It was there that I looked up and first saw the grandeur of the Afghan night sky. From this outpost, far from the light pollution and haze of Afghan cities, an ocean of stars stretched before me across the endless mountainous landscape. At that moment, I thought about the stars that led me there in the first place.
The Khost officers were representative of the 9/11 generation of CIA — women and men of varied ethnicities, ages, backgrounds and political persuasions who united together in shared American values to take part in the great war of our time. Those who focused on counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan were among the most elite and dedicated intelligence officers our nation has ever assembled.
They were rock stars, though none of them joined the CIA or volunteered for this mission seeking fame or recognition. But far too many of them achieved eternal remembrance with a star etched into marble.
CIA’s Memorial Wall stands in its headquarters lobby as a silent tribute to those officers who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. A stone carver carefully chisels each star and sprays them black, which fades to gray as the stars age.
Not found on the wall but stars worthy of their own memorial are the scores of CIA’s Afghan partners who lost their lives in pursuit of our common cause to defeat al Qaeda and its allies. Any progress the United States has made toward that goal over the last 20 years would simply not have been possible without Afghan paramilitary units, translators, tribal interlocutors and yes — spies that infiltrated terrorist and insurgent groups, many of whom paid the ultimate price for collaborating with the United States.
I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my time in Afghanistan as so many of my military and intelligence community colleagues have since the Biden administration announced plans for withdrawal last month. My emotions have run the gamut from frustration of a job left unfinished to worry for the Afghan people’s safety to the growing fear that the loss of so many of our CIA, military, allied, and Afghan friends and colleagues over the last 20 years may end up having been in vain.
On this Memorial Day though, I will look to the night sky with gratitude and reflect on the grandeur of the Stars of Afghanistan.