Afghanistan: It’s Not What You Do But The Way That You Do It


John F. Phillips

No doubt about it, the end of the American involvement in Afghanistan is a bloody mess. This was probably never going to end well for the United States, but President Joe Biden was right to end it. It was time.

That being said, it didn’t have to end this way.

The truth is, President Biden made a policy decision to end American military involvement in Afghanistan and, if one examines the historical record with respect to Mr. Biden’s words and actions concerning Afghanistan and the American military effort there, his decision should come as no surprise.

It is important to understand, however, that the policy decision itself is distinct from the process of planning the execution/implementation of said policy. They are not the same. It is perfectly acceptable to support the policy but criticize the manner in which the policy is implemented.

Given American attitudes about ending the “forever wars,” the policy decision to end American military involvement in Afghanistan is in line with what Americans wanted. The criticism is, and should be, centered on the execution and implementation of the policy.

It’s not about what Mr. Biden did, it’s the way that he did it.

That being said, here are some thoughts on the situation:

Did President Biden make the best policy decision?

Given the dynamics of the situation, was abiding by the 2020 Doha Agreement with the Taliban, especially with the set deadlines for total American military withdrawal, a good policy decision? Did President Biden succumb to political pressure? Did he let his own world view concerning American involvement in Afghanistan influence policy? Was the policy in concert with advice being given by his policy team? If not, why? Was he getting good information and good advice? What was he thinking?

Why didn’t the administration anticipate and/or plan for the rapid advance of the Taliban or the collapse of the Afghan military and security forces?

There has been considerable reporting about the failure to anticipate the rapid advance of the Taliban and the collapse of the Afghan military and security forces. The administration’s national security team has argued that they didn’t think these events would occur at the pace that they did and were confident that Afghan forces could hold. The intelligence community has argued that they informed the national security team that these events were a possibility and that the Afghan forces were unprepared to meet the challenge. The finger pointing is counterproductive, but oh so typical in today’s black and white political environment.

Clearly, there was a breakdown of process somewhere. Contingency planning and the consideration of all possibilities is crucial in these situations. Did the policy debate and planning discussions consider these questions? If not, why? If political knife fighting hampered policy discussion and planning, if “groupthink” set in, if no advisors were willing to ask the disturbing question or strongly challenge the president’s thinking, resignations are in order and should be expected. People need to be held accountable.

A plan is only good until the first bullet flies (or as Mike Tyson once said, “everybody has a plan until they are punched in the face.”).

Normally, one shouldn’t write from the perspective of “I”, but in this case, I think my military experience is relevant to the discussion, so I’m going to break this rule.

I am absolutely amazed at the number of West Point graduates, ROTC Distinguished Military Graduates, and graduates of the Army and Navy War Colleges who are members of the political punditry in this country (sarcasm alert). The print media, cable news networks, and social media are full of these “experts”, most of whom have never served in the military (I exempt retired General Mark Hertling, Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols, and other similarly qualified persons from this group) and/or have no clue with respect to planning such an operation and how plans can fall apart once the boots are on the ground and the dynamics of the situation unfolds. Situational awareness, improvisation, and adapting to the changing dynamics of an operation are major principles that are endlessly stressed from the first day one enters the military, whether officer or enlisted. I know from experience.

Yes, in retrospect, it appears that the plan concerning the evacuation, especially getting Americans and Afghan evacuees to the airport, came apart once forces were on the ground. But, as General Hertling and others have pointed out, the enemy also gets a vote on how a situation unfolds. The Taliban controlled access to the airport. The Taliban controlled the perimeter outside of the fence and walls surrounding the airport, right up to the point of people passing through the gates into American control. Why was that? Why did we rely so heavily on the Taliban for operational security outside of the airport? Why and how did ISIS-K injected itself into the battle space, with devastating effect, and the Taliban couldn’t or didn’t stop it? Despite all of that, the operation continued and tens of thousands, both Americans and Afghans, were evacuated.

Could some of this been done differently? I wasn’t there so I don’t know and can’t speculate. Neither should anybody else. You can rest assured that this operation will be analyzed by those involved in every aspect of the planning and execution, by people who know more about how to do these things than Tucker Carlson, Brian Williams, Bill Maher (a friggin’ comedian), or all of the other arm chair generals out there.

Real world military operations are not Call to Duty: Special Ops.

Real world military operations are not video games. People die every day while serving in the military, whether in combat operations or due to training accidents or other noncombat situations such as aircraft crashes. This is very, very dangerous work.

I served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (2/11 ACR, “Eaglehorse”) from 1974 to 1977. The 11th ACR was an elite, tip of the spear unit responsible for security along the border that separated the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany) from the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The 11th ACR was responsible for repelling any Soviet or Warsaw Pact invasion through the Fulda and Meiningen Gaps. Everyday I was in Germany, the threat was very real, the tension high, and everyday I knew when I woke up that “today could be the day”, that the crap could hit the fan and I could get killed. As a field artillery forward observer, I knew that my life expectancy in combat was measured in seconds (always take out the FO and radio guy first).

It was part of the job. I knew what I was getting into when I enlisted and volunteered to be part of that unit. I was afraid that I could get killed or wounded, but I also was a professional and knew that I had a job to do and people were counting on me to do it.

It is tragic that 13 members of the American military and scores of Afghans were killed in the ISIS-K attack. Nobody deserves to die like that.

