Veterans-Turned-Lawmakers Jason Crow And David Ortiz Reflect On How To End 20 Years Of War

April 25, 2021
STATE-REP-ORTIZ-DEMOCRATS-LEGISLATURESTATE-REP-ORTIZ-DEMOCRATS-LEGISLATUREHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Rep. David Ortiz in the House on March 4, 2021.

Rep. Jason Crow says it’s time for Congress to take back its war authority from the president.

The Democratic lawmaker from Aurora said in an interview with Colorado Matters that the war was a result of broad war authorizations given to the executive. Congress granted President George W. Bush the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to go into Afghanistan, but then used the same AUMF to go into Iraq.

Since then, the AUMF has been used by both Democrat and Republican presidents to continue the war. Crow, who served in the Army as a ranger, wants that to end.

“(The authorizations) have been treated for two decades as a blank check for the use of force. What was originally authorized for us to go to Afghanistan is now being used in dozens of different places around the world, and that’s not OK,” Crow said. “The Founders relegated to the Congress, the People’s House, the decision of whether or not to send our men and women to war, the most solemn, grave responsibility we have. That is for Congress to decide.”

President Joe Biden recently announced that the United States will withdraw troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.

State Rep. David Ortiz also reflected on the news of the withdrawal and what’s next for Afghanistan. The Democrat from Littleton was a helicopter pilot in the Army, and was injured in a crash in 2012 that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“I think an ideal situation would be one where the Afghan people are empowered to forge their own path and create a nation in the vision that they want to see while also respecting the gains … that we've seen, especially among women and children,” Ortiz said. “And then also making sure that we are helping to create a future for them that not only creates security for them, but secures the region and for the entire world.

Ortiz is currently sponsoring a bill that would allow private business to opt into veteran preference hiring as they transition back from serving in Afghanistan.

“The federal government does a good job in giving preference to veterans … but not all of us want to work for a big government institution or organization after serving in the military,” he said. “Some of us want to go into private industry. And we on average have a higher unemployment rate of 2 to 4 percent … so there’s a definite need because there’s a correlation between a recent window of transition, and this would allow veterans that are within five years of their transition to be able to benefit from a preference hiring.”

Trump ImpeachmentJulio Cortez/AP
Impeachment manager Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., walks through the rotunda on his way to the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

Interview Highlights

Rep. Crow On The Future Of The Pentagon’s Budget After The Withdrawal:

“We can be far more efficient in the use of our funds because the threats that we face now in the 21st century are extremely different than the threats that we faced in the 20th century. We're not looking at meeting hoards of tanks on the plains of Eastern Europe. There are technologies and capabilities that are actually cheaper to field that can give us more capability, more ability to protect ourselves, that actually costs less. So making that transition is going to be a really important one. And it's often referred to as moving away from legacy systems, these very expensive systems that we've had for decades. And don't get me wrong, there's an awful lot of lobbyists floating around this town that want us to build these expensive things, but I'm pushing back hard on that because we have to do right by the American taxpayer. We have to do right by our men and women who need the technology and the resources that are relevant to the 21st century that we need to protect the country. And we can do that in a smarter, more efficient way.”

Rep. Crow On Improving Programs To Help Afghanistan Interpreters:

“There are vast improvements that need to be made to these programs, there's no doubt about it. We have to provide more opportunities, more special immigrant visas, and we have to make that program work better. We have brought people back, thousands from Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, my district director, the person who runs my operations in Colorado is an Iraqi SIV. He actually was an interpreter for the U.S. Army after the invasion, and his life became in jeopardy. And he used the SIV program to flee Iraq and came to the United States, and just a perfect example for how this program should work. So there are not enough of these visas available. There are over 18,000 Afghans who have applied for this program. There's only 11,000 that are currently authorized, but the state department is telling us that they only have the capacity to process 9,000, so that is not going to be good enough. We cannot leave thousands of these Afghans who stood shoulder to shoulder with us to the whims of the Taliban.”

