Who Will Trust Us after Afghanistan?

Following 9/11, a bit of wreckage from the Twin Towers was buried at the American embassy in Kabul, with the inscription: “Never Again.” Now Again has come. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban flag will fly over the abandoned American embassy and al-Qaeda will be operating inside Afghanistan. Fifty years from now, Americans will stare in sad disbelief at the photo of an American Marine plucking a baby to safety over barbed wire at Kabul airport. What a shameful, wretched way to quit a war.

The root cause was extreme partisanship in Congress. By default, this bequeathed to the presidency the powers of a medieval king. The Afghanistan tragedy unfolded in four phases, culminating in the whimsy of one man consigning millions to misery.

Phase One. 2001–2007. After 9/11, America unleashed a swift aerial blitzkrieg that shattered the Taliban forces. Inside three months, al-Qaeda’s core unit was trapped inside the Tora Bora caves in the snowbound Speen Ghar mountains. A force of American Marines and multinational special forces commanded by Brigadier General James Mattis (later secretary of defense) was poised to cut off the mountain passes and systematically destroy al-Qaeda. Instead, General Tommy Franks, the overall commander, sent in the undisciplined troops of Afghan warlords, who allowed al-Qaeda to escape into Pakistan. Thus was lost the golden opportunity to win a fast, decisive war and leave.

Acting upon his Evangelical beliefs, President George W. Bush then made the fateful decision to change the mission from killing terrorists to creating a democratic nation comprising 40 million mostly illiterate tribesmen. Nation-building was a White House decision made without gaining true congressional commitment. Worse, there was no strategy specifying the time horizon, resources, and security measures. This off-handed smugness was expressed by Vice President Dick Cheney early in 2002 when he remarked, “The Taliban is out of business, permanently.”

On the assumption that there was no threat, a scant 5,000 Afghan soldiers were trained each year. But the fractured Taliban could not be tracked down and defeated in detail because their sponsor, Pakistan, was sheltering them. Pakistan was also providing the U.S.–NATO supply line into landlocked Afghanistan, thus limiting our leverage to object to the sanctuary extended to the Taliban.

In 2003, the Bush administration, concerned about the threat of Saddam’s presumed weapons of mass destruction, invaded Iraq. This sparked a bitter insurgency, provoked by Islamist terrorists, that required heavy U.S. military resources. Iraq stabilized in 2007, but by that time the Taliban had regrouped inside Pakistan and were attacking in eastern Afghanistan, where the dominant tribe was Pashtun, their own.

Phase Two. 2008–2013. For years, the Democratic leadership had been battering the Republicans about the Iraq War, claiming that it was unnecessary. By default, Afghanistan became the “right war” for the Democrats. Once elected, President Obama, who said that Afghanistan was the war we could not afford to lose, had no way out. With manifest reluctance, in 2010 he ordered a “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops, bringing the total to 100,000 U.S. soldiers plus 30,000 allied soldiers. The goal was to implement a counterinsurgency strategy, yet Obama pledged to begin withdrawing troops in 2011, an impossibly short time frame.

The strategy aimed to clear villages of the Taliban, then leave Afghan soldiers — askaris — to hold them and to build infrastructure and governance linked to the Kabul central government. In a 2011 book titled “The Wrong War,” I described why this strategy could not succeed. In Vietnam, I had served in a combined-action platoon of 15 Marines and 40 local Vietnamese. It had taken 385 days of constant patrolling to bring security to one village of 5,000. In Afghanistan, there were 7,000 Pashtun villages to be cleared by fewer than a thousand U.S. platoons, an insurmountable mismatch. Counterinsurgency would have required dedicated troops inserted for years. President Obama offered a political gesture, not a credible strategy.

Admiral James Stavridis was the supreme Allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during the surge period. He recently wrote, “We trained the wrong kind of army for Afghanistan. . . . A decade ago, we debated all this at senior levels, but kept coming back to a firmly held belief that we could succeed best by modeling what we knew and found comfortable: ducks like ducks, in the end.” According to the admiral, our top command knew they were creating “the wrong kind of army.” Yet they did so regardless.

