New reporting and testimony reveals a failure of strategic planning and coordination on a massive scale. Obsessed with speed, the military left the country long before the deadline, leaving our diplomatic staff, allies, and equipment in the care of the Afghan Army. This fatally flawed plan was rehearsed and agreed to by all, then recklessly enacted even after its failures were obvious.
It’s easy to blame President Biden for the debacle in Afghanistan. As Harry Truman famously believed, the buck stops here and, thus, the President is responsible for whatever happens while in office, taking the credit and receiving the blame regardless of whether or not it’s warranted at times. It’s not fair, but those are the stakes for the privilege of being the most powerful person in the known universe. Sometimes, however, it’s beneficial to look beneath the surface, trying to discern precisely who was responsible for the decisions that led us to calamity. Unfortunately, our rout at the hands of the Taliban doesn’t offer any easy answers as new reporting by Politico and new testimony from Pentagon leadership depicts a chaotic, uncoordinated, and myopically focused military presided over by an out-of-touch President.
To be sure, the military has always been against a complete withdrawal in the first place, under both Biden and Trump before him. General Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pushed for the United States to keep several thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan indefinitely throughout the first four months of the Biden Administration. By May, however, President Biden had made up his mind, demanding a full and complete withdrawal before September 11, and the government began to plan around that goal. According to Politico, “senior leaders from across the government” met in the basement of the Pentagon on May 8 to “rehearse” implementing the complete withdrawal. Military leadership had adopted a completely new approach, characterized as “speed equals safety.” “All of them made the same argument,” one defense official in attendance at the drill, told Politico, “Speed equals safety.”
In practice, this meant getting out fast, faster than even Biden had ordered. General Milley and Secretary Austin believed the most rapid possible withdrawal would protect against attacks by the Taliban, and they presented a plan to remove all troops within 60 days, by late June, almost two months ahead of the publicly stated deadline. “They just decided they lost the argument, and OK fine let’s get the heck out of dodge,” an official explained. This new plan had two results: First, Bagram air base needed to be abandoned, prompting us to depart in the dead of night on July 1 without even properly informing our Afghan counterparts that were supposed to assume responsibility for the base. It is widely believed this decision rapidly increased the pace of the Taliban’s triumph, leading directly to the swift dissolution of the Afghan Army. As Politico put it, “The call on Bagram looms especially large. The U.S. handover spooked the American-backed military and government, took away the main U.S. military air base before the pullout was complete and appeared to accelerate the collapse.”
In hindsight, it also introduced the security nightmare of completing our evacuation from the airport in Kabul, which had only one runway and was ultimately in the middle of a city controlled by Taliban. Bagram, by comparison, boasted two runways and was located in a more defensible position about 35 miles outside the city proper. Officials in our own government are suggesting abandoning Bagram was a mistake that made things more difficult, ultimately leading to deaths of 13 service members. Here’s Politico again, “Some officials say the lack of access to Bagram also made it harder for the U.S. and allies to carry out the evacuation mission in the days after Kabul fell. Reeling from the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and armed forces, the Biden administration made the decision to rapidly redeploy 4,000 troops to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport and assist in the frantic evacuation efforts; 13 were killed on Aug. 27 in a suicide bombing at one the airport’s gates.”
This segues perfectly in the second consequence of the forced 60-day withdrawal: All other US government operations on the ground, the state department and CIA in particular, were left entirely to their own devices as the military executed a withdrawal focused only on soldiers. According to Politico, the “priority for the Pentagon was to protect U.S. troops and pull them out, even as diplomats and Afghan allies stayed behind.” This is a stunning admission: Who else was going to protect State Department diplomats, apparently withdrawing on their own, uncoordinated schedule? Incredibly, the Biden Administration agreed to this plan and civilians in the room at the rehearsal on May 8 voiced no objections either. Between May and the collapse of the Afghan Army followed by the taking of Kabul in mid-August, other plans were discussed, but no substantive changes were made.
Bagram would be abandoned to the Afghan Army, who had given us permission to use the base for an evacuation if needed. In other words, we implemented a withdrawal plan that left our own diplomats and, of course, our Afghan allies, for dead, their fate almost entirely in the hands of an army we long knew was unable to perform. Even more incredibly, it appears that no one in any position of authority, in any department of our sprawling government, voiced any substantive objections or concerns about this plan until the Taliban tore through the country. Then, of course, the flaws became obvious. “The one-stars and two-stars.… They are very discouraged because I think it shows some serious flaws in our four-star leadership,” a senior official told Politico. “To me that was a big mistake by our military: they didn’t have to get them out that fast and they could have kept open some other options. The military should’ve pushed back harder and not pulled their people out the minute they didn’t win the argument with Blinken and Biden.”