Rep. Ortiz On Lessons Learned In Afghanistan:

“First and foremost is that diplomacy and building up our soft power is always going to be cheaper in lives and in treasure than anything else. I think that's the biggest lesson that I want us to learn. And let's be cognizant too, that the reason why the Taliban was able to take power in the first place was we supported an insurgent fight against the Russians, and we left a vacuum once that fight was done. And to be very cognizant and responsible with our military actions and support in the future and making sure that we are not just leaving power vacuums in that way. I think that's one of the biggest lessons. I think another lesson that we learned was not to overextend ourselves. I mean, we were looking at two conflicts at the same time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let's be very clear that a lot of the planning and the sheltering of those that attacked us on 9/11 were based and sought shelter in Afghanistan.

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: Rep. Ortiz, you followed in your father's footsteps, becoming a pilot. And I mentioned that helicopter crash, which left you paralyzed from the waist down, that was in 2012 during your first deployment. I know you're so often asked about that. And so I wonder actually, if you'd tell me about another experience in Afghanistan that stands out to you?

Rep. David Ortiz: The thing that sticks out the most about my time in Afghanistan, besides the bonding and the antics and the pranking that goes between the brothers and sisters you serve with is the tough nature of the job. Being a pilot in the air, you have a bird's eye view that others don't have. You're often working with drones, and A-10s are in the area, as well as the infantry that are on the ground. I mean, our flying profile was 25 feet to 150 feet off the ground. And so I think the memory that sticks out the most is an MRAP, which is one of the armored vehicles, being cut completely in half from an IED and just seeing the black crater burnt into the ground and seeing the blood pool, I think is a memory that I'll always carry with me.

RW: Did anyone survive that particular incident?

DO: Yes. There were members of the convoy that did survive. I do believe that we lost three in that incident.

RW: Did you to some extent have to get, I don't want to say used to, but sort of inured to that loss of life?

DO: I was very careful to not allow myself to, to be honest with you. And I think the moment that you do start getting complacent or used to loss of life, I think that's when you should talk to your spiritual guide or a mental health care professional, but I think feeling loss of life, whether it is your brothers and sisters on the ground or even civilians or the enemy is something that I really think that people should hold onto, to never get complacent and okay with that.

RW: Congressman Crow, I wonder if there's a moment, a memory from your time in Afghanistan that has become indelible?

Rep. Jason Crow: That's a tough one, Ryan. There's a lot of memories, a lot of incidents that happened that are forever seared in my memory, but the one that comes back a lot is my last deployment to Afghanistan in 2005, we lost many Rangers and several Navy SEALs as part of our Special Operations Task Force. And that incident was actually made into the movie, Lone Survivor. That was a tough way to end that rotation in my time there. And it just reminds me how many good soldiers we lost during the 20 years of that war.

RW: And to have that be the coda of your service there, did something feel somehow incomplete when you left, or unachieved?

JC: Well, I think the way that any veterans look at it is, you can't go to war, whether it be in Iraq or Afghanistan, someplace else, and come back and not be a changed person. And all of us who have gone there and fought there and served, leave a certain part of ourselves, leave a certain part of our hearts in those places. So there will always be a part of my heart that's in Afghanistan and with the Afghan people, and with the men and women that I served with, some of whom didn't come back. That's, I think something that we all process and I think all of us are processing right now, what that means. So with the recent announcement by the Biden administration to withdraw our troops, certainly we've been thinking about it right now. And I'm still processing that on a personal level as well.

RW: Rep. Ortiz, could the U.S. be allowing for the sorts of conditions that the 9/11 attacks grew out of by leaving Afghanistan?

DO: It depends on the way that we leave. So I'll just highlight some of my biggest concerns. My number one concern is the fact that the Taliban is able to influence so much power in these negotiations. And it's evidenced by the fact that a lot of women are being left out. There are women that serve in the Afghani government, but as the Taliban are taking a front-and-center row on these peace negotiations, there is a noticeable absence of women being involved. If we're not making sure that we continue to advise at least the Afghani government and their military so that they can take care of their own, then I am fearful that we might be inviting a 9/11-style attack. At the same time though, we want to balance that with letting the Afghanistan people create a government that reflects their values and what they want their country to become.

