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The Loss of Afghanistan

As an old soldier and scholar who has written extensively on conflict termination – or how to exit combat in a manner that serves your strategic objectives – the news of the past several days has been both heartbreaking and profoundly disappointing.

The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Afghanistan following President Biden’s order to rapidly withdraw US forces is a strategic disaster. No matter how hard the President or his defenders attempt to assign blame elsewhere, public opinion has rightly concluded that the buck stops with him. There are three critical areas to examine:

  1. Why did the Afghan Army fall apart so quickly?
  2. Why was the withdrawal so ineptly organized and executed?
  3. What will be the strategic outcomes of this whole episode?

The Afghan Army. There are numerous reasons for the failure of the Afghan military to stop the Taliban. There is much to learn from our failed two-decade effort to make them into a self-sufficient fighting force. Unfortunately, many of these lessons are ones we have been unable to learn before.

The cultural aspect of the failure of the Afghan military is more significant than many appreciate. Beyond Kabul, Afghanistan is still a tribal society with only nominal allegiance to the central government. While Afghanistan’s forces suffered significant casualties over the past several years, with some fighting valiantly, too often, their soldiers were not in their home regions and had no relationship with the area they were charged to defend. When confronted by motivated Taliban mujahedeen, they quickly surrendered or melted away.

I have seen several sources, especially on the right, comment on the cultural revulsion that many Afghans and others in the Muslim world feel when they see US facilities fly LBGTQ flags and publicize pride events. While tolerance is near-universal in liberal western democracies, it was painfully naïve to think we could export these values to Afghanistan in the span of less than a single generation.

The mostly illiterate Afghan armed forces were also incapable of utilizing combined land-air doctrine with its reliance on air support, intelligence, and technology. When the US pulled the contractors who had maintained the equipment, the machinery simply stopped working.

A brief bit of history is instructive. The collapse of the Afghan armed forces was not like the fall of Saigon and the defeat of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) in 1975. In Vietnam, the Democratic-controlled Congress, including the support of the junior senator from Delaware, denied President Ford the ability to resupply the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). They also blocked Ford’s ability to provide air support against the advancing North Vietnamese (NVA) units. In both cases, there was corruption and bad to terrible leadership. In the Afghan situation, it was a voluntary, hurried withdrawal against an artificial timeline. In Vietnam, the US had withdrawn from the fight for some time. Vietnamization had been a long process that included attacks into Laos and Cambodia to gain time for ARVN to get on its feet.  In Afghanistan, there were no such spoiling attacks to attrit the Taliban while the Afghan units got on their feet. In both cases, the militaries had been built on a US model, and when the sophisticated US support was no longer available, things went bad—in Afghanistan, it was rapidly, and in Vietnam, it was a drawn-out campaign.  Both routs could have been stopped if the American leadership had had the political will to do so. Sadly, our political leadership again failed us.

Organizational Failures. Senior military officers and diplomats are already leaking they had withdrawal plans. It is quickly turning into a war of finger-pointing fought with more vigor than the effort to rescue stranded Americans.

What is unclear is whether the plans drawn up were utterly ignored by the President – according to Peter Beinhart’s piece in the Atlantic, this seems like a plausible if disturbing scenario – or the plans suffered from fatally flawed intelligence. It would certainly not be the first time that our intelligence agencies badly underestimated or misunderstood a threat in recent memory. I suspect that a healthy measure of both factors was at play.

General Milley, the chairman of the JCS, said last week that no one saw the Afghans falling apart this fast.  He thought that they could hold out for at least 30 days.  This admission from the man responsible for an orderly withdrawal

The “Contingency and Crisis Response Bureau” – which was designed to handle medical, diplomatic, and logistical support concerning Americans overseas was paused, by the Biden State Department earlier this year. The bureau was formed by the Trump administration so as to have the ability to respond rapidly to crisis situations and to avoid Benghazi types of incidents.

There is no doubt that there was not a headquarters to control the US withdrawal AND apply air power to delay the Taliban. Additionally, even though they have had months to prepare it is not apparent that anyone even considered having to fight a withdrawal.  The intelligence failure allowed for the sloppy unplanned exodus that has taken on all the appearances of a rout. Additionally, there was no plan for securing regional base access, for the contractors that maintain the Afghan military, for training that military after the US departure, for evacuating interpreters and helpers.  The current plan is if you can get to Kabul airport you can be evacuated otherwise the guidance from the Biden team to Americans who are stranded in the country “Hide”.

In addition, why are they using Kabul airport and not Bagram Air Base where there are facilities for security?  The only thing that makes sense is proximity to the US Embassy. 

