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America’s Afghanistan Retreat: The Gift That Keeps Giving

The military leadership that guided the disastrous withdrawal tells Congress they knew it would be disastrous.

It has been nearly three years since the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, the architects of that deadly retreat tell Congress they knew it would be ugly. Retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and former Commander, US Central Command, Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee March 19 concerning their 20/20 hindsight reflections on the catastrophic retreat of US military forces and civilians from Afghanistan in August 2021. Both former senior leaders were instrumental in directing and executing the critical decisions during those fateful days.

Retreat from Afghanistan Based on Flawed Decision-Making

Because the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan was emblematic of flawed decision-making at the highest level, Congress is working diligently to get to the root causes. During his opening remarks, Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) made clear what his focus was. McCaul observed:

“For months before that announcement, the intelligence community and his senior military advisors – including both gentlemen testifying here today – issued dire warnings about the withdrawal’s consequences. After the announcement I, along with other Republican and Democrat Members of Congress, urged the president to prepare for the withdrawal’s inevitable fallout. Unfortunately, those warnings were ignored.”

The Democrats on the committee attempted to throw the blame on 20 years of failed Afghanistan policies by preceding administrations, with particular emphasis on former President Donald Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban known as the Doha Agreement. Democrats hoped to portray Biden’s national security team as mere dupes having to follow the Trump plan as the inevitable course of action. However, Donald Trump was not the president at the time of the withdrawal; Biden was and is. Biden was the decision-maker, not Trump.

During the testimony, each retired general reiterated that the military had warned the White House such a precipitous withdrawal without a covering military force to protect the departure was a mistake. Chairman McCaul was interested in the decision process that set the timetable. “While the [Department of Defense helped] conduct the emergency evacuation, it’s the State Department that is responsible — under law — for developing the plan and leading the evacuation. Is that your understanding?” McCaul asked. General Milley answered: “Yes, the State Department is the lead federal agency for planning and execution, oversight over the execution of the noncombatant operation. And the Department of Defense is in support of the State Department plans [as] lead federal agency for NEOS [noncombatant evacuation operations]. That’s correct.”

State Department Planning: Too Little, Too Late

General McKenzie explained that he had been worried about the slowness of the State Department’s planning. “I was concerned by the middle of July. I was concerned about the different pace of Department of Defense planning, as compared to Department of State planning,” McKenzie told the committee. The State Department wasn’t doing the necessary plan preparation, coordinating, and vetting of what people are expected to do – executing the plan – the Defense Department’s responsibility. When McCaul asked McKenzie about his view of the State Department planning, McKenzie concluded, “It was my judgment that it was far too little, far too late.” Milley agreed.

An exchange with Congressman Andy Barr (R-KY) and the two generals highlighted the intransigence of the administration’s senior leadership. Why was Bagram AB, 30 miles from Kabul, eliminated as a location for the evacuation of Afghanistan? General McKenzie admitted: “All things being equal, you would prefer to have Bagram at 2.5K [2,500 soldiers to defend the base]…and yes, it would have helped the NEO.” The military commanders recommended keeping a residual force in Afghanistan of 2,500 US military as a presence and keeping Bagram AB open. On August 14, 2021, the Biden administration ordered all US military out of Afghanistan. The president’s decision foreclosed the option of keeping Bagram AB open. With the meager force of only 750 military personnel left, defending both Bagram AB and the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) was impossible.

The White House, State Department, and military leadership thinking was backward. Listening to the testimony, it became so starkly plain what should have been the starting operational question was how do we evacuate the diplomats, Americans, and Afghan friends wanting to leave. The answer would have been, first, we need to retain 2,500 military defenders so that Bagram AB can be used. Instead, the military was left with the question of how to meet the arbitrary August 31 deadline with only 750 troops. That forced the evacuation to HKIA, which made the defenders vulnerable to terrorist attacks, including suicide bombers. Thirteen brave, selfless American service members were killed as a consequence.

The perverse irony was that “nearly 6,000 American troops are protecting the international airport in Kabul, the capital,” Lara Jakes reported for The New York Times. The Biden administration deployed more than twice the number of defenders to HKIA than needed at Bagram when conditions deteriorated at Kabul. Yet US leaders would not reverse the ill-conceived decision to go to zero US forces before the situation was clearly in peril. That narrow, inflexible thinking gets American service members killed and wounded.

Another much more important question was evident from the hearing testimony. When the military leadership’s recommendations were summarily dismissed by President Biden, and the dire consequences of his disregard for that best military advice were evident, why did no one resign? As Chairman McCaul pointed out, “the intelligence community and his senior military advisors – including both gentlemen testifying here today – issued dire warnings about the withdrawal’s consequences.” The decision-maker-in-chief, Biden, blew off the advice of his senior military leadership in the Pentagon and his senior field commander and set a course for catastrophe. Yet no one resigned in protest.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

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