RW: Is the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan too soon, Congressman?

JC: No, I don't think so. I support the president's decision to withdraw our forces. We have been there for 20 years. This is by far America's longest war. We've spent a lot of blood. We've lost a lot of good men and women. We’ve spent many hundreds of billions of dollars (on) this war. We have prevented another attack on the homeland like 9/11. The Afghan people have made a lot of progress in a lot of places. There's a lot of things that remain undone, of course and a lot of people are well aware of those, but there's been progress and advances in human rights and the status of women and children in particular in Afghanistan. So for me, the decision I think was the right one and it's timely. But the next question is, how are we going to do it? And making sure that we do it right. And as a member of the Armed Services Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, I'm spending my time now asking the tough questions of the administration and of our military leaders to make sure we're doing this in the right way.

RW: You mentioned the cost. According to the Cost of War Project, the price tag for the war in Afghanistan is more than $2.2 trillion, more than 2,300 U.S. lives lost, estimates of Afghan civilian deaths put that number at around 40,000. And I think that there are any number of people, despite the progress you mentioned there, asking, ‘Was this war worth it?’ How do you answer that, Congressman?

JC: I think that's a tough question to answer, and I'm not sure that there's a right answer to that question. What I think is really important though, is that we separate the service of individual men and women who served from the political discussions and debates about whether or not we achieved our long-term and short-term goals, because we're going to debate that for some time to come. What's really important, and this is particularly important for veterans right now who are processing this decision and asking themselves, ‘Was what I did worth it? Was the service of the men and women that I served with, who didn't come home, what is the nature of that sacrifice?’ And I think it's incredibly important that we come up and say men and women answered the call. We now have two generations of Americans who stepped up after 9/11, raised their right hand to serve and to wear the uniform. And that service and that sacrifice is worth honoring. and that's one of the reasons why me and many members of Congress, over a hundred of us have now come together. But me and Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin are leading the effort to build a Global War on Terror memorial because we understand the healing power of place. Anybody who's been to the Vietnam Wall understands how important it is to have a place, a location where veterans and their families can come and reflect on those that they lost, and heal. And we now think it's time for this generation of veterans to have the same opportunity.

RW: What I hear you both saying is, ‘the how’ is very important here, how the U.S. withdraws and to what extent it remains involved in Afghan affairs afterwards. Rep. Ortiz, do you want to say a few words about what you think an ideal withdrawal looks like?

DO: Yeah. I was just a combat aviator, just a helicopter pilot, so I don't know how much weight this is going to carry, but as someone that did serve over there, I think an ideal situation would be one where the Afghan people are empowered to forge their own path and create a nation in the vision that they want to see while also respecting the gains, as Congressmen Crow mentioned, that we've seen, especially among women and children, that is my chief concern. And then also making sure that we are helping to create a future for them that not only creates security for them, but secures the region and for the entire world. I mean, imagine the end of the Vietnam War, where there were a lot of veterans that probably thought they never wanted to go back, but I, having visited Vietnam recently and Ken Burns having done that documentary, I'm hoping to have that kind of style of a moment in Afghanistan. It is an outdoorsman paradise, it has a potential to be, and I would love to monoski on the mountains of Afghanistan sometime in the future, that would be my dream.

RW: Practically. What do you think it looks like to achieve what you've said there though? I mean, is it kind of diplomatic boots on the ground or what?

DO: I think it's going to be a mix. And I think it's going to be up to those that are much smarter than me, around diplomacy, around our intelligence agency, the CIA and our special forces to continue to work with, advise and support the Afghan government and the Afghan people and make sure we're not leaving a power vacuum. I mean, that's how the Taliban was able to take control in the first place. And just to make sure that we're doing our part, not just to abandon the Afghan people completely, but we have been at war for 20 years and it's time to move away from the active combat operations.

