Nothing is impossible for the person that doesn’t have to do it.
— With apologies to A. H. Weiler
There is plenty of blame to go around for the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. It took a lot of work by multiple U.S. administrations to get to the point that we are at today. President Biden is getting the blame today because, it is after all, his watch. He is responsible for what happens during his time as president. However, it is amazing how short the American memory is for politicians, journalists and pundits as they continue to heap scorn on the president for the current “fiasco” and “embarrassment.” Let’s get a few facts straight.
It is wrong to call this a defeat of the American military and that it shows that we are weak and incompetent. The Taliban did not defeat the American military. They defeated the Afghan military. As has happened throughout history, an army can be well trained, fully equipped with modern technology and it means nothing if there is no will to fight. In the end the Afghan military did not have the will to resist the Taliban. The reasons for that are many. Saying that they lost the will to fight in no way diminishes their numerous achievements on the battlefields of Afghanistan nor does it diminish the bravery of many Afghan soldiers and units during twenty years of war. In the end, they were betrayed by their own political and military leaders. The Taliban regaining control over the entire country was a political and policy defeat, not a military one, that had been years in the making.
I do not think it was a wasted war. American lives were lost in the cause of destroying terrorists that attacked our country. We did that and more. The U.S. military should be proud of the sacrifices that they made. It was worth it.
To begin a discussion, one has to decide whether or not we should have withdrawn from Afghanistan. Since 2011 and the killing of Osama bin Laden then Vice President, now President, Biden has been calling for the end of American involvement in Afghanistan. The original mission was to overthrow the Taliban, defeat al-Queda and to capture or kill Osama. In 2011 all of that was accomplished. Many argue it was essentially finished within a year of our invasion of Afghanistan and that it could have included Osama’s death if we had not let him get away in Tora Bora. Indeed, the Taliban offered to surrender in 2001 and the U.S. refused. As is often the case, the original mission morphed into a nation building exercise. Again. Again we learned that cultures with no history of democracy or loyalty to a central government will not adapt to American style democracy. President Biden’s decision to withdraw can be debated — I happen to think it was the right choice for reasons that I will explain below — but it is reasonable for others to argue that we should have stayed. Those people that so argue should also recognize that we would have had to return large numbers of American military personnel to the country. The 2,500 that were there when the Biden Administration took office would not have been sufficient to stop the Taliban’s increasing influence and control over the entire country. More troops would have been required. More troops in combat means more casualties. To argue that there had been no casualties for over a year ignores the reasons for that — the fact that the Trump Administration struck a deal with the Taliban. Had we not left as the previous administration agreed to do, undoubtedly there would have been renewed attacks on U.S. personnel.
Once the decision to leave is made — and it should have come as no surprise to anyone — then it is up to the Department of Defense, State Department and other government agencies to execute it to the best of their ability. I happen to think that they are doing a better than average job under very trying circumstances. To date, over 20,000 civilians have been evacuated from Kabul without a single American casualty. As the president said, however, it is a very volatile situation and there is no guarantee that it won’t fall apart at any moment. But despite the chaos of the first day, it has proceeded better than most could have hoped.
The real criticism of the Biden Administration — and a situation that needs a Congressional inquiry — is the total and complete miss on the intelligence estimates of how long the Afghan government and military could continue to function after the U.S. withdrew. Either there is a long litany of lies about conditions in Afghanistan or the Intelligence Community totally missed the boat. As is often the case, it is probably some combination of the two, but the fact remains that public statements did not in any form match the reality on the ground that the Taliban would take down the government controlled areas of the country in just over a week.
