Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I have resisted writing or commenting much on the final defeat of the United States on Afghanistan’s Street Without Joy. It has been a disaster 20 years in the making, 40 if you include the initial U.S. support to the Mujahideen resisting the Soviet invasion and intervention in Afghanistan. Please note, this article has no political animus. The disaster in Afghanistan was presided over by two Republican and Two Democratic Administrations, as well as the previous Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, which though connected are a separate subject.
As I said there are four Democratic and four Republican administrations that are complicit in what happened over the past 40 years in Afghanistan. Four administrations, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton were the prologue to the disaster. The following four, the Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden administrations the principal culprits.
Since I was a Republican from 1976 until 2008 and a Democrat since I try to be honest about all of them. I write from the point of view of history, policy and strategy, not my allegiance to any President or Party. Thus you will see criticisms of President George W. Bush who I voted for twice, Barack Obama who I also voted for twice, and Joe Biden for whom I also voted.
I do not neglect the responsibility of Republican and Democrat controlled Congresses who did not exercise their duty to declare war or enforce the War Powers Act. Instead they passed legislation that passed the buck to the President on foreign and domestic military and security policy in a broad Authorization of the Use of Force, and Patriot Act of 2001. Both were passed by large bipartisan majorities signaling the mood of the time to “get something done.” They were signed by a “Who’s Who” of leading Democrats and Republicans and out of 535 Senators and Congressmen and women, only Representative Shiela Jackson Lee of Houston, Texas, voted against the amorphous Authoritarian of Use of Force. Her arguments on the House floor were sound, but she was called a traitor and sympathizer with our enemies. As far as the Patriot Act, only Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin voted against it along with 62 Democrats and 3 Republicans in the House.
Now many people on the extremes of the political right and left are consumed in the search for blame, something that runs deep in American history. Lost in this search for blame was the fact that our military and those of our NATO allies evacuated almost 125,000 people by air from a landlocked land, in a contested and chaotic environment in just 10 days. Nothing like this has ever been done before. The evacuation, despite the failures in planning was a miracle brought about by the skill and bravery of our military that executed it.
Unfortunately the American and NATO war in Afghanistan never had a consistent strategy that military or civilian leaders could articulate to the public, explain to the troops, or convince the world of its rightness. This does not diminish the valor, courage or honor of most of our soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and CIA officers, and our allies who served in the field. Unfortunately we had who’s actions resulted in war crimes that harmed our cause and national reputation. These actions added to a list of actions by the United States Government government, particularly the ambush administrations in Afghanistan and Iraq that would have met many of the criteria that we tried the Germans for war crimes at Nuremberg.
The problem was that after the heinous attacks and mass murder on American soil by Al Qaida on 9-11-2001 our nation momentarily came together to punish those who did this. The Bush administration rapidly decided to not deal with this as a terrorist attack by a non-state actor, but as something akin to Pearl Harbor, an attack by a nation state. The Bush administration would continue to use that reasoning to attack Iraq which had not been a participant in the attacks of 9-11-2001, but identified as part of an “Axis of Evil” along with Iran, which condemned the attacks and at that time, as well as North Korea. The propaganda was initially successful, but once the American people got bored and realized they actually were not going to be asked to make any sacrifices because the burden they lost interest. Thus the war, which required the utmost support of the people was placed on the volunteer military which including reserves and national guard forces numbered under 1% of the population. Evidence and intelligence to the contrary was ignored or dismissed, with devastating consequences.
Unfortunately, we, as we most always do did not take the time to learn the lessons of history. The fact is that every foreign power that has ever invaded and tried to occupy Afghanistan all failed, often at great cost. The Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Indians, the British on more than one occasion, and the Soviet Union all failed miserably. The truth is that Afghanistan cannot be ruled by foreigners, or even Afghan tribal leaders who refuse to make alliances with other tribal leaders, even ancient enemies, and appointing a national leader that they agreed upon. So long as that King did not ally himself with foreigners, offend Islam, or betray his supporters Afghanistan retained some stability, even though it was not a true nation in our understanding. Afghan history has been dictated by mix of Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Muslims who did not war against each other based on their sect of Islam, but on family and tribal grievances. We never understood this, despite the vast amount of literature left by those we followed into the deadly abyss. That willful ignorance of history was perhaps the most significant factor in our failed adventure on our own “Street Without Joy.” (The Street Without Joy” was a highway in French Indochina upon which many French, French Foreign Legion, Vietnamese and North African “Colonials” fought and died, and is the title of a book by French Journalist Bernard Fall who was killed by an IED while accompanying a patrol of U.S. Marines during our Vietnam War. Fall died in 1967, and Commentary Magazine wrote of him I. 1968:
“Intellectually an American pragmatist with a French sense of irony, Fall did not take a doctrinaire stance against American intervention in South Vietnam. On the other hand, he made two general criticisms of the U.S. Indochina policy: first, that it lacked a coherent frame of reference and second, that, based on theories unrelated to the local situation, it lacked flexibility. Though Fall continued to hope for improvement, his description of U.S. policy in Vietnam points to a long case history behind its now-apparent symptoms Of schizophrenia.”
