Paul Davis' nine years as an active-duty Marine included three combat deployments. But the one that's been foremost on his mind in recent days is his 2012 stint at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

He's heartbroken for Afghan people desperate to flee as their country collapses and the Taliban reassert control. And he's hoping that at least some of what U.S. troops taught Afghans over the past 20 years, like some principles of self-governance, can stick amid the chaos.

Most of all, though, he thinks back to an Afghan proverb he learned during his deployment: "You may have the clocks, but we have the time." It's a saying on the minds of many Minnesota veterans who have deployed to Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks. To them, the chaotic U.S. military pullout is a tragic ending but a predictable one, too. After all, Afghanistan is known as the "graveyard of empires."

"Their culture, including the Taliban, is absolutely committed to waiting it out," said Davis, 33, of St. Michael. "They've been waiting armies out and waiting foreign regimes out for thousands of years. To them, an extra generation is not that big of a deal. It's heartbreaking. A lot of progress has been made, and some of it is lost. But knowing a little bit about that culture, you could see how this was going to happen."

Since Alexander the Great invaded what is now Afghanistan some three centuries before the birth of Christ, the landlocked spot at the crossroads of central and southern Asia has been seen as a strategic asset.

But it's also a divided tribal nation where internationally recognized borders often don't mean much to Afghans.

And although the nation has been almost constantly at war for the past century, it's also been unconquerable. Foreign invaders from the British Empire to the Soviet Union to the United States have all eventually left after spending their own blood and treasure.

Over two decades, the U.S. lost nearly 2,500 service members, including 76 who were from Minnesota or had Minnesota ties, according to the Military Salute Project.

David Peters, a lifelong Minnesotan who has served 16 years as a Marine, ran dangerous convoys throughout Helmand Province during his deployment in 2011 and 2012. He started to realize something during dinners and teas with Afghans in villages: They didn't care about a centralized, democratic government. They just wanted to be left alone.

"There was a lot of apathy," Peters said. "Some old-timers, they had been there with the Russians, and they will be there for the next ones. We could have ended this years ago and had maybe the same result and saved us 10 years. Or maybe we made it better — who knows? But you get there, and you realize there is no winning."

Bitter goodbyes

No matter the history, Americans are grappling with the gut-wrenching images of a U.S. evacuation while American allies try to flee.

One of those evacuating Americans was J.P. Lawrence, a 2008 graduate of Redwood Valley High School in southwestern Minnesota who served for nine years in the Minnesota National Guard. Lawrence has been living in Kabul for three years as a reporter for Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military's independent news source.

He went to the U.S. Embassy over the weekend and was taken via helicopter to Kabul's airport. He got on a flight chartered by the State Department and landed in Washington, D.C., at 3 a.m. Monday. Later that day, Taliban fighters visited Stars and Stripes' Kabul office.

"I'm very worried for our Afghan colleagues still in Afghanistan," he said Monday from a hotel in Washington. "I said a lot of goodbyes before I left, and they were very bitter goodbyes. It was, 'Hey, I'm the lucky bastard who gets to leave here. I'm sorry I'm leaving you behind.' It didn't feel like there was honor in what I was doing."

Lawrence believes America has a deep moral responsibility for Afghans who supported America the past two decades.

"We could do a Berlin airlift," Lawrence said. "We've done it before."

Carl Matson of Lakeville, a 30-year military veteran who deployed to Herat in 2006 and 2007 as part of a tactical training team, puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the man who ordered the withdrawal: President Joe Biden.

"The discussion 15 years ago was that eventually we're going to leave, and the Taliban are going to come back immediately," he said. "We're the ones doing the clock-watching, and they just wait."

Matson has wondered just how much time was enough time for the U.S. to invest in Afghanistan.

The U.S. still has a military presence in Germany and Japan 80 years after World War II began. Isn't it America's responsibility, he said, to continue its presence in a country with exponentially more difficult issues with infrastructure, human rights and endemic corruption?

At least, he said, the U.S. should have kept heavy air support in Afghanistan to back up Afghan forces.

"In a place where human rights are at arguably their worst, we went in there with our moral superiority, and the Democrats … are turning their backs on the problem," he said.

"Here we are, expecting this country to have an armed forces able to fight an insurgency, which is very tough. And now the Biden administration pulled the rug out from under them."

Only two options

When the terrorists struck the twin towers in New York City nearly 20 years ago, few Americans predicted a ragtag group of radical Islamist fighters could drag the U.S. into its longest war. But for Minnesotans who understand Afghanistan's complexities, there were always only two options: continue an unwinnable war ad infinitum, or end it in a discouraging way that would leave Afghans vulnerable.

Mike McElhiney, a Special Forces soldier, was part of the first American military team in southern Afghanistan in late 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. He lost his right arm and nearly died when an errant U.S. bomb fell nearby, killing three fellow Green Berets.

Over the past several days, he's been wondering what many families of soldiers who died in Afghanistan have been asking themselves: "I lost my son — for what? For what?"

But when he watched Biden's nationally televised speech Monday, McElhiney, who lives in Maple Plain and works for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, found himself in agreement. No matter how messy the pullout, it had to happen at some point.

"We had a mission," McElhiney said. "It was to get retribution for 9/11, kill and capture al-Qaida, make the country no longer a safe haven, and track down and kill [Osama] bin Laden. All those were accomplished. But in the 10 years it took to get bin Laden, you ousted the Taliban government and created a vacuum, so you go into security and stability operations — nation building. And everyone knew from Day One that the Western template for democracy was not going to work over there.

"There's just no good time to leave," he added. "There ain't a good way to do it."

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647