“The war is over. Now the real fighting begins.” – Afghan proverb
The Taliban have captured Kabul and the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks will coincide with their triumphant return to power in Afghanistan. Blame for a defeat in a conflict waged over two decades can be assigned to a multitude of decision-makers; whether they will be held accountable is a separate story. When this war ends, the real fighting will come to the United States — one side will assert America should have withdrawn years ago and one side will argue America’s withdrawal snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
As the Taliban neared Kabul, Frederick Kagan, a former professor of military history at West Point, contended the Administration could have prevented the group’s rapid territorial gains if it had implemented the withdrawal in accordance with a well-conceived plan. Max Boot, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, warned the Taliban will not be deterred from taking over the country by the Administration’s threat of diplomatic isolation, especially after China has indicated its readiness to recognize a government under its leadership.
Implicit in these nominally objective assessments is the belief that the United States could save Afghanistan from the Taliban if the president would only reverse the withdrawal and reintroduce forces.
John Allen, the president of the Brookings Institution, explicitly recommended this course of action. Allen advised the president to undertake two military actions. First, the Administration should issue an ultimatum to the Taliban, warning any aggression beyond currently held territory will be met with military force. Second, the Administration should design and deploy a force package consisting of advisors and combat controllers armed with long-range precision rocket artillery and aviation elements to support the local Afghan military. Allen even recommended that the Administration should consider reopening Bagram Air Base and committing special forces to undertake direct action strikes against Taliban leadership.
Allen argued such drastic measures would be justified in order to prevent the complete collapse of Afghanistan, which would “change the entire paradigm of the U.S. departure from if we’ll need to re-intervene, to when and how.” Allen ominously warns the president “history may hold [him] and his administration personally responsible if the worst comes to pass.” Kagan similarly intoned, “history will record Mr. Biden … as having failed in this most critical assignment.” Boot subtly referenced the similarly futile wishfulness of Nixon and Kissinger to highlight the risk to Biden’s legacy.
Dire warnings of history’s judgment and fears of a chaotic Saigon-like exit may be justified, but a failure to acknowledge their own roles in either preparing or promoting the policies undertaken over the preceding nineteen years is not.
Kagan served on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s civilian advisory team in Afghanistan in 2009 and advised three commanders of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. Boot advised U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Allen’s byline conveniently omitted his service as the commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.
The insistence — from such individuals — that America could have prevailed in Afghanistan if it had only stayed the course hints at an incipient “stab in the back” myth.
More Troops, Everytime
Deploying and maintaining extensive forces conducting counterinsurgency and nation-building operations had been the strategy of successive administrations since 2001.
When American forces encountered setbacks, proponents responded by recommending additional forces.
The most notable examples were the Iraq Surge in 2007 and the Afghanistan Surge in 2009-2010. Neither surge stabilized either country, but according to the architects of these operations, failure was the fault of strategically clueless Administrations.
With the option for large occupation forces discredited, advocates instead counseled maintaining forces to conduct counter-terrorism missions while training local forces.
Current circumstances, however, graphically demonstrate the bankruptcy of this approach.
After the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, the allied regime in the south held on for two years. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the communist government held on for three years.
The 300,000 strong Afghan National Self Defense Force, the recipient of American training and modern equipment over a period of twenty years, has succumbed to a ragtag militia of 75,000 fighters in the space of roughly ten days.
Public Optimism, Private Defeatism
As documented in the Afghanistan Papers, multiple civilian and military leaders privately knew operations in Afghanistan were failures, even though they repeatedly offered optimistic assessments in public.
Particularly damning are the comments by General Douglas Lute, the Army flag officer who served as Afghanistan war czar from 2007 to 2010. Lute admitted “many years into the war, the United States still did not understand Afghanistan” and confessed “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Lute’s disclosures are distressing enough without recognizing the unique circumstances of his role. Lute served from the end of the Bush 43 administration into the beginning of the Obama administration. Changes in administration, especially from one party to another, typically entail shifts in policies and priorities. Lute and other holdovers had the opportunity to use their insights as the basis to persuade incoming leadership to extricate the country from the morass in Afghanistan. Instead, the Obama administration undertook the aforementioned surge, raising troop levels to their peak of more than 100,000 in 2011.
The Afghanistan Papers document that concealing the truth was routine and widespread.
Indeed, without a hint of irony, Allen declares, “after two decades of conflict, [we] should not be at all surprised by this looming disaster.”
It is these deceptions and falsehoods that constitute the original “stab in the back.”
For two decades, the American people were deceived by the leaders and policymakers about the course of the Afghanistan War and perpetuated it without purpose. Meanwhile, citizens have no means to hold those responsible accountable for the disaster; proponents will continue to rotate through presidential appointments, fellowships at research institutes, contracts with major media platforms, and corporate boardrooms.
Fourteen years ago, a lieutenant colonel lamented that those who preside over a losing war are never held accountable — “as matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
In the present day, amid the disastrous end of America’s failed mission in Afghanistan, it falls to another officer to provide clarity.
Retired Army Colonel Mike Jason, a veteran of advise and assist efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, recently wrote that the U.S. military can and should be blamed for the collapse of security forces in Afghanistan and included himself among those responsible.
Above all, Colonel Jason knows this country will once again summon its young men and women to undertake such a mission and the debt owed them is to ask the tough question as to how and why well-intentioned individuals failed.
The corresponding obligation is to resist the explanations and exculpations of those who would depict an inevitable defeat as a victory denied.
American sacrifices in Afghanistan have been dishonored by enough betrayal.
Jordan Prescott is a private contractor working in defense and national security since 2002. He has been published in RealClearDefense, The National Interest, Small Wars Journal, and Modern War Institute.