Afghanistan: How It Became America’s Disaster - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Afghanistan: How It Became America’s Disaster
by
U.S. Marines assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021 (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla)

No amount of spin-doctoring by the White House, no false dichotomy of complete withdrawal or escalation, no disingenuous blaming of the Trump administration, no conflating disaster with courage, and no emotional appeal to stop the “forever war” can alter reality: the United States has been dealt a staggering defeat and has conducted an ignominious and catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, shocking NATO, other allies, and supportive Afghan partners.

The defeat of the world’s most powerful military and economic colossus, the United States, will embolden Islamist radicals from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and will leave the world a more dangerous place. Even though some state-of-the-art military equipment was made inoperable, the Taliban have been left with a substantial array given to the Afghan National Security Forces. The Taliban are now better equipped than ever with American vehicles, aircraft, assault rifles, night-vision equipment, laser pointers, and grenade launchers. It is a formidable guerilla force estimated at 58,000 to 100,000 in a UN Security Council report issued in June. 

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Afghanistan may now revert to an ungoverned space, as Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras challenge the authority of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, while elements of ISIS-K and al-Qaida regroup in caves in the remote escarpments and mountains of Afghanistan where they can plan attacks against Western interests and the United States — as they did before 9/11.

As the Biden administration would spin it: contingencies were considered, withdrawal from a battlefield is inherently messy, and the logistical problems encountered at Hamid Karzai International Airport were inevitable. But perception, as it is said, is reality. Even liberal-leaning mainstream media and our NATO allies have been highly critical of the botched evacuation that left Americans and Afghan partners at the mercy of the Taliban, known for their ruthless executions and mistreatment of women and young boys — with 13 U.S. service members killed, 18 U.S. service members wounded, and an estimated 170 civilians killed in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport.

So what went wrong? The initial mission was to find and kill Osama bin Laden and degrade the Taliban and al-Qaida’s capability to support and mount attacks against the West — eliminating a future threat. However, the mission was allowed to expand with the added complexity of counterinsurgency (COIN), nation-building as a Western-style democracy, and restoring the Afghan economy. The misjudgments and causes of failure may be classified as strategic, operational, and cultural.

In strategic terms, COIN required over 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops, a bill of goods sold to the Obama administration that did not work. It sounds noble to win hearts and minds through good works, but if that were possible, the rural and urban people of Afghanistan would have denied access to the Taliban and ousted them. Further, COIN was allowed to prevail even after Osama bin Laden was killed by SEAL Team Six, with the mission emphasis later moving to counterterrorism, i.e. standoff or so-called over-the-horizon capability. It was also strategically naive to believe in nation-building in a tribal, patriarchal society with an economy that represents about 80 percent of the world’s opium exports.

It is well known that in April, President Joe Biden rejected the counsel of senior military commanders and the advice of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, who advised against a complete withdrawal. Besides that, the most devastating operational error was to withdraw the U.S. military before U.S. civilians and diplomats and Afghan nationals could leave the country. This resulted in pandemonium at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, and our citizens and Afghan collaborators were exposed to the Taliban with no protection. This withdrawal was based upon the flawed assumption that the Afghan National Security Forces would be able to support Afghan governance and a gradual exit of non-military personnel. 

Another critical operational error was the withdrawal of U.S. air support, which evidently demoralized the Afghan forces, causing them to flee the battlefield and leave weapons and other materiel behind. Moreover, another operating error was committed immediately after 9/11, explained former secretary of defense Gen. Jim Mattis in his book Call Sign Chaos. Distinctly different tribes from northern Afghanistan were sent to hunt for bin Laden in Tora Bora, a predominantly Pashtun region in the east; the hunters were said by Mattis to be strangers, unable to relate to the local population.

It was strategically naive to in believe nation-building in a tribal, patriarchal society with an economy that represents 80 percent of the world’s opium exports.

Culturally, many of our policymakers, senior advisers, analysts, and even Biden himself have limited or zero operating experience. They come from and through the political processes of Congress or various staff policy positions. They have never run anything such as a military operation, multinational enterprise, global line of business, or international development organization. They have a fundamental staff culture as well-informed observers, knowing about levers but never having worked them, particularly under conditions of duress. They also may not understand the passion of tribalism and those fighting in the name of their god against a foreign occupational army that is backing a corrupt government. They are skilled in analysis, academically credentialed, and thoughtful, but they lack the skepticism, worldliness, and cynicism required to address the evil that threatens us.

In relation to its core expertise, the U.S. military acquitted itself well, quickly toppling the Taliban, hunting and killing bin Laden, and eventually conducting a massive airlift to get Americans and Afghans out of the country. But the war in Afghanistan is far from over — restive tribes will continue to fight. Further, both Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Milley have advised that terrorist elements such as al-Qaida could reestablish themselves, and do so more rapidly with the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan government.

Biden was determined to make a cathartic announcement on September 11, speaking at Ground Zero in New York, at the Pentagon, and at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania; “America’s longest war has ended,” he might say. While it is noble to end war, it is ignoble to end it as the president did.

It will take many months, if not years, for a special commission to establish accountability for America’s Afghan debacle. Was Biden stubborn and ill-informed? Was he unduly motivated by the symbolism of announcing an end to a 20-year war on 9/11? Was there groupthink in Washington without due consideration of dissenting opinions? Was there a time when America’s senior leadership knew it was unwinnable, yet they remained in denial? Did the intelligence community underestimate the Taliban’s capability to sweep the country, and overestimate the Afghan National Security Forces’ willingness to fight without U.S. air cover? Were the failures of other empires in Afghanistan disregarded, and did America and its NATO partners institutionalize hubris?

Accountability is necessary and desirable, but it cannot change history or bring back the dead.

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