It should not have been a surprise. Twenty years on the ground with supposed experts making entire careers analyzing events in the country should have known what was going on. In the simplest terms, open source material indicates that following the 29 February 2020 Trump Peace Accord, known formally as “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan Between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” — just the name of the agreement tells us something — the Taliban began preparing for their take over. Note that the agreement was between the U.S. and the Taliban. The Afghan government had no say or role in the negotiations and got no results from the agreement. The following are the key parts of the agreement which are spelled out in detail in the Accord:
- The U.S. agreed immediately to begin to reduce the number of troops in the country and promised to withdraw all remaining forces within fourteen months (May 2021).
- The U.S. released 5,000 prisoners that were Taliban fighters.
- The Taliban promised to prevent terrorist groups, especially al-Queda, from using Afghanistan to attack the U.S. or its allies.
- The Taliban and the national government of Afghanistan will enter negotiations for a cease fire and a coalition government.
- The Taliban will no longer attack U.S. forces or bases while the U.S. withdraws.
Almost immediately the Taliban began to approach low-level officials, and then gradually more and more senior officials and leaders throughout the country to convince them, through persuasion, threats and especially bribes, to surrender their villages, cities and regions to the Taliban when the time came in return for protection for them and their families. When the leadership quietly slipped away in the night, the rank and file were not going to risk their lives for nothing. In much of Afghan culture their loyalties are to family, village, tribe and not the central government in Kabul. Graft and corruption are so rampant in the country that many of the police and soldiers had not been paid in months. When offered money, and knowing that the central government would not help them, they took it.
Recall the optics of the Trump agreement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Doha Qatar to meet with the Taliban and proudly stood side by side for photo ops. Recall that the ex-president while in office wanted to bring the Taliban negotiators to Camp David on 11 September 2019. Trump adviser Stephen Miller — the virulently anti-immigration nut case — actively undermined the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) program for Afghanis that helped us as translators and in other ways because he did not want them in our country. And on and on. It is more than hypocritical of Republicans in Congress and the right-wing media to accuse President Biden of selling out the Afghan people and giving recognition to the Taliban. It was already done. President Biden could have refused to follow the Trump deal, but he made the decision to delay the withdrawal from May 2021 to August 2021 to allow more time for a better deal to be reached. It wasn’t. Neither the Taliban nor the Afghan national government were interested in any type of serious agreement with each other. I suspect that the Afghan government did not really expect the U.S. to leave completely, or else they already had their escape plans in place. None-the-less, the Biden Administration is in charge and it is their responsibility. But let’s not forget how we got to this point. These events set the stage for what we now see happening.
There were elite, well trained and disciplined Afghan special forces. They were ready to defend Kabul. When the president and most of the cabinet, along with other senior government officials, flew out of the country without warning, they melted away like all the others. They cannot fight to save the national government if there is no national government to defend.
It was, in essence, at the end, a nearly bloodless coup. Money talks and a lot of Afghanis walked. I think President Biden is correct to say that he will not send young American women and men to fight and die in a country where their own military will not defend themselves. It is over. The decision is made. It is time to make the best of a bad situation.
What makes it bad is that many American civilians remain in the country and it becomes a greater moral dilemma because we owe a debt to tens of thousands of Afghanis and their families who helped us over the course of twenty years believing that things would end differently. This is the mess. The timing comes under this administration, but this same circumstance would have ensued whenever the end came. Once people believe that all is lost, the stampede is on. As soon as the U.S. began withdrawing its embassy personnel, aid workers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and others, the Afghanis would know that it was over and panic would ensue. Could it have been timed out better? Yes. Could the chaos have been avoided? No. It is inevitable at some point.
The question now is what to do. The U.S. goal is to complete the evacuation by 31 August. Many critics believe that is too early, ignoring the president’s statements that the date is a goal, not a hard and fast requirement. Developments over the next few days will determine what happens. People are looking for hard and fast answers. That is reasonable but not realistic. The commanders on the ground are going to have to make some quick and difficult decisions. It is a very fluid situation. So far, for the most part the Taliban have stuck by their agreement to let the evacuation continue. There is no way to definitively say that this will last forever. I believe the Taliban leadership wants it to go smoothly and quickly because they want us gone. The sooner the better. They do not want to risk our return. That does not mean that some hothead on the front lines or a group of hotheads might not take matters into their own hands. The situation could blow up quickly with very little instigation. This is especially true if the U.S. begins going outside of the airport perimeter, or even outside of Kabul, to bring evacuees in.
