The Afghanistan Withdrawal: The Intersection of Unrealistic Planning, Poor Execution, and Deflecting Responsibility
We have witnessed over the last several days chaos and heart-rending human drama as a nation folds in on itself and falls to the radical Islamist group known as the Taliban. It is tragic on many levels.
It was predictable that the Afghan government would eventually collapse. Inept and rife with corruption, propped up with U.S. dollars, and protected by U.S. troops, many experts predicted Afghanistan as a democracy and ally to the West was a pipe dream whose very existence was predicated on the presence of United States civilians and military personnel.
Some see the ongoing events as a humiliation of the United States. But let’s be clear: The humiliation is not about the United States military (who accomplished their mission years ago), but rather the humiliation of allowing the mission to morph over 20 years so that our original reason for being there was lost.
The military had two missions in Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11: To attack and degrade al-Qaeda and to find Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda, while it still existed in cells around the region, was decimated. Bin Laden was eventually found and killed. Mission accomplishment happened ten years ago. Mission creep became the Achilles’ heel of four U.S. presidential administrations.
Several missteps along the way brought us to the present set of circumstances. First, the mission, under Republican and Democrat administrations, devolved into nation-building. The U.S. and its allies decided to try and make this tribal nation into a Western-style democracy. Over one trillion dollars later, that goal is as unattainable as ever. Second, there was a misunderstanding of Afghan culture and the influence of the Taliban. Afghanistan is primitive in that local warlords have more influence than local bureaucrats, who represent a central government in Kabul which is far removed from the Afghan people not only in distance, but in priorities and human values. The central government was a creation of the U.S. and its allies.
The Taliban, while an Islamist paramilitary organization, is also somewhat woven into Afghan culture and society. They are brutal, but also brutally effective. Attempting to negotiate with the Taliban was a fool’s errand. They are not always easily identifiable, have a loose organizational structure (Who is actually in charge?), and live among the people all across the country. Further, did one really expect the Taliban to honor their negotiated promises and keep their word? The U.S. and its international partners used the tactics of counterterrorism, when what was needed was a way to challenge counterinsurgency. The Taliban, and its sympathizers, had one goal: to drive out the foreigners and regain control of the country. They were the dictionary definition of an insurgency.
The Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan was the right decision. The execution of the planned withdrawal under the Biden Administration is an abysmal failure. The decision to leave Afghanistan, inherited by the Biden Administration, was based on conditions on the ground. Details of its execution were not in stone and not telegraphed in full to the Taliban. The Taliban knew that further attacks on U.S. forces or attempts to overthrow the central government in Kabul would bring a swift and violent response from the superior military power of America.
Under the new Administration, all bets were off. With a weak and opaque foreign policy, the Biden Administration sped up the withdrawal with no apparent conditions and with dates certain for an immediate removal of U.S. forces. Sensing an opportunity, the Taliban expanded their attacks; and one by one, provincial capitals fell and ground was gained. Thousands of Afghan people have died in the Taliban’s push across the country. President Biden ordered the withdrawal in April, with the redeployments of U.S. troops happening now, in the summer. This is prime fighting season in Afghanistan. (One thing that you have to understand historically about Afghanistan is that there is quite literally a fighting season. That is how ingrained war has been into the Afghan culture for generations and why historically Afghanistan has been known as the “graveyard of empires.”) Had this mission taken place in the winter, the Taliban could not have launched their attacks; and the crisis we are witnessing now, would likely not be happening.
Just weeks ago, President Biden assured Americans that the Afghan government would not fall and the Taliban would not take over the country. He scoffed at the idea of the fall of Kabul being compared to the fall of Saigon in Vietnam and the graphic pictures of desperate Vietnamese clinging to helicopters at the U.S. Embassy. He lauded the 300,000 strong Afghan Army, replete with U.S. weapons and equipment. Flash forward to hundreds of Afghan civilians rushing the airport in Kabul and scores running beside or clinging to the sides of a U.S. transport plane leaving the country. It is panic and chaos. The equipment and weapons provided to Afghan soldiers is now in the hands of the Taliban, and they are the best-armed insurgent group in the world.
The problem is not the Biden Administration’s decision to leave Afghanistan. The problem is the execution of this plan. No U.S. airstrikes punished the Taliban as they raced across the country and surrounded the capital city. Bagram Air Base, a major U.S. military facility at one point and a potential second airport to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans, was already captured by the Taliban. That left the single runway available at Kabul. At one point, the Biden Administration told people, including U.S. personnel, to not come to the airport and to stay in their homes. Then all U.S. people were ordered to leave. The Biden team dragged their feet over the last two months at getting Afghan translators who helped U.S. troops out of the country. The White House did not anticipate how quickly Taliban forces would move to take over the country. It has been a confusing mess. It reflects total mismanagement by the Biden Administration and leadership at the Pentagon.
How did it end up this way? It is a product of an inept and corrupt Afghan government. (The President of Afghanistan fled the country with billions of dollars in cash.) That inept and corrupt government was financed and propped up by U.S. dollars. It is partly the result of an Afghan military that did not have the will to fight for their own freedom, even though we trained and equipped them. Add to that a somewhat fatalistic Afghan population at large who often see the Taliban as a given or sympathize with the Taliban.
Then put into the mix a vacillating U.S. President who vacationed at Camp David while Afghanistan erupted into chaos. He then popped in at the White House to blame everyone else for events in Afghanistan: his predecessor for trapping him into the withdrawal in the first place, the Afghans for not fighting hard enough, the Afghan civilians for not leaving soon enough, and the three previous U.S. Presidents (almost hoping we’d forget that he was the Vice President for two terms during those Administrations) for not getting out sooner. President Biden claimed the “buck stopped” with him; but apparently, he doesn’t really believe that.
The real bottom line is we should have declared victory and left Afghanistan after bin Laden was killed during the Obama Administration. Instead, we wasted a vast amount of money and, sadly, thousands of lives, to unrealistically try to make Afghanistan into a modern democracy and force them to join the 21st century.
While we are witnessing the devastating results of a myriad of mistakes playing out in Afghanistan, it is important to not overlook the good. Our brave men and women in uniform fought and engaged in their duties admirably throughout the entirety of this 20-year war.
To the veterans who served in Afghanistan, thank you for your sacrifice and service. With what is going on in Afghanistan, some members of our Gold Star Families, who lost loved ones there, are asking, “Did my loved one die in vain?” The answer is an unequivocal, “NO.” Whenever evil is confronted and fought, it is never in vain. We pray for all the members of our military, for Afghanistan veterans, and for all of our Gold Star Families.