RW: Congressman Crow, shed a little light on what you'd like the details to look like, again, as a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

JC: Yeah, Ryan. So I've had actually a lot of discussions with our top senior military leaders over the last week. Actually just yesterday, I was discussing this with Secretary Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley as well as Tony Blinken, the secretary of state. So those conversations will continue. There's four main considerations here. Well, you're going to hear the term being tossed around by senior military leaders over the next four months, the term "retrograde." And what that means though, that's just a military slang for withdraw operations, which actually are the riskiest things that you do in the military, because as you draw down forces and there are fewer and fewer remaining at forward operating bases, or these remote outposts, those that do remain are more and more vulnerable for obvious reasons, because there are fewer of them and they have fewer resources. So, what you're going to see is a very short term increase in combat forces there over the next couple of months, that actually could create the conditions for those withdraw, to protect those. And then we have to do it very methodically so that we do not expose those forces to Taliban attacks. Number two is the protection of the Afghan interpreters and translators and others who served alongside us at great personal risk, many of whom have lost their lives by taking on the mission of assisting us with those support. And that's why I announced the creation of a task force in Washington, which is a bipartisan task force to engage with the administration, to make sure that we are bringing those Afghans and their families who are at risk of losing their lives, to the United States.

RW: Yeah. Let me pause you there, because we know that Iraqi interpreters did not always have the easiest time. Many of them were quite vulnerable, left behind in Iraq, some of them had trouble coming to the United States. The United States now didn't necessarily have their back. It sounds like you want to make sure that doesn't happen with Afghan interpreters.

JC: Yeah. There are vast improvements that need to be made to these programs, there's no doubt about it. We have to provide more opportunities, more special immigrant visas, and we have to make that program work better. We have brought people back, thousands from Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, my district director, the person who runs my operations in Colorado is an Iraqi SIV. He actually was an interpreter for the U.S. Army after the invasion, and his life became in jeopardy. And he used the SIV program to flee Iraq and came to the United States, and just a perfect example for how this program should work. So there are not enough of these visas available. There are over 18,000 Afghans who have applied for this program. There's only 11,000 that are currently authorized, but the state department is telling us that they only have the capacity to process 9,000, so that is not going to be good enough. We cannot leave thousands of these Afghans who stood shoulder to shoulder with us to the whims of the Taliban.

RW: Rep. Ortiz, do you remember those interpreters being important in your service in Afghanistan?

DO: Absolutely. Anyone that worked on the ground or worked with the units on the ground knows that they saved American lives, and at great risk to themselves and to their family members. They proved themselves on the battlefield. And they're proving themselves here at home in the U.S. as force multipliers and just adding such a critical part to our community.

RW: Congressman Crow, you had a few other points to make about what you want to see from this withdrawal.

JC: Yeah. The other things we have to make sure that we're doing is protecting our NATO allies. Let's not forget that the only time in the history of NATO, the NATO Alliance, that Article 5, which is the article that says, An attack on one is an attack on all, it's called the mutual self-defense obligation. The only time in the history of that Alliance over 70 plus years that it's been invoked was after 9/11, when our NATO allies came to our aid and went to Afghanistan with us, where they remain to this day. In fact, there are more NATO troops there, by a fairly large number, than there are U.S. troops. So we have to make sure we're doing this close coordination with them, and that we leave methodically and together to honor that promise and that commitment that they've made to us over the last 20 years.

RW: Congressman Crow, should the Pentagon budget shrink after the withdrawal?

JC: Well, there's different line items in the budget. The cost for the war in Afghanistan actually comes from a different fund than the Pentagon budget. So it's not comparing the $2 amounts. What I do think is that we can be far more efficient in the use of our funds because the threats that we face now in the 21st century are extremely different than the threats that we faced in the 20th century. We're not looking at meeting hoards of tanks on the plains of Eastern Europe. There are technologies and capabilities that are actually cheaper to field that can give us more capability, more ability to protect ourselves, that actually costs less. So making that transition is going to be a really important one. And it's often referred to as moving away from legacy systems, these very expensive systems that we've had for decades. And don't get me wrong, there's an awful lot of lobbyists floating around this town that want us to build these expensive things, but I'm pushing back hard on that because we have to do right by the American taxpayer. We have to do right by our men and women who need the technology and the resources that are relevant to the 21st century that we need to protect the country. And we can do that in a smarter, more efficient way.

