Catastrophe in Afghanistan

When Joe Biden announced in early 2021 that he would follow through with the complete withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, many, including the Taliban themselves, claimed the news meant that the Taliban had won and America had been defeated.

I argued against that narrative.

Six months later, in a sudden surge over only a few weeks, the Taliban have seized the entire country. The speed of their success seems to have surprised everyone: the Biden Administration, the Afghan government, and even the Taliban themselves.

The Afghan military, with some notable exceptions, quit the field without a major fight. The Afghan political leadership at the top fled. Those who predicted the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military have been proven correct. My hopes that the Afghans would stand on their own with only remote support from the U.S. have been dashed. The Taliban have now indeed won their victory.

Many of us who served in Afghanistan, civilian and military, are heartbroken, and struggling to make sense of it all. I was able to share some of my feelings with the local news that you can see by clicking here as well as with the Times of San Diego that you can read by clicking here.

The full analysis of the complete failure of the Afghan military and government has not yet been written. I have my own guesses.

As the Afghan army has been fighting and dying by the tens of thousands in the war against the Taliban for the last twenty years, I do not think it was simple cowardice that caused them to flee or surrender. Rather, I believe it was a failure of confidence, based in some new realities created by the complete withdrawal of U.S. military support.

It’s a mistake to think that “we’ve been doing the same thing in Afghanistan for twenty years.” When I was there in 2009–2010, we were ramping up to 100,000 troops. Those troops were manning outposts, patrolling villages, seizing ground back from the Taliban, and engaging in direct ground combat daily. By and large, that is not what the fewer than 10,000 troops were doing in 2019 and 2020. Rather, they were providing security for our air bases and intelligence and logistic support for the Afghan troops. That support included emergency medivac services and direct air strikes on enemy forces.

With the complete closure of all our airbases and the withdrawal of all the troops, that support evaporated. That included critical contractors who were helping maintain the Afghan Air Force, crippling their ability to continue the mission on their own. The nascent Afghan Air Force, never as capable as our own, could not provide enough sorties to strike the enemy directly, resupply, or medivac the Afghan Army.

It is one thing to stand and fight the Pakistan-backed Taliban if you believe that you will receive good intelligence on the enemy, supplies and ammunition when you run low, and that you’ll be taken to a hospital if you are injured. It’s quite another thing if those assurances are not there. In one incident in July, Afghan commandos, their most elite force, were massacred after they were surrounded and ran out of ammunition. The inability of the Afghan military leadership to resupply or extract them could not have been lost on the far less trained soldiers in the rest of the Afghan Army.

One of the problems surrounding the debate over our forces in Afghanistan was the false binary choice of either yet another massive troop surge for ground combat, or a complete withdrawal. A much smaller footprint, with corresponding smaller costs in lives and treasure, might have enabled the Afghan government and military to continue the fight without U.S. troops regularly dying in combat.

I fear and cry for the Afghan people, especially the children and girls, who deserve better than more Taliban rule. I also worry that what comes next may not turn out well for the United States either.

8/29/21 — Update: An Afghan Army Officer’s perspective: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/opinion/afghanistan-taliban-army.html

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