The same could be said of the American invasion and attempt at nation building in Afghanistan.
Israeli Historian and former Ambassador to the United Staes, Michael Oren, wrote in his book “Faith Power and Fantasy: American and the Middle East from 1776 to the Present” regarding how President Bush took the US to war in Afghanistan and Iraq:
“Not inadvertently did Bush describe the struggle against Islamic terror as a “crusade to rid the world of evildoers.” Along with this religious zeal, however, the president espoused the secular fervor of the neoconservatives…who preached the Middle East’s redemption through democracy. The merging of the sacred and the civic missions in Bush’s mind placed him firmly in the Wilsonian tradition. But the same faith that deflected Wilson from entering hostilities in the Middle East spurred Bush in favor of war.”
Likewise, we built a military to fight peer competitors, not insurgents. We have never succeeded in any “small war” that we have ever engaged, even if we won the military actions. When we left we sowed seeds of distrust and hatred, and the feeling that we did not uphold the values espoused in our founding documents. As Mark Twain wrote concerning the American War against the Philippines after we took them over following the Spanish-American War:
“There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. . .”
But the Afghan war was left to a small professional military and Federal law enforcement agencies to fight, while Bush in the aftermath of 9-11 told people to “go shopping” and to resume normal lives. We were led into these wars based on the false premise that we could remake the Middle East in our image. Lie after lie, from every administration from Bush to Biden assured us that things were going well against all evidence to the contrary.
It began with the Bush Administration which led us into the quagmire, followed by the Obama administration, which afraid to oppose General Stanley McCrystal’s urge for a major surge halfheartedly acquiesced because Afghanistan was the “good war.” After meeting some of the military objectives we began a withdraw after killing Osama Bin Laden in 2011. The surge resulted in the highest numbers of US casualties during the war and only temporarily hindered the Taliban. Like the Bush and Obama administration’s conduct of the war the Trump Administration did not tell the truth about their intentions in Afghanistan which differed from Bush and Obama. As early as 2013 Trump said that the war was lost, announced his decision to withdraw if he became President, praised the Taliban and took cheap shots at the US military, its leadership and even the troops. However, he did not fully withdraw during his term, and negotiated the withdraw with the Taliban and excluded the Afghan government from those negotiations. At that point the moral of the Afghan military which had been increasing in effectiveness collapsed. They had often fought valiantly and at great cost, they could fight and even defeat Taliban forces, but Trump’s betrayal of them cost us their support. Had they been included in the Trump-Taliban negotiations and treated and supported as they should have been, they might have met or exceeded the expectations that we based our assessment of their strength and resilience upon and been able to support our withdraw so long as the contractors who maintained their advanced weapons, a certain amount of former military trainers and advisors remained, and were provided needed air support from ships and bases outside Afghanistan. Trump’s deal was a disaster for the Afghans and ensured that no-matter how it was done a certain amount of chaos would affect our withdraw.
President Biden, has responsibility for the mistakes made in the withdraw. That is in his wheelhouse, but he did tell the truth and kept the promise to end this war, despite the political cost. He has been heavily criticized for this, but Trump would have done the same, after all he negotiated the withdraw with the Taliban that excluded the Afghan government from those negotiations. His actions set the stage for the collapse of the Afghan military and government.
The Afghan Army, especially their highly trained Special Forces had often fought valiantly and at great cost, they could fight and even defeat Taliban forces, but Trump’s betrayal of them cost us their support. This was much the fault of DOD and NSC leadership who should have fought harder to maintain full support support to them until our withdraw was safety accomplished.
Taliban leaders understood this and made deals with local tribal leaders/ warlords, governors, local officials, police,and military commanders. These deals ensured that when the Taliban launched their final offensive when the bulk of American military forced withdrew, that those leaders mostly surrendered and allowed the Taliban to advance. The Afghan soldiers knew that they had no chance after the May 2020 agreement between Trump and the Taliban, they wanted to fight and win but knew that they had been betrayed.
In today’s blame game people criticize not starting the withdraw earlier and there is truth to this, but that being said, had we started earlier the panic would have began then. There is criticism of handing Bagram Air Base to the Afghans in early July, but we had already removed the troops needed to guard it because DOD pulled out as fast as it could leaving State, CIA, and everyone else out to fend for themselves. State should have gotten approval early to begin processing our Afghan friends and scheduling flights out from Kabul and Kandahar well before the final collapse of the Afghan government, military and security forced began. The Afghans knew in 2020 that we had abandoned them, and the rush by DOD to get our troops and contractors out hindered everything else that happened.
