The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
This week in The Bunker: America has lost its longest war. Tough to come up with a cost-benefit analysis that justifies spending $2 billion a day on a military that can’t retreat properly. Plus, The Bunker, needing time to recover, will skip next week.
IT IS FINISHED
The U.S. military leaves Afghanistan
The old U.S. military axiom, sometimes known as the Pottery Barn rule, was simple: “You break it, you fix it.” It meant the U.S. couldn’t simply invade a country, shatter its government, and then leave. As of September 1, there’s a new rule at the Defense Department: “You break it, you spend 20 years, the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops, and more than $2 trillion, and you fail to fix it. Then you abandon it—to the very same government you drove out of power in the war’s opening days.” The Bunker has taken pride in covering the U.S. military since 1979, and this is the lowest point yet. Ironically, it eclipses the second saddest day. That came September 11, 2001, when Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, at the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania field. Gives a perverted spin on “asymmetrical warfare,” one of the Pentagon’s favorite buzz phrases.
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Following 9/11, U.S. politicians pushed for a war to drive the Taliban from power for giving sanctuary to bin Laden and his minions as they plotted the attacks. The U.S. military succeeded but the politicians didn’t think that was good enough. They wanted, contrary to history, to turn the so-called graveyard of empires into a cut-rate Switzerland. The military did its best, but as the nation tired of the stalemate, presidents Trump and Biden pulled the plug. It was long past time for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, but not like this. “It is messy,” Biden said of the withdrawal, hours after a suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. troops August 26. But that’s not true. “Messy” is when a surgery goes bad, but the patient survives.
Less than 24 hours after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Biden spent more time praising the “unparalleled” U.S. airlift that sped their retreat, rather than commemorating the 20 years of stalemated war that came before. “My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over,” Biden said in an August 31 address from the White House. “It was time to be honest with the American people again”—and don’t think his speechwriters didn’t debate long and hard about adding that “again” to his remarks. “We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan,” the tired-looking commander-in-chief said. “After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refused to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago.”
The Afghanistan envisioned by successive U.S. administrations has collapsed militarily, politically, and soon—most likely—economically. August 31, 2021, a date which will live in infamy, is merely when the U.S. government finally pulled a white sheet over the corpse.
“We’ll fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” was the U.S. sales pitch for the war in Afghanistan. Using that same logic, the U.S. military should have based its withdrawal from that country at its massive and isolated Bagram military air base, and not the commercial airport crammed into an urban maze three miles from the center of Kabul. By picking Hamid Karzai International Airport as the hub for its pell-mell departure, the U.S. military all but guaranteed a single suicide bomber could get close enough to kill 13 U.S. troops—the first U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan in more than a year. More than 170 Afghans also died in the attack.
There were pros and cons to either airport. Bagram’s sprawl would have allowed a kind of forced terrorist “social distancing” that would have minimized the killing power of a suicide bomber. Sure, for many of those seeking to flee Afghanistan, it wasn’t as safe, or convenient, as the Kabul airfield. The distance between the two is 26 miles. Fifty-five days before the August 26 blast, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby noted that Bagram was “so close to Kabul”; a day after the explosion White House press secretary Jen Psaki said “it’s far away from Kabul.”
This reminds The Bunker of his grumblings, back in his reporting days, when he’d be forced to fly out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport instead of the more convenient Washington Reagan National Airport. Those two airports are 30 miles apart. The parallels aren’t perfect, but as they say with nuclear bombs, hand grenades, and suicide bombers, it’s close enough.
Pentagon officials say they didn’t have enough troops to protect the larger base. “If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said eight days before the Kabul blast. “So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made.”
But Pentagon officials also claim they do everything they can to protect the troops. If that first statement is true, the second is a lie.
The decision cost the lives of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas; Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee, 23, of Sacramento, Calif.; Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City, Utah; Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tenn.; Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio, Calif.; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, 20, of Jackson, Wyo.; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, of Norco, Calif.; Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, of Omaha, Neb.; Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosariopichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass.; Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Ind.; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, of St. Charles, Mo.; and Navy Hospitalman Maxton W. Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio.
Hours after the blast, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller posted a video to Facebook and LinkedIn where he blamed the brass for the U.S. bloodshed. “Did any of you throw your rank on the table and say, ‘Hey, it's a bad idea to evacuate Bagram Airfield, a strategic airbase, before we evacuate everyone?’” said Scheller, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq assigned to train infantry units at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. “Did anyone do that? And when you didn't think to do that, did anyone raise their hand and say, ‘We completely messed this up?’”
The next day, August 27, the Marines removed Scheller from his post, “due to a loss of trust and confidence in his ability to command,” a spokesman said. “There is a forum in which Marine leaders can address their disagreements with the chain of command, but it’s not social media.” On Sunday, August 29, Scheller took to social media again, saying he would be resigning from the corps after 17 years.
