Putting Strategic Back in the Afghanistan Withdrawal
Anyone who chooses to postulate on what happened in the past and what happened this week in Afghanistan can only do so with a limited view of the facts. This article is no different. Keeping that in mind, mistakes were made under each Administration to be sure. There are plenty of arguments that President Bush went in without a clear mission beyond crushing the source of the attack on our homeland. President Obama inherited a conflict with the goal of ending the conflict without the passion or will to execute a realistic plan. President Trump had no clear vision beyond a headline seeking approach to any international situation much less that in Afghanistan. Finally, President Biden’s approach was “finally implement a decades old plan” in the current environment. We know each had more flaws than either tactical or strategic focus depending on what views you center around.
Where we are is in part what happens with “hand me down” ongoing conflicts. It must be acknowledged that the revolving door in the Defense Department and to a lesser degree in the State Department during the Trump Administration can be a clear source of this less than focused mission focus with more desire to solve political rather than military objectives. Mr Biden clearly has made decisions based on political gain or publicity ahead of both September 11th and the mid-term elections.
The fact of the matter is that this Administration has been in office long enough that they own this situation. The press has generally been in agreement regardless of the political slant. We do not want war. After changing the Trump negotiated date of May to Sept 11th, Mr Biden moved the date up to the current timeline for what seems no apparent reason other than for political gain. That is perhaps the crux of why we are where we are.
This piece is designed to ask the four most pressing questions and why there didn’t seem to be a strategic, much less a tactical approach to withdrawing from Afghanistan.
First, three key facts. First, we made promises to interpreters and others who aided US troops that saved American lives. We owe them the completion of that promise. Second, we spent more than most know equipping the Afghan military from equipment to weapons to ground and air weaponry. Lastly, we have citizens trapped in-country who are more than innocent bystanders due to the manner that this decision to withdraw was made.
The first pressing question is based on the third fact above. Getting our citizens out is paramount. The National Security Advisor in his presser said, “get to the airport and …”. Days later, the Secretary of Defense said that the military cannot support helping anyone to the airport — this “you figure it out” approach is wrong on every conceivable level. The Administration closed the Embassy and moved to the airport without notice due to the encroachment of the Taliban. To move all the US citizens out is our responsibility. It a conflict — to expect civilians to “get their way to the airport” is just not realistic especially when we see the scenes at the airport. To press the point, the British and French governments are collecting their citizens outside the airport and yet the strongest military on earth cannot? Yesterday, Mr Biden, in his interview on ABC said that the military would stay until every American was out — with what we know from the press — that will be nearly impossible without intervention and will become more impossible with each day that the Taliban consolidates in Kabul.
The second pressing question is the equipment, weapons, and machinery that we left behind. Yes, the intent was to provide support to the Afghan military. A small percentage of the aircraft to include helicopters were used by the Afghan military to transport themselves out of the country. Much is left behind and in large measure, the most concerning being weapons, armor, and land vehicles. The Taliban doesn’t have the skill to operate aircraft nor the expertise to maintain some of the equipment and that certainly will deter their use, but not eliminate it. Plenty of our enemies will be more than willing to provide the expertise necessary. Certainly some of our adversaries like China and Russia have open Embassies for what could be diplomatic reasons or more nefarious reasons. We don’t know but should be concerned. Regardless, this equipment likely will be used agains Afghan citizens or neighbors or even our own troops. With the US currency assets frozen, selling this equipment on the black market will net hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more. Again, no thought seems to have been given before the plan to evacuate our military forces thereby creating the current situation.
The third question centers around what the Administration officials have said about the overall plan. We’ve heard “planned for all contingencies,” “the chaos was baked in,” and “there wasn’t any other way.” None of these make sense when you understand how the military planning process works. This was rushed. There are a lot of questions about who thought this was going to be chaotic and if so, how did the lives of US citizens, Afghani’s, and military members fit into the equation? Going from the Embassy to the airport as the “center of operations” created a scenario where the Taliban became the gate-keepers to the airport with no control or security beyond the permitter that was set up at the airport. These are difficult questions with no clear answers in sight.
Lastly, and this is perhaps the lasting question. When the Taliban in their first presser said, “we defeated the greatest military in the world,” that resonated with both allies and foes alike. The United States abandoned its own citizens, the Afghani people, and the concept of preparing the nation for a better future. Mr Biden said we were never in the business of nation building. Explain how the last decade and a half of preparing the Afghans to defend themselves. Explain how we spent billions in support to the creation of what was the most recent government. Explain what our mission was, then, for most of the tenure of this operation as we were there for “support” as both Secretaries of State and Defense have said. Citizens, veterans, and active military are likely wondering where our investment in blood and treasure went. Those we have promises to will wonder how solid is the promise. If the DPRK decides to take action against the ROK — will we fight or run. If China continues to take over the South China Sea; will we continue to stand idly by. Should Russia want to expand their over-taking of Crimea into Ukraine, what confidence does Europe have that we will keep our promises with NATO and our allies. The answer to all of these shifted from “the United States will stand with you” to “the United States will stay for a while and leave on a moment’s notice when it’s politically advantageous to do so.
With all of this in mind, what should be next? Well, few know the answer because first, we don’t have access to all the classified plans. Second, we don’t have eyes on the ground to make intelligent suggestions. What we do know is that it doesn’t appear that there is a strategic view for Afghanistan. We are frankly, skeptical that there is a tactical approach to the current operations.
We should, at this point have both State and Defense officials on the ground with Afghanistan’s neighbors. We should, at this point, have people on the ground with our allies. We likely don’t because there is no strategic plan. The plan cannot be, “we will monitor” and “look for indications that the Taliban has or has not changed.” The plan must be what is our role in the region for the next 20 years. Who will be engage with as partners, and how will we turn our attention to both the Taliban and Al-Queda. The threat is not gone and we can be assured that there are hundreds of people monitoring and assessing global threats — that’s not the question. The question is what are we doing to both mitigate the global reach of these organizations and how are going to partner with our allies.
We are in a difficult, self-made, situation. There isn’t going to be a pretty way out. Nevertheless, how we move forward is as important as how we get our citizens, those we have promises to, and our military out safely and do everything possible to lessen the impact of the equipment and weaponry that is now in the hands of the enemy that we’ve been fighting for 20 years.