Washington, D.C. — How the might have fallen: from being in control of Afghanistan, the United States military has been forced to evacuate its troops and civilians from an airport deep inside Taliban-controlled Kabul within weeks.
Afghanistan fell quickly after its collapse, even though in May both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and U.S. forces controlled the region. In July, President Biden promised Afghanistan would never fall to the Taliban despite significant territorial losses.
Then, as the Taliban took control of major cities on August 10, U.S. officials estimated the government would fall in 30 days or less. Taliban forces unopposed entered Kabul five days later Taliban forces unopposed entered Kabul, bringing down the entire country.
Forward to late August, where U.S. troops, stranded at Kabul’s airport by the Taliban and surrounded by fleeing mobs conducted an ad hoc evacuation.
As a result of operating assumptions not being updated, I see three failures in decision-making. First, the Taliban failed to acknowledge that the US had “won” the war and the U.S. failed to adapt to the situation once it became clear that the bad guys weren’t crying ‘Uncle’. Secondly, the United States failed to build contingency plans to protect its evacuation effort when the Taliban accelerated their offensive. And bringing up the rear (and memories of Benghazi) U.S. forces and civilians were not protected after being besieged in Kabul.
Taliban victory in guerrilla war was neither anticipated nor adapted by U.S. leadership. Failure of nation building and loss of the guerrilla war weren’t due to a lack of warnings from experts-corroborated as our government also received reports from troops returning from Afghanistan.
A robust evidence base didn’t support the Afghan government’s viability or nation-building’s success; rather, it was only the belief of a political and institutional elite that it was “true.” Maintaining the illusion that the U.S. was there at the political level to modernize and integrate Afghanistan was required from an institutional perspective because the United States had already incurred enormous losses (thousands of lives) and enormous costs (trillions of dollars) through the venture. Protecting careers was probably also a factor. And anyone advocating social-reform efforts in the country were ground to dust by the national security bureaucracy and its political allies.
As the government troops rolled over without a fight, it was evident that the guerrilla war had been won by the Taliban-because they understood that, unlike conventional warfare, guerrilla wars are fought in the moral realm. In order to survive, you must create the maximum amount of positive support using morals that attract, such as incorruptibility, moral integrity, altruism. But your adversaries must be associated with morals that repel, such as corruption, unpopular social changes, selfish abuses.
These are the rallying cries of propaganda, and they work by encouraging support from the local populations. When victory strikes in this type of warfare, it is often an unexpected one, with a complete breakdown of the opponent.
As the Taliban rushed to regain control of the country, the United States leadership was disoriented. (!) Diplomacy alone would have been sufficient to control the pace of the conflict during the retreat, according to the U.S. as the Taliban would remain in the background until the U.S. pulled out.
So, the U.S. subsequently withdrew most of those forces that it needed to bolster the Afghan National Army as the U.S. began withdrawing contractors such as DynCorp, which was paid billions to train the Afghan military to maintain and maintain its aircraft (unsuccessfully); the Afghan air force lost organic support. Sensing this, the Taliban did not stay hidden in the shadows; they marched forward with a practiced high-speed occupation.
After the Taliban won the guerrilla war and began a maneuver-based offensive to capture the country in July, the U.S. should have responded by deploying contingencies. Several actions were necessary, foremost of which was retaking the abandoned Bagram Air Base (not surrounded by heavily populated villages) north of Kabul to ensure that air support and evacuation missions were continuous even if Kabul’s airport was damaged or taken out of action. By reopening Bagram, greater air support for the Afghan army would be available, slowing Taliban advance. This is all ignoring the fact that Taliban actually offered those areas to the US in the beginning to facilitate the pullout; no sense in fighting a battle if you are going to win it anyway.
The rapidity of the Taliban’s advance could have also forced special operations units to evacuate civilians stranded. The leadership should have accelerated the issuance of visas to Afghans who may be at risk as well as evacuated U.S. civilians faster. Up to August 20, five days after Kabul fell, the State Department was still forcing citizens to pay a $2,000 repatriation fee — more for non-citizens — and sign promissory notes if they didn’t have the cash.
If this doesn’t speak of the absolute disconnect our Gum’ment has with reality then I don’t know what does.
A fast-paced ground campaign that shifted priorities constantly and a deceptive Taliban diplomacy that promised a return to the status quo caused the U.S. leadership to freeze instead of adapting; the Taliban was active while the U.S. was talking.
In the end, it was textbook Judo warfare; let the enemy trip all over their own feet. In fact, the American leaders were unable to do anything but plead with the Taliban for mercy when the Taliban took over major cities in early August.
As a result of the Taliban taking Kabul and encircling American forces confined to the airport, Afghanistan experienced its final decision-making meltdown. By mid-August, when the Taliban seized Kabul, the U.S. leadership had almost no options.
It was at that point that the war moved into its last phase: attrition. Usually the opponent is damaged physically or their sources of material support are cut off. By successively isolating the U.S. mission, the rest of Kabul (where many people were trapped), and the civilian side of the airport, the Taliban separated the mission from the rest of the country. In short, it then slowed the pace of movement through the gates, through mobs, checkpoints, and finally through the use of proxy attacks (ISIS-K).
The U.S. chose to assume that the Taliban would allow them to continue the evacuation unimpeded, and was unwilling to recognize that thousands of troops and civilian personnel and the tens of thousands of civilians were at grave risk of being completely cut off by an attack on the airport itself (a single runway that could have been easily shut down). That assumption was proved inaccurate-to say the least- as the noose tightened around the airport.
Despite our unwillingness to acknowledge it, it became increasingly apparent during the evacuation that the Taliban could convert the U.S. mission into a hostage crisis within hours. The U.S. made undoubtedly concessions to the Taliban in order to prevent this outcome: evidenced as our government issued messaging that portrayed the Taliban as a reformed and reasonable ruler of a new Afghanistan, and thus as a trustworthy partner to assist in an evacuation in case of harm.
Also behind the scenes, it is likely that Taliban members were removed from terrorist watch lists, trade restrictions were lifted, and access to Afghan government funds was given. As a result, we may not learn the extent of the concessions in 2021, if they occur, due to the political costs of disclosing them now.
So, here’s my prediction: It’s highly unlikely that anything will be done to avoid a repeat of this failure. The diplomatic retreat will be seen as a diplomatic victory in politicized analysis that will focus on the more than 100,000 people that were evacuated, with only a few Americans killed. Obviously if such a narrative is not supported it will be labeled as delusional disinformation.
In addition to the apparent failure of nation-building, we will gloss over and forget some of the institutional flubs that prevented successful adaptation. Nobody responsible for the venture will be held accountable for how the effort began or ended decades or ever be forced to accept any accountability for it. No one will suffer damage to his career or incur reputational damage, except those poor sods who tried to stop it.
Conclusion: Unfortunately, war is a harsh teacher. This will result in catastrophic losses during the next war because these weaknesses in decision-making will not be addressed. Worse, the U.S. has now degraded in the eyes of it’s allies and it’s enemies alike. They will respond accordingly.
If it looks like a mouse, acts like a mouse, and scuttles like a mouse, then it had bloody well better expect to get treated like a mouse.
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