Phil McTigue, a Marine who spent time in Afghanistan cracking down on the Taliban

Philip McTigue trains Afghan police officers in weapons training and basic marksmanship skills outside of Kabul in 2008. Photo courtesy of Phil McTigue.

Philip McTigue has trained Afghan police officers to raid Taliban-run compounds embedded in Afghanistan’s rocky terrain; to handle specialized machine guns; and to exit a dangerous mission without leaving any team members behind.

He forged friendships with interpreters and business owners in Kabul during the late 2000s as he worked for the U.S. intelligence community. It’s those faces that McTigue, who graduated Northeastern in 2019 with a master’s degree in homeland security, has been haunted by as he watches the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.

“I was really shocked at the sadness that I felt, not about the military or the military failure that this has become. I was shocked at how sad I was at a human level, knowing that people that I cared about, and people that had entrusted their lives to me as an American, had been betrayed, and now I don’t know what’s happening to them,” says McTigue, who hasn’t connected with any of his comrades since U.S. troops began to exit Afghanistan May 1.

Despite 20 years and trillions of dollars spent on the war on terror, Kabul fell to the Taliban less than four months after President Biden announced that the U.S. would withdraw. Biden has pledged to evacuate every American soldier, but has not extended that promise to refugees or interpreters.

“I was probably over there for three or four years, and I’ve been thinking about all of the friends I made like my interpreters and their families, the shopkeepers that used to invite us in for chai. We used to go over across the street from our safe house and break bread with this guy’s family at their family-owned shop,” he says.

“As I watched Kabul crumble and started to hear about what was happening—anyone with a brain knows the atrocities that are coming—I thought to myself, ‘This is a shop that everybody knew worked with Westerners.’ And I wonder what’s happening to them and their family,” says McTigue.

The messy U.S. exit and rapid collapse of the Afghanistan government also bothers McTigue, who described his work in Afghanistan as “a call to service” triggered by the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. McTigue joined the Marines in 1989, served in the Gulf War, and was working as a police officer in Rochester, New York at the time.

“I knew the morning of September 11 when those buildings came down that my life was about to change, because nothing was going to stop me. If I had to swim across the ocean, I was going to answer the call to service,” says McTigue. “I think by September 25 I had resigned my position in the police department and I had been picked up to go to a United Nations Special Operations team and head over to Kosovo.”

He was tasked with providing security and transportation for high-priority people in war and high-conflict zones, such as judges and lawyers prosecuting war crimes. He later worked as a security contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which is when he helped train Afghan soldiers to raid Taliban-run opium compounds for the DEA. McTigue says it was an open secret that the Afghan government would likely fold to the Taliban once the U.S. withdrew, but it happened faster than he expected.

“Even I was shocked at the lack of resistance. Even expecting the Afghans to act as they did, and even though I figured this was a failed experiment from the start. With all that being said, it was hard to believe that in 30 days they could take back an entire nation,” he says.

For McTigue, who tattooed the names of some of his fallen colleagues on his inner left bicep—closest to his heart—the hectic exit still smarts.

“How did we not have a plan in place after all this time,” asks McTigue. “Why would we not have an orderly, slow withdrawal—without advertising it—so we could pull back in safety?”

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