Afghanistan Was Always Going to be a Disaster9/8/21
Our withdrawal from Afghanistan was tumultuous and chaotic, and our Commander in Chief was in charge. There’s no doubt about that, but was he aware of the challenges we would face? A preeminent conservative news source is suggesting, “Joe Biden knew that and lied to the American people.”
We deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, and by 2011 we had accomplished our mission of retaliation for the horrendous events of 9/11. But we stayed on, and despite spending over $2.3 trillion and losing 2,461 service members and thousands more lives, the Taliban remained undefeated. Quality of life had improved for many, particularly women and girls, but we failed to create a government capable of stopping future attacks. The Taliban is back.
The events that unfolded were tragic. But not only was President Biden acting upon intelligence that turned out to be worthless, our former president had made an agreement with the Taliban that forced us to choose between withdrawal and an escalation of hostilities.
Our Commander in Chief renegotiated the May 4 deadline. We obviously needed more time. Visa issues impacting our Afghan allies were also a concern. Our process for granting visas had been slowed by executive orders from our former president; but the Expediting SIVs Act would speed up Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans. Trump allies voted against it, but the bill would pass on July 22.
General Frank McKenzie had also advised the Pentagon that “Kabul could be surrounded within 30 days.” With consensus regarding this assessment, Reuters reported that Kabul could be surrounded in 30 days and potentially taken over in 90 days. This seemed reasonable, considering our efforts over the past 20 years. President Biden took the advice of our military, intelligence, and diplomatic teams and settled on the August 30 deadline.
Americans in Afghanistan had been advised to leave months earlier, but they may have also anticipated having free rein in Kabul until closer to our end date. As Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley would confirm, “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army or this government within 11 days.”
Afghan President Ghani had also assured us that he would stay and fight. It had been all systems go, until he did an about face and the Afghan military followed. General Frank McKenzie flew to the Persian Gulf to meet face to face with Taliban leaders and warn them to stay away from the airport’s perimeter or be attacked, but by the time he arrived, Taliban fighters were already in Kabul. The best he could do was warn them to not interfere with the evacuation.
At this point we might conclude that the collapse of the house of cards we had built over the past 20 years was complete. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan John Sopko had called out failed projects and warned of corruption. He suggested, “It was a very hollow government and a very hollow effort.” But he also admitted, ”I did not think it would happen this quickly, but once it did, we realized that all the preconditions for failure were there.”
There were concerns, but virtually no one had predicted a takeover in 11 days. Our Commander in Chief had carefully considered and followed the advice of our military and intelligence, and he would lead us in an effort that ended in chaos and an indelible image of failure. He had lots of help, though, and had acted in good faith.
13 of our soldiers and over 100 Afghans lost their lives in this mission, but prior to our evacuation we had lost 2,461 U.S. service members, 3,846 U.S. contractors, more than 47,000 thousand Afghan civilians and 66,000 Afghan military, according to the Pentagon and Costs of War project at Brown and Boston Universities. Thousands were injured, too. With an all-volunteer military more than half of our servicemen and women were deployed two or more times, and this contributed to disability rates more than double those of Vietnam veterans.
A majority of us agree that it was time to leave Afghanistan. The costs of this war could concern us, too. Over $2.3 trillion has been spent; and having borrowed rather than raise taxes to cover these expenses, as for WWII, we have already paid nearly $1 trillion in interest. Costs to care for our Afghanistan veterans are also projected to total over $2 trillion by 2050.
Afghans were not given an exact time and date for our departure, but they were aware of our impending exit. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has confirmed that our coordination with government and Afghan security forces included a joint walk-though the facilities and equipment that would be left to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force.
Over 120,000 Americans and Afghans who assisted us have been evacuated, and we continue this effort. And terrorism is an ongoing concern. “That job’s not over,” Sen. Jack Reed, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, advised and added, “This is not closure. This is a transition.”
Overhead surveillance can be conducted from outside the country from bases in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, or from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. We have demonstrated that capability. Our most important task now may be to ask ourselves what we have learned so that we don’t repeat our mistakes.
- Carol Voyles