It gets worse: In June, the Taliban was advancing so rapidly that the Bagram evacuation was paused, briefly. The National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, was worried about the worsening security situation and “drilled down on the military’s plan to hand over Bagram.” He was rightfully concerned about the large number of staff that remained at the embassy in Kabul, as everyone in the entire government surely should’ve been, but, according to Politico, President Biden rejected any change to the plan and insisted the rapid schedule be maintained. The details around this decision remain murky, but it appears political considerations were paramount. The President and his senior advisors believed that any changes to the plan would be seen as a “reversal of policy,” as the military would have to reintroduce assets into the country, according to another defense official.
And so the 2,500 troops in Afghanistan when President Biden took office were rapidly reduced to a thousand, stationed between the embassy and the airport in Kabul. Bagram was abandoned, without even the courtesy of notifying our Afghan partners precisely when we were leaving out of concern that Taliban would attack on our way out. Just a few hours later, our primary base in the country for 20 years and the former lynchpin of our strategy there was raided by looters, stealing gas canisters, laptops, anything they could find. The departure was so hasty that “millions” of small items, water, ready to eat meals, civilian vehicles, military vehicles, all were left behind. It was a crippling blow to the already struggling Afghan Army. “[T]hey lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” one Afghan soldier told the Associated Press at the time.
Even as late as August 8, the senior leadership at the Pentagon remained completely clueless about what was actually happening on the ground. The head of US Central Command, General Kenneth F. McKenzie provided a new threat assessment to Defense Secretary Austin claiming it would require 30 days for the Taliban to take Kabul. It was only seven days later, however, when they seized Bagram and released thousands of prisoners, many with ties to radical terror groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The rapid taking of the base was incontrovertible evidence that the plan had completely and spectacularly failed. Finally, they seemed to realize Kabul itself was at risk and were willing to stomach the political heartache of a “reversal of policy.” Some 4,000 troops were rushed back into the country, but Bagram was already lost and we were reduced to relying on the Taliban for safe passage to the only airport available for evacuation. The rest, as they say, is history, including the unnecessary deaths of 13 servicemen and many more Afghan civilians, including 10 on a largely political, completely botched drone strike.
What are we to make of this stunning, startling combination of naivety, incompetence, lack of coordination, and political influence on matters of life and death? I’ve previously written that the government and the military suffer from a lack of imagination and determination, but that alone doesn’t begin to address the fundamental strategic failure at the heart of our ignominious defeat. It’s inconceivable that everyone in a position of authority signed onto and apparently rehearsed a plan that focused exclusively on the military aspect of the withdrawal, and left thousands of State Department staff in the hands of the Afghan Army. The stated rationale, “speed equals safety,” surely applies to diplomats as much as the military, perhaps even more so as embassy staff aren’t trained for combat and equipped with weapons. If there were concerns that Taliban would attack military assets sitting right outside of Kabul, clearly there should have been the same concerns about civilians.
Even if we accept the idea that there is some justification for the decision to prioritize the military, not that I can possibly think of any, the withdrawal timeline for the army was so rushed we left millions of pieces of valuable equipment behind. What kind of plan is that? The need for speed is one thing. Speed that sacrifices civilians and assets is quite another, especially when they were given another full month or more to complete the mission. Instead, it seems they started from a largely unfounded position and then created a plan to achieve an unnecessary objective without considering any other goals. It’s also worth noting that the rationale for the plan belies the idea that the Afghan Army was capable of defending the country. This was especially obvious after they paused the withdrawal, only to continue with no change in plan for political reasons. If our military’s top brass was worried about an extra month to execute a proper withdrawal that protects all our people and equipment, what does that say about their faith in the security the Afghan Army was able to provide?
Ultimately, it’s not surprising that a catastrophic failure of these proportions was the product of sequence of awful decisions by everyone in charge, from placing an artificial cap on the number of troops, to forcing 60-days of withdrawal out of a much longer window, to not following a reasonable sequence of withdrawal, to not responding to facts on the ground. Nor is it surprising that the blame game continues and no one has been held responsible. President Biden continues to insist that no one informed him 1,000 troops wasn’t enough and that military leadership was “split” on the issue. The top commanders at the Pentagon said that wasn’t so on Tuesday, under oath. “I won’t share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation,” General McKenzie testified. “And I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.” The administration itself still refuses to answer the question. Press Secretary Jen Psaki said she’s “not going to get into the specific details of who recommended what.”
In fact, the only person held responsible so far is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines who spoke out about the failure and announced his resignation. Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller posted a video detailing his feelings and refused to be subject to a gag order. For speaking his mind he’s currently sitting in a military jail. “They decided to throw my son in jail to shut him up,” his father said. “Stuart didn’t murder anyone. Stuart didn’t do drugs or sexually offend anyone. He spoke the truth and asked for accountability.” Alas, this is the federal government in action circa 2021: Catastrophic failure, brought about by the top echelons of power, a complete and total lack of coordination between different departments, and no accountability or responsibility to be had. Incredibly, progressives continue to insist the government isn’t quite large or powerful or enough.