Afghanistan Fallout: The six biggest questions in the days ahead

Will we get our people and allies out safely? What did Biden know and when did he know it?  How could our intelligence be so bad?  Why did we do nothing while the Taliban marched through the country?  What becomes of Afghanistan?  How do our enemies and adversaries react?

Momentous events like the Taliban’s swift march to retake the country after 20 years of war always come with important questions both about how such a thing could happen and what lies ahead in the wake of catastrophe.  In no particular order, here are six questions and a few thoughts about the situation itself and nothing less than the future of the world.

Will we get our people and our allies out safely?

As of yesterday morning, no one knew exactly how many Americans were left in Afghanistan or even where they were in the country.  Estimates put the figure at somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000, the majority of which were in the capital at Kabul where it is believed they could be flown out.  There are others, however, in other cities and rural areas, and no one knows how they can even get to Kabul.  This is in addition to some 20,000 or more refugee visa applicants who worked with the United States and now fear for their lives; estimates put the total figure as high as 80,000.

The Biden Administration is promising no one will be left behind, but the Taliban has set a deadline of September 11 and The Washington Post is reporting that there is no plan for anyone unlucky enough to be outside of Kabul.  “According to the aides, the administration officials — from the State and Defense departments, as well as the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff — also told the assembled Senate staffers that there is no plan to evacuate Americans who are outside Kabul, as they do not have a way of getting through the Taliban checkpoints outside the Afghan capital.”  An official also told Reuters, “too many things have to go 100 percent correctly” to make the evacuation successful.

Nor did the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin provide much hope yesterday.  “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people,” he said, claiming they would try to “deconflict ” the situation with the Taliban to “create passageways for them to get to the airfield.” Unfortunately, he also said, “I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”  Alas, this is a failure of imagination on a grand scale.  In 1948, President Harry Truman was faced with a Soviet blockade of Berlin that threatened to turn the entire country into a satellite state.  Rather than admit defeat, however, he organized a legendary airlift of food and other supplies so efficient and rapid that a plane was landed in Berlin every 45 seconds, delivering millions of pounds of goods over six months.  They said it was impossible at the time as well, but ultimately the Soviet’s relented under American perseverance and ingenuity.  Can we say that Biden is no Truman or is it too early?

What did Biden know and when did he know it?

On July 8, President Biden was asked whether or not the Taliban retaking the country was inevitable.  He replied, “No, it is not.  Because you have the Afghanistan troops — 300,000 well-equipped (troops), as well equipped as any army in the world, and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.”  He added, “The jury is still out. But the likelihood there’s going to be a Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”  The President further insisted we would not see anything like the catastrophic evacuation from Saigon when we similarly fled Vietnam.  A day earlier, his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken had similar comments.

Barely five weeks later, the Taliban retook the country.  What changed and when was Biden aware of that change?  The initial answer isn’t looking good, according to Reuters, “A person familiar with the situation said the Biden administration was behind the curve as things deteriorated in Afghanistan. ‘Every decision has come too late and in reaction to events that make the subsequent decision obsolete,’ the source said.  Local embassy employees who have been at home for weeks were left to make their own way to the airport, the source said, adding that emails were sent to them on Sunday after sporadic gunfire to remain in their houses or some other safe location…The source and another U.S. official told Reuters that the administration so badly misjudged the situation that the State Department flew a regular rotation of diplomats into Kabul last Tuesday even as the Taliban advanced toward the capital.”

At least to this point, Biden is dodging, weaving, and potentially lying.  After promising a smooth withdrawal without any chaos, he told ABC News’s George Stephanapoulus yesterday that “chaos” was inevitable and he didn’t think it was a “failure.”

How could our intelligence be so bad after spending 20 years in the country?

It’s one thing to have a catastrophic intelligence failure in an isolated, hermit regime like North Korea or Afghanistan prior to 9-11, where we have no assets on the ground or resources in the country.  We’ve been in Afghanistan for 20 years, however, and supposedly trained their army, airforce, and police.  We spent billions upon billions developing assets, in addition to thousands of Americans on the ground including both the military and State Department.  We should’ve had at least some sense of what was happening, but, even as the country fell to the Taliban, we were continually behind the curve, caught completely clueless.

How clueless?  As of last Saturday morning, officials were claiming it would take 30 days for the Taliban to advance on Kabul and several months more to retake the country.  They were in Kabul that same evening, and the Afghanistan government surrendered the next day.  Perhaps needless to say, military and intelligence officials are claiming it’s not their fault.  Five sources told Reuters that they could have done more, but they were stymied by the Biden Administration.  “We could have done a lot more to help. The administration waited too long,” said one military official.  “President Biden’s team failed him across the board,” Chris Kofinis, a Democrat strategist, told NBC. “Not only should his national security adviser and his secretary of state be fired immediately, but anyone who let this national disgrace happen should be fired. … Biden either makes immediate changes or he may not have much of a presidency left after this.”

Why did we do nothing in the face of the Taliban’s march through the country?

The Taliban didn’t appear outside of Kabul in vehicles equipped with some next-generation stealth technology, allowing them to travel in absolute secrecy.  Nor do they have anything resembling an air force to project their soldiers hundreds of miles in a couple of hours.  They literally drove there, across a desert, often in equipment stolen from the United States, and supposedly under the watchful eyes of the latest and greatest satellite and drone technology.  We knew exactly where they were and we knew they were coming, and yet we did next-to-nothing, even as some 10,000 Americans remained in Kabul along with thousands more allies.  Why?  If we can’t get an answer to that question in our convoluted bureaucracy, who made the decision to just let them advance?