That being said, real life military operations are just that. Real life. As real as it gets. No matter how much planning that goes into it, no matter how many times the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed , crap can happen and people can get killed. If the enemy, like a suicide bomber, is highly motivated and doesn’t care whether they die, it is tough to stop them.

Every member of the force that is participating in this operation knows this and accepts it. Just like me, they volunteered, knew what they were getting into, and knew the risks. Just like me, they wanted to be there because they thought the cause was that important, that they knew that they could make a difference, and that nothing bad was going to happen if they had something to say about it. They were also part of a tight knit team, a family, and were there for each other, having each other’s back. Those who have never been part of this will never understand it, and that’s OK.

We should mourn the 13 Americans who were killed. We should honor them. That being said, we should also question why we are so outraged about these thirteen, but not as outraged about the other 2500+ who died during the 20 years of this war. Were their lives worth less? Were flags flying at half staff when they were killed in action? Was CNN and FoxNews there with live coverage when they returned home in a body bag?

The same can be said about those killed in Iraq, during Operation Desert Storm, and in Vietnam.

For almost 20 years, the American government and Americans in general could have cared less about this war. The only people with “skin in the game” were those who were actually there and their families. Everybody else went around fat and happy.

Isn’t ironic that now we are so outraged? Why might that be?

If you truly want to honor those killed in this operation, stop trying to use the deaths as a rationale to score political points against the opposition.

There is no monopoly on virtue when it comes to who did what to whom during this war. What has happened here is everybody’s fault. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden all share responsibility for this mess.

Mr. Bush went in for all of the right reasons and then got distracted by Iraq and forgot what the original mission was all about and let mission creep set in. Mr. Obama couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to do, showed no backbone, and allowed himself to be rolled by the generals to surge the American presence, but with short term target dates for leaving. The Taliban have always believed that the American have the clocks, but they have the time. That worked out well, didn’t it? Mr. Trump negotiated a terrible deal with the Taliban without including the Afghan government in the negotiations, and basically surrendered in order to keep his campaign promise of ending the “forever wars.” Mr. Biden just pulled the plug on the dying patient, at the same time killing American credibility with our “allies”, and emboldening our adversaries. I thought he was supposed to be our foreign policy president?

The American people? We shopped, went to the game, bought our overpriced cars, houses and boats, went to the “all inclusive” resort in Cancun, and bitched about how screwed up our lives were and how the country was going to hell in a hand basket.

All the while, American men and women continued to die in this war that nobody wanted and couldn’t be bothered with.

Now, with the debacle of the end game of the war, everybody is trying to score political points.

Democrats are blaming Mr. Trump for this mess. If the Doha Agreement was so bad and didn’t serve American military or strategic interests, why didn’t Mr. Biden just walk away from it and maintain the status quo, maintain possession of Bagram air base, and keep the 2500 residual force in place for counterterrorism and intelligence work? Many Democrats and members of the media blindly supporting Mr. Biden won’t acknowledge the fact that one can still support him, while at the same time be highly critical of the manner in which he executed this policy. One can do that, you know? That’s the way it used to work before hyperpartisanship and tribalism became the norm in American politics.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are criticizing Mr. Biden’s motives and questioning his mental capacities, with some Republican members of Congress calling for Biden’s resignation, impeachment, or for invoking the 25th Amendment, all the while saying that this debacle would have never happened if Mr. Trump had been in charge. We all remember how well Syria went after Mr. Trump sold out the Kurds by leaving northern Syria with our tail between our legs. Oh, but we got the oil (not).

Of course, social media is dictating this latest act of performance politics. It’s all about throwing bombs, owning the other side, the influence, the clicks, the likes, and the retweets. It’s like a broken record and it has to stop.

In my mind, every politician, member of the media, and member of the “infotainment” world, every American citizen who who engages in this behavior and piling on is spitting on the graves of those thirteen troops who were killed, the same thirteen who’s deaths they are so outraged about.

And oh, by the way, Mr. Biden should never again invoke the name Beau Biden when discussing this war. Yes, Beau’s death was tragic, but he died of cancer. He wasn’t killed in action. Yes, he served in Iraq and there was some danger, but he didn’t serve in a combat unit. He was a lawyer serving in a JAG unit. I respect his service.

Right now, the United States should be laser focused on the end phase of this operation, first, getting any remaining Americans and Afghans who want to leave on to a flight, and second, extracting the force. Given the situation on the ground, this could get ugly, especially for Americans located away from the airport or if the force stays after the August 31st deadline.

It also has to be understood that, given the situation outside of the airport, civilians are probably going to be left behind and won’t get out. That is tragic, but sometimes individuals have to be sacrificed as part of the mission. Sometimes, operational requirements dictate the reality of not being able to save everybody. This is the cold reality of military operations, and sometimes, tough decisions have to be made. If you have studied World War II, not everybody, despite the heroic rescue efforts, made it off of the beach at Dunkirk.

Only after the end of the mission should the investigations begin. Investigate the hell out of it and let the evidence lead where it may. Nobody should be exempt from accountability. This is what democracies do.

Grave damage has been done to America’s reputation abroad. At home, the debacle in Afghanistan has further divided us.

If we truly want to move forward from this, we will investigate, let the chips fall where they may, examine what went wrong and what we did right, and move forward.

We owe it to all who died in this war. Make the sacrifice of all who served and all who died in Afghanistan mean something.

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