Editor’s Note: Matt Castelli is a former CIA officer, serving nearly 15 years in analytic, operational and management assignments primarily covering counterterrorism – including in Afghanistan. He also served from 2016 to 2018 as director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council. Follow him @CastelliMatt. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of his employer. View more opinion articles on CNN.
During one of my first trips to Afghanistan, I traveled to a remote base not far from the border with Pakistan. It took a helicopter ride to get there. We deftly navigated through mountain passes under the cover of darkness on a moonless night to avoid the threat of small-arms fire from insurgents. A few nights later, I made my way to the top of a makeshift watchtower on base to enjoy a cigar with some of my colleagues.
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.
On December 30, 2009, at another base in Khost, Afghanistan, a double agent detonated a suicide vest, killing seven CIA officers and seriously wounding a number of others in one of the most devastating attacks in CIA history. Their bodies were flown back to Dover Air Force Base and seven stars were etched into the marble Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters. Their deaths became personal and drove me and many of my colleagues to redouble our counterterrorism campaign and take the fight to the enemy more directly.
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 hunted and found Osama bin Laden, developed some of the most sophisticated intelligence operations in an inhospitable and challenging environment as they degraded al Qaeda and its allies, and trained Afghan partners to take the lead in defending their fledgling government from terrorism. They even brought a small measure of justice for the families of those colleagues lost in the Khost attack with the killing of one of the attack’s principal co-conspirators. It is impossible to tabulate how many lives these intelligence officers saved by disrupting the planning of potentially catastrophic attacks and dismantling terrorist networks over the years.
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.
There are 137 stars carved into the wall, with four new stars added just this past week in CIA’s annual memorial ceremony. A ledger beneath the stars contains the names of the fallen officers who have received the posthumous honor, although some names remain blank because the details of their CIA service remain secret even in death. When the death of any agency officer occurs, the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation immediately becomes involved and supports the well-being and educational needs of children and spouses of the fallen.
For nearly 20 years since the start of the war in Afghanistan, CIA officers have rushed forward, putting their lives on the line, to confront threats facing our nation. A CIA officer, Johnny “Mike” Spann, on one of the earliest teams to enter Afghanistan in 2001, was the first American killed there. Since then, multiple stars have been added for those who perished in Afghanistan. They represent a cross-section of the CIA workforce – analysts, case officers, paramilitary officers and more – and left in the wake of their service and sacrifice families and loved ones, who must bear this heaviest of burdens.
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.
As the US military hastens its withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is considerable bipartisan concern about the future of these Afghan partners and a desire for the administration of President Joe Biden to accelerate special immigrant visas for them to relocate to the United States, lest they risk the same fate as their comrades.
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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.