At this point, reports are unclear, but there is some indication that the United States abruptly withdrew much-needed air support for the Afghan military, prompting them to effectively dissolve without a fight.  The Financial Times reports, “Ali Yawar Adili, country director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said Afghan troops were deeply rattled by the abrupt manner in which US logistical and air support was withdrawn. Many Afghans — including Ghani — never expected that.”  He said, “[Afghan forces] heavily relied on the air support provided by the US forces, and also logistical support provided by US contractors, and those supports are no longer there.”  The Financial Times continues, “A former senior US military official said that the Afghan Air Force was especially hard hit by the departure of more than 15,000 contractors who used to help keep US-provided planes and helicopters flying.” “Its [the air force’s] operational readiness is being degraded as it is being pushed all over the country trying to respond to different desperate situations,” the official explained. “Once the troops realise [sic] no one is coming to the rescue . . . they will desert, flee or surrender.”

Assuming this is true, it’s entirely inexplicable.  No one can reasonably expect the Afghan military to make up the logistical support of 15,000 contractors in the middle of a fight, and yet someone is responsible.  Who and why and when did Biden know?

What becomes of Afghanistan from here?

The Taliban toppled during the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was a notoriously brutal and oppressive regime.  In addition to supporting Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda as they planned and perpetrated the 9-11 attacks, they were strict adherents of Sharia Law and regularly abused women, homosexuals, and other minorities.  Stoning was legal as well as other forms of cruel and unusual punishment and torture.  The leadership of that regime is long gone, however, either killed or captured, and a new Taliban has taken its place, one that at least is making overtures about being kindler and gentler than the last.

So far, the new Taliban leadership has promised to be “inclusive,” offering “amnesty” to anyone that has worked with Americans, and even claiming to protect women’s rights, so long as they are in accordance with Sharia Law.  At the same time, Sharia Law itself isn’t really compatible with women’s rights, requiring head coverings in public, male chaperones, separate schools, and more.  It’s unclear what this means in practice, and there are already reports that the new Taliban’s actions are not matching their rhetoric.  Stars & Stripes reported that Taliban fighters are already going door-to-door identifying anyone that worked with the United States or the Afghan government.  “In Kabul, groups of Taliban fighters carrying long guns patrolled a well-to-do neighborhood that is home to many embassies as well as mansions of the Afghan elite.  The Taliban have promised to maintain security, but residents say groups of armed men have been going door to door inquiring about Afghans who worked with the Americans or the deposed government. It’s unclear if the gunmen are Taliban or criminals posing as militants.”

Elsewhere, the Taliban opened fire on a crowd carrying the Afghan flag, killing two protestors and beating journalists, injuring up to a dozen people.  In response, the US and the UN have been reduced to issuing strongly worded letters to the Taliban complaint department.  Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield issued a “very strongly worded press statement” that they “expect the Taliban to respect women’s rights” and to “be respectful of humanitarian law.”  The full statement needs to be read to be believed, “We are hearing from people in Afghanistan that they are getting threats from the Taliban, and we have expressed in no uncertain terms here at the United Nations through a very strongly worded press statement from the Security Council that we expect the Taliban to respect human rights, including the rights of women and girls. We have also indicated that they have to be respectful of humanitarian law and that we do not expect to see that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorists. But, again, it is not their words that we will hold them to. It is their actions that we will be watching.”

How do our enemies and adversaries react?

Osama Bin Laden infamously decided to ramp up terrorist activities after America’s disastrous military adventures in Mogadishu, Somalia, an event immortalized in Ridley Scott’s epic film, Black Hawk Down.  At the time, Bin Laden called the United States a “paper tiger,” and though no one could have possibly been aware of it, the debacle in Mogadishu ultimately led directly to 9-11.  Catastrophes like we are witnessing in Afghanistan have ripple effects, there is the proximate crisis in the country itself, followed by how other nations and independent actors around the world react.  Anyone who thinks our humiliating defeat will not have long-term effects, significantly damaging US credibility, limiting our influence, and emboldening our enemies is going to be sadly and tragically mistaken.

The short term effects are likely to be a resurgence of terrorist groups, hopefully not on the scale of Al Qaeda and 9-11, but enough to cause small-scale havoc, death, and destruction, probably in the Middle East, potentially in Europe or even the United States.  This will be accompanied by a dearth of intelligence and informants as people around the world doubt our commitment to protecting our allies, potentially making for a lethal combination.  Iran remains a wildcard, however.  Their ability to project global terror was greatly curtailed with the death of Qasam Soleimani in late 2019, but if they are emboldened and become more aggressive, there is at least the potential for serious damage.

Our traditional allies in Western Europe and elsewhere are likely to remain close, but just as likely to doubt our commitment and ability to execute the next time we need their military, intelligence, or other support.  This is potentially troubling because in several ways, the international situation is far worse and far more dangerous than after Mogadishu in 1993.  Thirty years ago, Russia was in shambles following the collapse of the Soviet Union and China hadn’t yet become a true economic and military superpower, intent on projecting its might further and further around the world.  Today, however, both are international adversaries if not enemies with designs on retaking territory they consider their own.  It is very likely that China makes more aggressive moves against Taiwan and Russia against Ukraine or another former satellite state, as well as making global relations more difficult and challenging overall.

Of course, I am speculating here and in response to other questions I’ve posed.  I don’t have a crystal ball or I wouldn’t be posting on this blog.  At the same time, it seems clear that no good will come of this either in the short or medium term.  There is no doubt that the United States has been humiliated on the global stage, and, if the past is truly prologue, these setbacks have long term repercussions around the world.  We can only hope the ramifications will be short lived, that we will learn satisfactory answers to all of these questions, and, first and foremost, that we can get our people and our allies out safely.  It’s easy in the world of partisan politics to criticize the opposing team, but this is clearly one of those situations where we should all wish the best for President Biden in the aftermath and for the country as whole.  Far more than the future of his Presidency is at stake.

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