Unfortunately, Biden required nothing of the Taliban, just as Trump had not. Afghan soldiers who would have fought to the death were left to their fate, having no logistical support, no air support, being cut off from their supply lines, and serving a corrupt government that often refused to pay them or protect their families.
Biden could have prevented the rout of Afghan forces by not allowing DOD and the contractors to withdraw so fast which would have made the withdraw less chaotic. His decision to,withdraw was correct but could have been accomplished much better as I will explain.
As to the withdraw, our interagency planning sucked. With the deadline of 31 August DOD, State, the NSC, CIA, and NATO should have met and settled on a plan to determine what had to be done to ensure a safe and successful evacuation by early April at the latest. That is something that Biden should have ensured and placed a single individual in charge of a joint, interagency and international effort to safely evacuate all the people we could. To my knowledge hat wasn’t done before everything started going to shit, then we acted with speed but in crisis mode.
Despite all of our mistakes, poor planning, lack of coordination, and our over optimistic estimation of the Afghan military and government strength and resilience, the evacuation should be considered like Dunkirk. Dunkirk was not a victory, but it was miraculous.
The fact is that no-matter when we began we were not going to get everyone out. In 1940 the French very much resented that more French were not evacuated from a Dunkirk, Calais, or Cherbourg, and that following their surrender to the a Germans the British Royal Navy attacked French Navy units who had been their allies days before sinking several battleships and cruisers, seizing French ships in British ports, and killing many French sailors.
However, like then when the British and French high commands did not coordinate their efforts we didn’t coordinate ours. We also ignored intelligence and put our bets the the rosy assessments about the capability and resilience of the Afghan government and military. This meant in July when things started falling apart we were caught flat footed, just like when the Germans broke through the Ardennes, crossed the Meuse River, outflanked the Maginot Line and made for the English Channel, and like a scythe cut off the best French armies and the British Expeditionary Force. Likewise, the British and French did not expect that the King of Belgium would without warning surrender his army, which still had a lot of capability to fight. The Belgian surrender opened a massive hole in the defense that could not be plugged.
I think that the Battle of France the example to best explain what happened in Afghanistan, not South Vietnam or Beirut.
There is another similarity, many French had not desire for war after the bloodletting of the First World War. Likewise conservative French politicians, generals and admirals hated the Third Republic and as General Weygand, the last commander before the French surrender said, “I didn’t get the Boches but I got the Republic.” Their country had been tearing itself apart as the left and right battled to rule the country. I wonder how much of this is true of Americans today. There are certainly many on the political right praising the Taliban and encouraging the overthrow of or government and system of government for an authoritarian and theocratic regime. Most of those advocating this, in and out of government are fanatical Fundamentalist Christians.
We can easily pass the blame for what happened to the President’s, Congresses, and Courts who initiated policies, launched wars, passed legislation which was mostly upheld by Courts, including the Supreme Court. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fought but less than 1% of our population, all volunteers. With not skin in the game most Americans became cheerleaders for or against the wars, voting for politicians without regard for policy. Policy and strategy was what mattered most and we never had one.
I emailed the late great Catholic Priest, theologian, sociologist and political commentator Andrew Greeley from Iraq in 2007. My concern was what would happen to the Iraqi people. He emailed me back and said, “Sadly, Father, most Americans don’t care about the Iraqis.”
Likewise, most of us did not care about the Afghan people unless it suited our domestic political ends and the leaders that we backed. Morality, faith, and ethics were damned, we just didn’t care.
I lost too many friends to let things remain this way. The truth matters. Our Declaration and Constitution matter, our form of government maters, our respect for our laws and international law matter. The same is true of the people in lands we attack, invade or occupy matter, as do those of the nations who stand by us as allies.
Finally our freedoms here matter, especially the freedom of speech, association and the right to call our government into account for what it does or does not do, regardless of what political party has power. These rights are being eroded across our country, even as we seek to impose them on others. However, if we trample them why should anyone in any other country believe us.
As a nation we left Afghanistan with a stain on our national honor. Like T. E. Lawrence wrote about the British occupation of Iraq following the First World War:
“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”
Well, we experienced a disaster 20 years in the making. However, that does nothing to detract from the military, CIA and State Department personnel who evacuated 120,000 souls in less than two weeks by air in a landlocked land under intense military and terrorist pressure. Call it the “Miracle of Kabul” for lack of a better name. God bless the men and women of these air crews and the men and women on the ground who provided security to get so many people out. They are heroes.
Our war in Afghanistan is over, despite the words of those so addicted to war that they insist that we will have to go back in, but like in 2001 they have no strategy, or no logical explanation of just what they expect the military to accomplish in another campaign to eradicate terrorists based in Afghanistan.
So until the next time,