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The Bunker: Heartbreaking and Half-Baked

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In The Bunker this week: Alas, All Afghanistan. The narrative is heartbreaking, the policy half-baked. The only silver lining is the lessons it provides, if those in charge would only pull their heads out of the sand to see them.

7 11 DAYS IN MAY AUGUST

The good, the bad, and the ugly in Afghanistan

“Eleven days” was a bilious, biting, bitter, bloody brand last week. That’s how long it took the Taliban to sweep across Afghanistan and boot the U.S.-backed government out of Kabul. It happened 7,216 days—nearly 20 years—after the United States and its Afghan allies booted the Taliban out of the Afghan capital. “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said August 18, three days after it happened.

The $23 billion the Pentagon is spending on “intelligence” this year projected the Afghan government would be in charge for “weeks to months and even years following our departure,” Milley said. The Bunkerquestioned that wishy-washy wishful thinking last month. “There’s palpable concern in the Pentagon and elsewhere across the U.S. government that, unlike in South Vietnam, there may be no ‘decent interval’ between the U.S. troop pullout and the collapse of the Afghan government,” The Bunker reported July 28. Henry Kissinger asked China for 18 months between the U.S. pullout from South Vietnam and its collapse (he got 25); one U.S. intelligence assessment in June said Afghanistan could fall within six months.”

The Pentagon would take six months, today, in a heartbeat.

Think about what an intelligence snafu the collapse of the Afghan government represents: all that money and all those thousands of Defense Department intel analysts and spies would have had just as much luck had they randomly thrown darts at their office calendar. What’s even scarier is that the same sort of analysis undergirds much of what the Pentagon does, from how many hours a given F-35 widget should last, to the chance of war with China, to the resurgence of al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

The chaotic end to the longest war in U.S. history makes two things clear. First, the U.S. lost, lock, stock, and barrel. Second: neither the U.S., nor any other purported superpower, can invade another nation in the hope of smothering long-glowing embers of another country's war. Put simply, the U.S. military’s job—after a congressional declaration of war—is to punish and kill, and then go home. That’s what should have happened in Afghanistan. If the U.S. pulled out by mid-2002, the U.S. would have saved more than $2 trillion and the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. troops. Instead, we spilled all that blood and treasure…for nothing.

Here are some glints flashed from the Kabul kaleidoscope that caught The Bunker’s eye:

“We don't have the capability”

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul told U.S. citizens on August 18 that they’d have to get to the Hamid Karzai International Airport on their own if they hoped to hitch a ride home. “THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT,” the embassy said in a “security alert,” adding ALL CAPS and BOLDFACE to show how dire the situation was.

Why the U.S. military pulled its forces out of Afghanistan before ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens there, and Afghans who loyally worked for the Americans, remains a mystery. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin raised eyebrows August 18 when he said the U.S. military doesn’t “have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people,” referring to U.S. citizens stranded inside Afghanistan. There were 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan that day, and he never defined “large.” But it was a stunning statement coming from a U.S. defense secretary who knew from the day he took the job that one of his most critical assignments would be to wind down the Afghan war responsibly.

Flour power

Shortly before it happened in 2003, Ken Adelman wrote that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would be a piece of cake. A one-time assistant to Don Rumsfeld during Rumsfeld’s first turn as defense secretary, Adelman also served as arms control director in the Reagan administration. “I believe demolishing [Saddam] Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk,” he wrote in the February 13, 2002 edition of the Washington Post. “Let me give simple, responsible reasons: (1) It was a cakewalk last time; (2) they've become much weaker; (3) we've become much stronger; and (4) now we're playing for keeps.” He weighed in again a year later, less than a month after the U.S. launched its invasion. “Granted, I'm an incurable optimist, but even I could never have envisioned the coalition controlling the enemy capital within three weeks,” he wrote in the April 10, 2003 Post. That success was fleeting, however, and cost far more than those war boosters predicted.

Eighteen years later, Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. negotiator with the Taliban, said the U.S.-backed Kabul government would keep the Taliban in their place. “We’re assisting the government so that the Talibs do not think this is going to be a cakewalk, that they can conquer and take over the country,” he told the Aspen Security Forum on August 3. Twelve days later, the Taliban did just that.

Bottom line: avoid the word “cakewalk” when talking about impending U.S. military action.

Slow learner

Vladimir Putin lectured the U.S. on Afghanistan, and actually made sense. “It is imperative to put an end to the irresponsible policy of imposing outside values on others, to the desire to build democracies in other countries according to other nations’ patterns without regard to historical, national or religious specifics and totally ignoring the traditions of other nations,” he said August 20. The Russian president speaks from experience. “We know Afghanistan, and we know it well enough to understand how this country functions and have had the opportunity to learn first-hand the extent to which trying to impose unusual forms of government or social life on it is counterproductive.” The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and spent nearly a decade there before giving up and going home. They apparently are fast learners: it took the U.S. twice as long to reach the same conclusion.

Gategate

The tension between the Taliban and those trying to fly out of the country from Hamid Karzai International Airport focused on the airport gates. “We've dispatched small military teams to two of the airport's gates,” Austin said on August 18, helping U.S. diplomats “as they evaluate and process individuals seeking entry” to the airport, and exit from Afghanistan. But the gates, even as more opened, have represented a logjam in trying to get people out of the country. “Have you had to close any of the gates?” CNN’s Barbara Starr asked at a second briefing. “Are all of the gates continuously open?” Thankfully, the defense secretary is no longer Robert Gates.