There are currently about 6000 soldiers and Marines on the ground at the airport.  The administration has frozen Afghan assets in the US and appealed to the Taliban to let Americans be evacuated without incident.  In short, now we have a hostage situation and it would appear the Taliban have the negotiating leverage.  Maybe the Chinese will help get Americans out of Afghanistan. And finally, the French and British are going out and collecting their personnel and getting them evacuated while the Americans sit at the Kabul airport.  Are we afraid that they might get into a skirmish?  I am sure that the White House is afraid that a skirmish could turn into multiple skirmishes and we would be committed to a new fight.  Good military leadership should be able to manage such a situation, but…….

Unfortunately, I am accustomed to failures from the political class. So more disappointing is that our intelligence agencies were blind to the extent of political dealings the Taliban had made as the withdrawal loomed. It likely took weeks or even months of planning for the Taliban to organize near-simultaneous assaults on the Afghan provincial capitals. Our intelligence efforts missed (or were ignored) that Taliban shadow governors were already in place, alongside the requisite staff, to take over provincial functions immediately.

Both the Trump administration and now Biden’s team prefaced America’s withdrawal on the notion that US intelligence capabilities would enable the United States to maintain an over-the-horizon strike capability against both insurgents and terrorists. The CIA’s failure, however, shows that as US forces withdrew, they were essentially blind. These failures caused the White House to construct America’s post-withdrawal strategy on a rotten foundation.

To misread intentions and capabilities so completely raises more uncomfortable questions about whether the intelligence community has improved its products and capabilities since its well-documented failures on 9/11 and later weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The intelligence apparatus opens itself up to criticisms that they are more concerned with trendy social or political causes. As a group, they erode any faith that remains by a regular parade of retired senior officials parading on cable news shows to lend credibility to Russian pee tapes against their political enemies while dismissing evidence that their political ally’s son engaged in reckless personal behavior while auctioning access to his father.

Strategic Outcomes. This brings us to our final item of discussion—the strategic situation following the fall of Afghanistan. From afar, the US appears to be an aging, weak empire. Weakness emboldens our adversaries (especially Russia and China) and causes our allies to doubt our strength and resolve. It bears all the signs of the Obama Administration, which should not surprise anyone given the personalities who again control the levers of power.

While trying to point fingers away from himself, one retired four-star general lamented that our days as a superpower are over.  He went on to say that this might have been a continuation of the Obama-era goal of denigrating American greatness.  What this means is that President Biden has two choices:

  1. Watch almost impotently as the caliphate in the Middle East rises, and we lose strength in Asia, accelerating the continued fall from greatness for the United States, OR
  • Do something drastic to convince world leaders that the US is still the global superpower it has been for nearly a century. If this course is pursued, the US needs to engage and overpower someone over some issue. Think of this as Margaret Thatcher turning a dispute over a mostly meaningless island into the Falklands conflict. There are many candidates for such a move – and all are profoundly dangerous.
  1. Given that the Chinese are now telling the Taiwanese that the US can’t be trusted and are conducting live-fire drills in the Taiwan straits, some bellicose types of action/response in support of Taiwan are called for.
    1. Given the Russian stance that the Black Sea is a Russian lake, increased naval action there may be called for.
    1. Given the situation in Eastern Europe and Crimea, additional US presence and favorable armaments support might temper the Russian’s bellicosity. 
    1. Support for an anti-Taliban insurgent movement should be a natural course of action coupled with the diplomatic and economic efforts that are underway. But make no mistake, the Taliban will only laugh off strongly worded letters expressing the displeasure of infidels in far-away foreign capitals.
    1. The South China Sea stand-off over freedom of navigation can always be a way to show American strength and devotion to a high set of goals and ideas.
    1. And recently an East China Sea issue has arisen between China and Japan.  US support for the Japanese is just another way of trying to keep the Chinese genie  in the bottle.

Related to item two above is a drastic overhaul of the US military leadership.  The current leadership has failed in Afghanistan. It will probably take a new presidential administration before the damage that this leadership has caused can be remediated and reversed.  HOWEVER, if President Biden was to throw the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and several other generals out on their cushy retirement rears, he might reduce the growing call for totally remaking our military. This is a dangerous path politically for a president whose opinion ratings were recently measured below 40%. What will these officers say about the Commander in the Chief once free to speak freely (or at least for attribution)?

Whatever course the administration chooses will be hotly debated as the left leaning media awakens to just what they have created.  The emergence of balanced reporting and honest dealing with the American people would be a great thing to come out of this mess.  One can always hope.

Finally, back in April, we discussed some of the future international movements by multiple actors to gain favor with the new Afghan government.  The Chinese have already made diplomatic moves to align themselves with the Taliban, and one can be sure that Pakistan will be right behind them.  The Chinese will continue to push throughout the region. As predicted, the Russians are seeking to insulate the Taliban.  As suggested by my caliphate remark earlier, what was not discussed but now seems to be a logical extension is Iran offering the Taliban its good offices and a close relationship.

The April article on the future of Afghanistan is a good reference as we follow the post-Afghanistan events.  Please stay tuned.