By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- One held the hand of a dying fellow soldier and told himself that the sacrifice would not be in vain. Another watched an Afghan tribal leader risk his life to seek American protection for his village -- only to be told that it was not possible. A third interviewed insurgents who expect American troops to get tired and go home. A fourth beat suspected terrorists, only to find out later that they were innocent.
The veterans of the Afghan war testified today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about a seven-year conflict that has attracted little debate, even as President Obama sends reinforcements to take on the Taliban.
The hearing took place as instability in Afghanistan spreads through neighboring Pakistan, and a day after the 38th anniversary of committee chairman John F. Kerry's testimony -- as a Vietnam veteran -- against that war in 1971.
Today, the young veterans gave a sobering picture of the failures of US policy, but none advocated a complete withdrawal.
However, one veteran -- Rick Reyes, a former corporal in the US Marines -- called Obama's decision to send 17,000 additional combat troops to Afghanistan "a mistake."
"At a minimum, this occupation needs to be rethought," he said.
Reyes, who was among the first US forces sent to Afghanistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks, said he arrested suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda in their homes based on tips by paid informants.
"Almost 100 percent of the time, we would find that the suspected terrorists were just innocent civilians," he said. "We began to feel we were chasing ghosts. How can you tell the difference between members of the Taliban from an Afghan civilians? The answer is: You can't."
In his written testimony, Reyes said he and his fellow Marines sometimes broke "hands, arms, legs" and wrecked homes during their midnight raids. But he did not describe these incidents to the committee today, saying later that he did not want to distract from his message of opposition to a troop increase.
However, three other Afghan vets argued passionately for a stepped-up US commitment, saying the mission could be saved by more troops and smarter tactics.
Westley Moore, a former Army captain who led a program that persuaded moderate Taliban to pledge allegiance to the new Afghan government, called the 17,000 additional troops "a paltry number" compared with what is required to protect the population in the rural areas.
"We are underfunded and undermanned in Afghanistan," he told the senators. "We asked two brigades to have coverage over a 1,600-mile area that is. . the most dangerous terrain in the world."
Moore said it would send the wrong message to the world if the United States were to simply leave.
"[The Taliban's] entire strategy depends on our political and national will faltering," he said. "Many of them are fond of saying, 'The Americans have the wristwatches, but we have the time.' "
Genevieve Chase, a Pashtun-language specialist who survived a suicide attack in Afghanistan, made an urgent plea for US troops to be sent into the villages to protect the population, recalling a village elder who asked for help, only to return home "defeated and without hope."
"Why builds schools, provincial centers, bridges and wells, when there is no support or security provided for villages to utilize them?" Chase asked.
She said Americans had erred in the 1980s by abandoning Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets there, leaving the country to chaos and civil war.
"If we don't do this now, we will be back," she said.
Christopher McGurk, a former army staff sergeant, recalled holding the hand of 19-year-old Evan O'Neill of Haverhill, Mass., who was fatally shot during a firefight on the Pakistani border. With his last breath, O'Neill apologized for not completing the mission.
"He was only 19 years old, but he understood that the mission was larger than himself," McGurk said.
Referencing Kerry's 1971 testimony, in which spoke of how some Vietnam vets returning from the war felt betrayed by their superiors, McGurk said: "My own anger and sense of betrayal comes from the possibility that we may not come to a resolution in Afghanistan and that the blood that has been shed by the victims of 9/11, the Afghan people and men like O'Neill would be in vain."
McGurk said a withdrawal would dishonor O'Neill's sacrifice and put Afghan allies in jeopardy.
"These are real people that I dealt with on a daily basis," he said. "To just leave them....to me, that is very unacceptable."
Only a half dozen anti-war protesters attended the hearing, underscoring how little attention the war is getting compared to the Vietnam war in the 1970s. But the hearing also highlighted growing discomfort about Afghanistan.
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, asked the former soldiers to explain the administration's strategy there, saying: "I have no idea what it is, other than sending additional troops."
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, asked about the consequences of a US withdrawal.
Kerry thanked the soldiers for their service and said he does not believe that withdrawal is the answer, but asked about alternatives to a large military build-up. But he also suggested that patience with the war might be drawing to a close, saying that Congress will enact "strict standards of measuring the progress" against extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We are no longer offering either country a blank check," he said.
Kerry lauded the comments of a fifth witness, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam war veteran whose soldier son was killed in Iraq, who said that the United States is making the same mistakes that it made in Vietnam by getting dragged into a conflict with no end.
Bacevich said there are better ways to protect the United States against terrorist attacks than to invade and occupy countries, such as treating them as a global criminal network. But he did not propose an immediate, complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, but said providing incentives for tribes to keep Al Qaeda out of their area might prove a more successful outcome than nation-building.
"Just as in the 1960's we possessed neither the wisdom nor the means needed to determine the fate of southeast Asia, so today we possess neither the wisdom nor the means to determine the fate of the Middle East," he said, adding that this war might bring bigger mistakes than the ones "the young John Kerry once rightly decried."
After Bacevich's testimony, Kerry joked: "I'm not sure that I am grateful for the reminders that I am now the older John Kerry."
Kerry said he had promised himself long ago that he would "not compare all of our conflicts to the Vietnam War" because such analogies can be unproductive. But he went on to list the similarities.
"Once again, we are fighting an insurgency in a rural country with a weak central government," he said. "Our enemy blends in with the local population and easily crosses a long border to find sanctuary in a neighboring country. Our efforts to win the loyalty of the locals are hampered by civilian casualties and an inability to deliver the security that we promised more than seven years ago."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.