Credit, where it’s due

If there’s one thing the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan makes clear, it’s that civilians still run the U.S. military. The U.S. military wanted to maintain a so-called residual force of perhaps 2,500 troops inside Afghanistan, but President Biden, long a skeptic of the war, refused. Inside the Pentagon, there’s a debate over whether that would have kept a lid on the Taliban, who agreed not to attack U.S. troops since the two sides signed a peace deal last year. But if Biden walked away from the deal (as the Taliban had done in some respects), it also could have set the stage for more U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan and calls to send additional young Americans there.

“President Biden badly botched the withdrawal and deserves the scorn he’s getting,” former Republican-turned-Libertarian congressman Justin Amash of Michigan said August 17. “He’s also the first president who seems determined to get America out of Afghanistan during his presidency, politics be damned. For that, he deserves credit and thanks.”

Joe Klein, a colleague of The Bunker’s at Time Magazine for many years, took a longer view. “I think it's important to note that what Biden has done is sad but courageous,” he wrote. “John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon didn't have the guts to admit defeat in Vietnam. George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump lacked the guts to admit that there was a reason why the Brits, the Russians and countless tribal interlopers lost in Afghanistan…It's sad that it fell to an honest man to tell the truth about a strategic disaster.”

WHAT WE'RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Corruption & Pakistan

Those were the keys to the collapse of the Afghan government, Sarah Chayes wrote August 16, the day its government fell to the Taliban. Chayes spent years in Afghanistan. She was a reporter for National Public Radio, oversaw non-profits trying to improve the life of ordinary Afghans, and served as a senior Pentagon adviser. She’s also a POGO board member. “I hold U.S. civilian leadership, across four administrations, largely responsible for today’s outcome,” she wrote in an insightful after-action report on her website. “Military commanders certainly participated in the self-delusion. I can and did find fault with generals I worked for or observed. But the U.S. military is subject to civilian control. And the two primary problems identified above—corruption and Pakistan—are civilian issues. They are not problems men and women in uniform can solve. But faced with calls to do so, no top civilian decision-maker was willing to take either of these problems on. The political risk, for them, was too high. Today, as many of those officials enjoy their retirement, who is suffering the cost?”

Meeting defeat

Some might suggest there’s an inverse relationship between victory on the battlefield and the number of paper pushers at the Pentagon. The Defense Department’s five top layers of brass have ballooned from 363 people in 1998 to 870 in 2020. “If you want one statistic to explain the failure of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan it is this: The National Security Council met 36 times since April to discuss it,” Fareed Zakaria wrote in the August 19 Washington Post. “The U.S. foreign policymaking apparatus has transformed itself into a dinosaur, with a huge body and little brain, a bureaucracy where process has become policy.”

Party line

Air Force veteran Ian Fritz spent 600 hours flying over Afghanistan listening in on Taliban conversations far below. “There was infighting, name-calling, generalized whining,” he wrote in August 19 in The Atlantic. “They daydreamed about the future, made plans for when the Americans would leave, and reveled in the idea of retaking their country.” Just like his U.S. buddies, except for those final two bits.

Tragedy or farce?

The Congressional Research Service assessed Afghanistan in an August 23 report. It reads like a Marx Brothers’ script set in the faux nation of Freedonia (from 1933’s Duck Soup)…or maybe in Woody Allen’s fake San Marcos (from 1971’s Bananas). “The U.S. military has been conducting airstrikes in attempt to destroy some U.S.-provided equipment from being stolen by the Taliban; however, the Administration has acknowledged that a fair amount of U.S. weaponry has fallen into Taliban hands,” the report says. “Reports and photos continue to emerge of Taliban touting U.S. weapons and driving police vehicles and Humvees that have been confiscated from the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). To avoid Taliban capture, members of the ANDSF have reportedly flown U.S.-provided military aircraft and driven armored vehicles and pickup trucks into neighboring countries.” It might be funny, if it weren’t so sad.

Damn. This is depressing. Let’s end with some good news:

  • An Air Force’s C-17 set a passenger-carrying record for the cargo plane when it lifted off from Kabul with 823 Afghans squeezed aboard, Defense Onenoted August 20.
  • The Air Force’s troubled KC-46 aerial refueling tanker got its first operational mission (albeit in the U.S.) after the rest of the service’s aging tanker fleet had to fly to southwest Asia to help with the airlift out of Afghanistan, Air Force Magazinereported August 20.
  • That was one disturbing video made August 19, inside Taliban territory just outside the Kabul airport. It showed a man franticly lifting a baby up toward the top of a concrete blast wall that separated desperate Afghans from the controlled chaos inside the U.S.-controlled airport. The wall was topped by razor while, as well as a U.S. Marine. He reached down and pulled the infant to safety. The Marines later said the child was reunited with its father, but offered no additional details, according to the August 20 New York Times. Given all the fudging and fibs we’ve heard from U.S. officials in and about Afghanistan over the past 20 years, skepticism may be justified. But after the week we’ve just been through, let’s hope—for the baby’s sake, as well as our own—that it’s true.

And speaking of truth, thanks for hanging with The Bunker until the bitter end of a bitter week.