AFGHAN TREASURE HUNT
After covering the U.S. military for more than 40 years, The Bunker shouldn’t be surprised that so much of what happens surrounding it boils down to cold, hard cash. The nation lost a war, and thousands of families lost loved ones. But defense contractors, and all those others who slurp at the honeypot of unbridled military spending, ended up doing just fine. After all, more than $1 trillion of the war’s estimated $2.3 trillion price tag were greenbacks in camouflage.
But just because the U.S. role in the war has come to an end doesn’t mean the gravy train has.
First of all, losing a war to a third-rate insurgency hasn’t kept lawmakers from trying to sink their teeth into the $6 billion earmarked for the future training of an Afghan military that no longer exists. Humility might suggest the funds be returned to the U.S. Treasury, or diverted to veterans’ care, but it’s all but certain to stay in the Pentagon’s purse. “There's gonna be a food fight," Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the armed services committee, said. "A whole lot of people have been looking at that money now." It could be used for Pentagon counter-terror ops, repairing weapons worn out in Afghanistan, or in any of a number of other ways.
But taxpayers shouldn’t be checking their mailboxes looking for a refund. The Bunker hereby has a modest proposal for future wars: “Victory guaranteed, or your money back.” It isn’t a big ask for an annual investment of $750 billion. Such a pledge would lead to fewer conflicts, which would lead to reduced defense spending (OK, so The Bunker has been downing Jeremiah Weed following the home team’s loss, but it’s worth a shot…or 10).
Meanwhile, as Afghanistan collapsed, its neighbors, including Libya, Qatar, and Turkey, have begun exploring boosting their lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., to mold U.S. policy to their liking. Former Democratic representative Jim Moran of Virginia, whose D.C.-based lobbying firm represents Qatar, suggested the current chaos in the region could lead to additional billable hours. “Moran didn’t rule out the possibility that at some point [the Qatar capital of] Doha might wind up lobbying Washington for more arms sales, now that the Taliban is arming itself with U.S. weapons left in Afghanistan,” Politico reported.
But the Taliban is going to be hard-pressed to keep Afghanistan’s economy, never mind those weapons, operating. That’s because the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have cut off funding for projects in Afghanistan.
In other words, when the drones don’t work, try dollars.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
The ignominious end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan gives rise to a simple question that’s asked far too rarely: is the U.S. military too big? “The war in Afghanistan is much more than a failed intervention. It is stark evidence of how counterproductive global military dominance is to American interests,” University of Texas history professor Jeremi Suri wrote in the August 30 New York Times. “History is clear: We would be better off with more modest, restrained military and strategic goals.”
Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden. So different, yet so alike, when it came to fouling up in Afghanistan, political historian Chris Whipple wrote August 26 in Vanity Fair. “The central failure of Afghanistan was our certainty that we could create a modern, democratic, centralized government with a strong national army,” retired U.S. Navy admiral and NATO chief Jim Stavridis told him. “We always knew it would be ‘Mission: Very, Very Hard.’ History should have taught us it was in fact ‘Mission: Impossible.’”
Most Americans haven’t paid much attention to Afghanistan for at least a decade, and their impression of the war is likely to be set by the chaotic U.S. withdrawal. But that’s shortsighted, argues Ezra Klein in the New York Times. “A better withdrawal was possible—and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable—but so was a worse one,” he said August 26. “Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn’t reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America’s belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.”
It was fear of a second 9/11 attack that led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the hawkish Robert Kagan wrote in the August 26 Washington Post. “The feelings and perceptions of threat that led them to war in Afghanistan have faded, and all that is left are the consequences of that decision, the costs in lives and money, the inevitably mixed and uncertain results, and the unanswerable question: Was it all worth it?” the Brookings Institution foreign policy critic said. “The United States intervened in Afghanistan for perfectly good and understandable reasons after 9/11 and then did not know how to extricate itself with an acceptable outcome.”
…be sure to read U.S. Military Withdrawal and Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan: Frequently Asked Questions, published by the invaluable scholars at the Congressional Research Service on August 27. After all, you paid for it. Twice.
Shortly after covering the war in Afghanistan for Time Magazine for 15 years, The Bunker arrived at the Project On Government Oversight in 2017. He had a little more freedom to say what was on his mind after listening to U.S. military officers spin poppies into gold when it came to the nation’s longest war. “One can only take the constant spinning for so long before becoming dizzy and cynical over can-do officers who can’t-do—and lack the guts to say it can’t be done given the tools they’ve been given,” The Bunker wrote four years ago. “Their failure to do so cheats every Afghan-bound young man and woman wearing the uniform.”
Not to mention those 13 U.S.-bound troops who were only 100 hours from coming home.
Thanks for reading. The Bunker won’t publish next Wednesday, September 8, but we’ll be back at it September 15.
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.