My experience was different. In trips to Afghanistan over ten years, I embedded with dozens of U.S. platoons. When accompanying our grunts, the askaris did indeed fight. But ten years later, it remains a mystery to me why our generals refused to acknowledge what our grunts knew: namely, that the Afghan soldiers would not hold the villages once our troops left.

This wasn’t due to the structure of their army. The fault went deeper. The askaris lacked faith in the steadfastness of their own chain of command. Afghan president Hamid Karzai reigned erratically from 2004 through 2014, ranting against the American government while treating the Taliban with deference. His successor, Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat devoid of leadership skills, antagonized both his political partners and tribal chieftains. Neither man instituted promotion based upon merit or imbued confidence in the security forces. Familial and tribal patronage pervaded.

From the Kabul capital to province to district, from an Afghan general to a lieutenant, positions and rank depended upon paying bribes upward and extorting payments downward. We were caught on the horns of a dilemma caused by our political philosophy. Because we wanted to create a democracy, we chose not to impose slates of our preferred leaders. On the other hand, the askaris had no faith in the durability or tenacity of their own chain of command.

In contrast, the Taliban promoted upward from the subtribes in the different provinces. While decentralized, they were united in a blazing belief in their Islamist cause and encouraged by Pakistan. The Afghan army and district, provincial, and Kabul officials lacked a comparable spirit and vision of victory.

Phase Three. 2014–2020. From 2001 to 2013, one group of generals — many of them household names — held sway in the corridors of power, convinced they could succeed in counterinsurgency and nation-building. That effort, while laudable, failed.

But that did not mean that a Taliban victory was inevitable. Quite the opposite. A second group of generals came forward, beginning with General Joseph Dunford. The mission changed from counterinsurgency to supporting the Afghan army with intelligence, air assets, and trainers. President Obama lowered expectations about the end state, saying Afghanistan was “not going to be a source of terrorist attacks again.” U.S. troop strength dropped from 100,000 in 2011 to 16,000 in 2014. With the exception of Special Forces raids, we were not in ground combat, so there were few American casualties.

Battlefield tactics shifted to what the Afghan army could do: play defense and prevent the Taliban from consolidating. By 2018, U.S. troop strength was lower than 10,000. Nonetheless, General Scott Miller orchestrated an effective campaign to keep control of Afghanistan’s cities. Afghan soldiers, not Americans or allies, did the fighting and dying. The last U.S. combat death occurred in February of 2020.

Nevertheless, narcissistic President Trump, desperate to leave, promised the Taliban that America would depart by mid 2021. He cut the number of American troops in country to 2,500. With those few troops, General Miller nonetheless held the line. The U.S. military presence, albeit tiny, motivated the beleaguered Afghan soldiers. When the Taliban massed to hit the defenses of a city, the askaris defended their positions and the U.S. air pounced on targets. In addition, our presence provided a massive spy network and electronic listening post in central Asia, able to monitor Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran. At a cost of no American lives and 5 percent of the defense budget, Afghanistan had reached a stalemate sustainable indefinitely at modest cost.

Phase Four. Bug-out in 2021. President Biden broke that stalemate in April of 2021, when he surprised our allies and delighted the Taliban by declaring that all U.S. troops would leave by 9/11, a singularly inappropriate date. As our military packed up, the miasma of abandonment settled into the Afghan psyche. In early July, our military sneaked away from Bagram Air Base in the middle of the night, which triggered a cascading collapse. Once Afghan units across the country grasped that they were being abandoned, they dissolved. What followed was a chaotic evacuation from the Kabul airport, with the Taliban triumphantly entering the city.

Asked why he had pulled out entirely, President Biden said, “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al-Qaeda gone?” That stunning fabrication was a denial of reality: Al-Qaeda are commingled with the Taliban in Kabul. As the world watched, America had to rely upon Taliban forbearance to flee. President Biden had handed America a crushing defeat without precedent.