RW: Representative, as vets who served in Afghanistan continue to transition into civilian life, how do you think the state can support their transition?

DO: Well, my biggest ask for anyone listening in the state right now is to call your state representatives and senators because I am sponsoring a bill along with other Republicans and Democrats, all veterans, that would allow private businesses to implement an optional veteran preference hiring. And it would only be used as a tiebreaker. I mean, in the midst of a high suicide rate among female veterans, it's 28.5 per 100,000, among men it's 30. And just to give it context, female civilian suicide rate is five per 100,000. So in the context of mental health issues and homelessness, and the tie between having a mission and purpose, and employment and suicidal ideation, my ask would be to call your state representatives and senators and ask them to support this bill. This is a real, tangible way that we can support veterans as we're transitioning away from combat operations in Afghanistan and transitioning out of the military.

RW: So that if a veteran is up for a job and a non-veteran is an equal contender, there's slightly more status weight given to the veteran?

DO: There can be, it's optional the entire step of the way, but it has to be stated that this business implements a hiring preference. Let's say you have a white male civilian and a female veteran, and they have the same education level, the same experience, then the private business is allowed to, if they want to, consider their veteran status as a preference for hiring that individual.

RW: Okay. And that's a state law it would be. And that would be for not just the public sector, obviously, which has some of this inherent, but for the private sector?

DO: Absolutely right. And that's important because I think the federal government does a good job in giving preference to veterans. I know the state fire departments do give preferential points for veteran status, but not all of us want to work for a big government institution or organization after serving in the military, some of us want to go into private industry. And we on average have a higher unemployment rate of 2 to 4 percent. In San Diego, they did a study, even though their veterans are 6 percent higher educated, their unemployment rate was 16 percent higher. So there's a definite need because there's a correlation between a recent window of transition, and this would allow veterans that are within five years of their transition to be able to benefit from a preference hiring.

RW: Rep. Ortiz, I know you have to get back onto the floor. So I will wrap up with this question for you. Do you think that there are lessons from Afghanistan the U.S. should apply before considering entering a future war theater?

DO: I guess if we're going to talk about things to consider and lessons learned, the first and foremost is that diplomacy and building up our soft power is always going to be cheaper in lives and in treasure than anything else. I think that's the biggest lesson that I want us to learn. And let's be cognizant too, that the reason why the Taliban was able to take power in the first place was we supported an insurgent fight against the Russians, and we left a vacuum once that fight was done. And to be very cognizant and responsible with our military actions and support in the future and making sure that we are not just leaving power vacuums in that way. I think that's one of the biggest lessons. I think another lesson that we learned was not to overextend ourselves. I mean, we were looking at two conflicts at the same time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let's be very clear that a lot of the planning and the sheltering of those that attacked us on 9/11 were based and sought shelter in Afghanistan.

RW: Representative, thanks so much. I'll let you get back to the business of state government. And, Congressman Crow, before we let you go, I'd like you to reflect on that same question, please.

JC: Yeah, Ryan, I think one of the big takeaways for me is the extent to which the balance between Congress and the executive branch has become imbalanced over the last 20 years after 9/11. And unfortunately what happened was we have what are called these authorizations for use of military force, these AUMFs that have been granted to administrations, both Republicans and Democrats administrations. And they've been treated for two decades as a blank check for the use of force. What was originally authorized for us to go to Afghanistan is now being used in dozens of different places around the world. And that's not okay. The founders relegated to the Congress, The People's House, the decision of whether or not to send our men and women to war, the most solemn grave responsibility that we have. That is for Congress to decide. So it is time for us to take that blank check back, it's time for Congress to step back in and say, "We are not going to be a country that will be at a perpetual state of war." If any president, regardless of party, wants to use force and send our men and women overseas, they're going to have to come to Congress and make that case.

RW: Congressmen, thanks so much for being with us.

JC: Thanks, Ryan.

You care.

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