With the American war in Afghanistan and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan now definitively over, I’ve been trying to put the entirety of the last four weeks into some perspective. As you can see I’ve been fairly dug in on the proposition that the great majority of the criticism we’ve seen amounts to ignorance and deflection. Pulling the plug on a failed or misconceived mission isn’t pretty. But it is inevitable. The ugliness is built into the failure rather than a consequence of recognizing it. Most of what we’ve seen is an attempt to deny the failure (mostly hawks) or imagine that withdrawing would be orderly and free of consequences. But with all this reasoning, what parts were handled poorly? What could have been better organized or cleaner?
Perhaps this is only a matter of stepping back and with the benefit of clear eyes and more perspective and, well … agreeing with myself. But honestly, I think I really agree with myself. The airlift evacuation appears to have transported well over 110,000 people out of the country, an astonishing feat under any circumstances and probably unprecedented for a civilian airlift in a kinetic military context and in the context of state collapse.
What happened two weeks ago was that the US-backed government fell. Quickly. And the US President, who had decided to end the US mission in Afghanistan without conditions, allowed it to fall rather than changing his mind. That is the entirety of what happened. Shifting gears to prevent the collapse would have signaled not only that the decision was wrong but also was poorly arrived at in the first place since the collapse of the government was always the probable and most likely the inevitable result of the decision.
Most Monday-morning quarterbacking of the “failure of execution” school doesn’t posit that the government would have survived, only that it might have lasted months or maybe a year longer, thus allowing the US to pass off the messiness on someone else. In other words, the failure of execution was largely a matter of optics. Extend the country’s civil war for a few more months or years – certainly at the cost of thousands of lives – to allow the US and the authors of the war to avoid the reputational splatter when the end came. That is an understandable but certainly ignoble aspiration.
This is the “decent interval” that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger engineered for the fall of South Vietnam – basically an effort to game the 1972 election with “peace with honor” and leave others to pick up the pieces. As it happens, when Saigon finally fell in April 1975 Nixon was just months into his forced retirement and California exile, having been forced into the first presidential resignation in history. Life’s a bitch.
So the government fell – clearly quicker than the White House or the Pentagon anticipated. As things spun out of control in the 2nd week of August, the US redeployed first a thousand and eventually more than six thousand troops to Kabul. As it unfolded this was portrayed as evidence of disorganization and failed planning. You just pulled out! Now you’re going back in! WTF!?!?! In fact, it was what was required to manage the evacuation that unfolded over the following two weeks, a deployment in sufficient force to allow the US to manage a rushed but orderly evacuation on its own terms. Thirteen Americans troops were killed in that effort. But given the vulnerability they were exposed to – essentially searching and vetting Afghan civilians at close quarters in a situation in which literally anyone could approach the US checkpoints – the risk to those Marines at the gates was vast.
So I would ask again, what exactly was the great failure of execution? There have been a few criticisms on operational grounds. But they seem weak at best. One we’ve heard a lot is that the US should have held Bagram Airport rather than the civilian airport in Kabul. I’m not a military planner. But on its face if the main mission is evacuation and the people are in Kabul it seems clear that the airport near the people is the better option. Otherwise, you’re in a sort of Mad Max type situation managing highly vulnerable convoys on a forty mile drive from Kabul to the heavily defended military airbase. I’ll leave that question to others. But again, what was the failure of execution? It really seems that the “failure,” the “there had to be a better way” argument, is that the government fell. Is that a failure of execution? Not really. It was an inherent risk of withdrawal. Indeed, by any candid evaluation it was an inevitable result of withdrawal. The question was just how long it would take to happen. It happened faster than anyone seems to have anticipated. And the US reacted quickly with a contingency plan to manage an evacuation which was actually quite successful.
Let us remember that two weekends ago a crush of prominent commentators and reporters were stating as fact that the White House had been caught flatfooted and abandoned everyone who had worked for the US during its war in Afghanistan. They declared the evacuation a catastrophic failure and shameful betrayal when it was actually only starting and then in many cases took credit for the evacuation after it happened, on the premise that it was only their cries of betrayal that made it happen. This is a bracingly self-serving and sloppy logic. One of the worst offenders on this front, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, was forced to move the goalposts yet again yesterday: now judging the evacuation a “success,” she claimed Biden was “conflating the withdrawal with the evacuation … they did not realize the Taliban would take over so quickly.”
And there you have it. The problem was the withdrawal itself. That is by definition not a problem of execution but one of policy. Raddatz’s argument appears to be that the US should have known the government would fall in a matter of days and that if it knew this it should have stayed long to ensure it would last at least weeks or months if not years. This is arguing what amounts to a distinction without a difference verging on the logic of perpetual war and occupation which is what kept the US in Afghanistan for twenty years in the first place. It’s the final redoubt of a bad and for many deeply dishonest argument. Raddatz is like a desperate evacuee clinging to the skids of a departing helicopter as her preferred storyline collapses around her. Messy, indeed.
The one point she and others are right about is that Joe Biden owns the withdrawal. He and his White House team are now taking credit for that. They argue (correctly) that the American public wanted to leave and that he stuck to his decision even in the face of a storm of criticism. Three Presidents understood the futility of the mission. Only one had the determination to end it even at the cost of real political damage to himself. That means he has to own the reality of withdrawal, the acceptance that the mission, as it expanded in the years after 2001, did not work. He has to accept the reality of a Taliban government. He has to accept the reality and images of terrified refugees, masses looking to escape.
But as many have argued this was a reality baked into the futility and failure of the mission itself. There was no pretty exit. That is what kept the US there for two decades. As has been the case for weeks, this is the crux of the ‘there had to be a better way’ crowd’s argument: wanting out of a failed endeavor but unwilling to stomach let alone embrace the reality of that failure and eager to pass that messiness off on someone else.