President Biden has claimed that the ongoing evacuation occurred because the Afghan army ran away instead of fighting. In truth, the Afghan soldiers did fight, suffering 60,000 killed in the war. Their talisman was the American military. No matter how tough the conditions, somehow an American voice crackled over the radio, followed by thunder from the air. Those few Americans were the steel rods in the concrete. When that steel was pulled out, the concrete crumbled. The spirit of the Afghan army was broken.

During the month following the abandonment of Bagram Air Base, the Pentagon remained passive. In contrast, a month before the abrupt fall of Saigon in 1975, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger was concerned about the North Vietnamese advances. As a former grunt in Vietnam, I was his special assistant during that turbulent time. He in­formed State and the White House that he was ordering an air evacuation; 50,000 Vietnamese were rescued before Saigon fell. In the case of Kabul, the Pentagon took no such preemptive action.

Worse, selecting which Afghans can fly to safety has been left to State Department bureaucrats, although State has an abysmal ten-year record, with 18,000 applicants stuck in the queue. Each day approximately 7,000 undocumented immigrants walk into America; about 2,000 Afghans are flown out daily from Kabul. In the midst of an epic foreign-policy catastrophe, the priorities of the Biden administration remain driven by domestic politics and constipated bureaucratic processes.

What comes after the botched evacuation finally ends?

(1) A course correction inside the Pentagon is sorely needed. Our military reputation has been gravely diminished. The 1 percent of American youths who volunteer to serve are heavily influenced by their families. About 70 percent of service members have a relative who served before them. The Afghanistan War spanned an entire generation. What they took away from this defeat will be communicated from father to son, from aunt to niece.

To avoid alienating this small warrior class, the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs must put aside their obsession with alleged racism and diversity in the ranks. Former secretary of defense Mattis said that lethality must be the lodestone of our military. Sooner or later in the next six months, we will be challenged. Instead of again waiting passively for instructions, the Pentagon should recommend swift, decisive action.

(2) President Biden’s image as a foreign-policy expert is indelibly tarnished. As vice president in 2011, he vigorously supported the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. Three years later, U.S. troops were rushed back in to prevent Iraq from falling to the radical Islamists. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote at the time, “he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.”

President Biden bragged that under his leadership, America was “back.” Instead, while denying that our allies were upset with his performance, he has destroyed his credibility. Per­haps there will be changes in his foreign-policy team, but President Biden himself will not be trusted by our allies as a reliable steward.

(3) In his Farewell Address, Washington wrote, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”

As Washington warned, due to extreme partisanship, the American presidency has accumulated the powers of a king or a despot. In matters of war, over the past several decades one party in Congress or the other has gone along with whatever the president decided. This tilts power decisively in favor of the White House. Congress has abdicated from providing either oversight or a broad base of public support. The White House as an institution has become regal and aloof — the opposite of the intention of the Founding Fathers.

Afghanistan, from start to finish, was a White House war, subject to the whims and political instincts of our president. The result was an erraticism that drove out strategic consistency and perseverance. A confident President Bush invaded Afghanistan, blithely expanded the mission, and steered a haphazard course from 2001 through 2007. Presidents Obama and Trump were overtly cynical, surging (2010–2013) and reducing (2014–2020) forces while always seeking a way out divorced from any strategic goal. President Biden (2021) was a solipsistic pessimist who ignored the calamitous consequences and quit because that had been his emotional instinct for a decade.

(4) Our Vietnam veterans were proud of their service. The same is true of our Afghanistan veterans. In both wars, they carried out their duty, correctly believing their cause was noble. After nation-building was designated a military mission, our troops both fought the Taliban enemy and improved life for millions of Afghans. With the Taliban now the victors, it hurts to lose the war, especially when the decision rested entirely with one man.

Who are we as a country? Who will fight for us the next time?

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