instead, they traveled to his funeral.
They hadn’t told Brett they were coming to celebrate his retirement. It was to be a surprise. “I shouldn’t have dodged his calls,” Randy later told his therapist. He sat on the couch, head in hands.
Randy went back on antianxiety medication. He admitted to his therapist that he had thought about how he might kill himself.
The Marines under Randy’s command taught combat skills to new recruits, who were often straight out of high school.
The young men and women arrived by bus after dark and lined up on yellow footprints painted on the pavement. The men’s heads were shaved, and everyone’s possessions were locked up. Their individuality was stripped away by drill instructors charged with recasting them into disciplined Marines. They quickly learned to refer to themselves in the third person.
A New Generation Prepares for War
The Marine Corps boot camp set among the swamps and palmetto trees on Parris Island, S.C., prepares recruits, some of whom were born after Sept. 11, 2001.VICTOR J. BLUE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL1 of 14
Near the rifle range, Randy gathered 160 male recruits one day this summer and asked what they remembered of Sept. 11, 2001.
“This recruit was in fourth grade, he believes, when it happened,” one said. “This recruit’s teacher stepped out of class and came back teary-eyed.”
One recruit was born on Jan. 14, 2002. At boot camp, new Marines are so young that history instructors teach them about the Sept. 11 attacks that started the Afghanistan war.
The young men sat rapt, eating their box lunches, as Randy described what it was like to kill. “Your heart rate is uncontrollable,” he said. “Your pulse goes up so much that your ears kind of stop up. Everything goes kind of in slow motion. Your brain focuses on minute details to help you get through engaging the enemy before he can kill you.”
He passed around what appeared to be a heavy pen and told its story.
He and his Afghan fighters were driving into a market near Jalalabad in 2004, an area thick with al Qaeda and Taliban. A teenager on a moped slowly passed Randy’s pickup truck, smiling as he went by. One of Randy’s militiamen leapt out of the truck and tackled the boy. Two Afghan policemen joined the melee and pummeled the teen with their rifles.
As Randy tried to separate them, the Afghans ripped open the boy’s shirt, revealing a hand grenade. The boy also had the pen, which turned out to be a disguised single-shot, .22-caliber pistol.
“We are training you with a deadly skill so you can come home alive and you can bring those other Marines with you,” Randy told the recruits. “Do you understand me?”
“YESSIR,” they responded in unison.
Then Randy revealed that he had been in and out of therapy for more than a decade. “I’m not embarrassed to tell you,” he said. Combat, he added, “takes a mental and emotional toll on any human being.”
Weeks later, Randy began what will likely be his last tour in the Marines, running the regional Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps out of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla.
He has decorated his office with memories: the bricks from bin Laden’s camp in Khost; photos of his father, his Uncle Gary and his late Uncle Terry, all in Marine uniforms; a set of bottles containing soil and stones from Chancellorsville, Iwo Jima, Troy, Verdun, Weiyuan Fort and other long-ago battlefields.
The Hoffmans’ youngest, 15-year-old Emma, jokes that if she inherits her dad’s dirt collection, she will bury it with him.
Hoffmanistan is quieter, if not fully at peace.
Randy talks to Naval ROTC cadets at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla.
An Afghan war rug in Randy’s office.
Randy studying at home in Tallahassee.
Randy joins aspiring Marine officers for a run in Tallahassee.
Randy, 53, sinks into anxiety some days but not many. He has had two shoulder operations and fought off a bout of skin cancer that he blames on years of sun in the Afghan mountains. He has an eye injury from a scuba training accident. He wears hearing aids to compensate for damage from an ammunition-dump explosion.
“There is an edge to his personality that he didn’t used to have,” said Dawn, 49. “I don’t think that PTSD ever goes away. But there is healing that springs from that.”
“I was not prepared for that emotional toll,” Randy said, looking back on a life at war. “That’s what crushed my soul.”
Yet he feels more contented than he has since before Sept. 11 and rarely needs the pink antianxiety pills.
Randy will probably retire at the end of his tour in Tallahassee, with nearly four decades of service.
He tracks Afghanistan peace negotiations and wonders if the Marines he trains will fight in the same mountains he did. He fears the war will end like Vietnam, with Americans again abandoning those who fought by their side.
He also thinks about the brotherhood he felt with his Afghan fighters; the Pashtun villagers who survived childhood because of medical care from American commandos; the way the Marine Corps stood by him.
“Even if the outcome is not good,” he said, “I still have those small wins, and that’s what I hang onto.”
Dawn has turned her nurse’s training into a career helping troops come home. She fields calls at all hours from troubled vets and worried spouses. The wife of an Afghanistan vet phoned last year to say her husband had been on a bender for days. Dawn tracked down another veteran who went to the couple’s house, took the vet to an emergency room and then enrolled him in an alcohol-abuse program run by the VA.
She was taught early in life that family problems should be kept hidden. She grew up in a small Indiana town, she said, “where as long as the image of everyone was good, that was kind of OK with everybody.”
Randy’s war made it impossible for her to conceal her family’s troubles. Surviving them has given Dawn a but-for-the-grace-of-God understanding of human foibles and more compassion for others facing their own trials.
“For me, it’s just been a huge shift in perspective in life,” she said.
The Hoffman children weren’t the only kids growing up in their military neighborhoods whose father came home damaged. Shawn, 22, and Caroline, 20, are in college. These days they take their father’s flare-ups less personally.
“He’s fighting this invisible battle all the time,” Caroline said.
Emma, a ninth-grader, missed the worst times. She plans to join the Marines. “I’ve grown up very proud of my dad,” she said. The teen recognizes the risk of post-traumatic stress, but says there is therapy for that.
Randy thinks Emma would make an excellent Marine. Dawn hopes she changes her mind.