There is a lot of blame to go around. Our collective amnesia of events in other administrations should not cloud our thinking about the current situation. In the end, the Biden Administration will demonstrate that they have the ability and know-how to pull off a Dunkirk style evacuation. Or not. Until then, the critics should hold their fire until the results are known.
For those that may be unfamiliar with Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, United States Army, he is the soldier that was held captive by the Taliban for five years, probably in a remote area of Pakistan. He was returned to U.S. Special Forces on Saturday 31 May in exchange for five senior Taliban held in Guantanamo Cuba as terrorists. From where I sit, there are a number of strange aspects to this case so perhaps we have yet to hear the full story. However, as it has unfolded thus far, I am troubled by certain aspects of it.
First and foremost I am happy for the Bergdahl family. As their only son (reportedly he has an older sister), I can only imagine the heartache this family went through and the joy that they now feel as he starts his journey home to Idaho. For the Bergdahl family, this was a major success for U.S. diplomacy.
On the policy level, I am not sure that we made the right call. I disagree with the reasons given by some politicians that are critical of the trade, but I do agree that the Obama administration may have set a bad precedent.
Several of the criticisms, in my view, are weak. Among them:
- We have now put a price on every American’s head and the incidents of kidnapping for exchanges for other terrorists will now be the new normal. Weak argument. For many years now there has been a price on American’s heads overseas, especially in the war zones. Nothing has changed there. Terrorists all over the world are not for the first time thinking “why didn’t we think of that? Let’s go find us some Americans to trade.” Nothing new.
- The Obama Administration was required to give Congress 30 days notice before moving any prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. This provision is really a political attempt to prevent the administration from closing down Guantanamo Bay and has little to do with this case. More to the point, the Commander-in-Chief needs the flexibility to act quickly when an opportunity presents itself. Given the apparent circumstances of the trade, it probably came about quickly and had to be acted upon quickly or the opportunity could be lost. Concern for Sergeant Bergdahl’s health is the stated reason for the quick action. One could perhaps argue that this was not as urgent as portrayed by the White House, but the President must still be able to act quickly when opportunity arises.
- The timing was an attempt to divert attention from the problems in the Veterans Administration. Really? The Taliban cares about the VA and politically protecting President Obama? Really?
Likewise, I think that some of the justifications given by the Administration are weak. Foremost among them:
- Our military leaves no man or woman behind. Fair enough and true enough — an honored tradition. But I am not sure how we would have been leaving him behind if the United States will still have a military presence in Afghanistan until at least 2016. There have been some unconfirmed reports that our intelligence agencies had an excellent knowledge of his location and that a Special Forces raid was considered to extract him by force. If this is true, it is more in keeping with the “no one left behind” tradition than is a “prisoner” exchange.
- We do not and did not negotiate with terrorists. Disingenuous. All governments do. This includes Israel, most often held up as a paradigm for tough actions against terrorists. The question is how, when and for what, not whether we or other nations do it. The Obama administration contends that the Qatari government arranged the deal. Okay, so we did not sit down at a table with the Taliban, but who did we think was at the other end of the Qatari discussion? (Interestingly, the deal may have been finalized at last week’s West Point graduation ceremony where President Obama spoke and the Qatari Emir was present to see the first Qatari graduate from West Point.)
- Prisoner exchanges are a normal part of warfare. Perhaps, and they certainly occur, again under the right circumstances. What were the circumstances in this case that made it so compelling? We have yet to get the full story.
Similarly, I think the discussion takes a wrong turn when pundits and critics combine our policy for withdrawal from Afghanistan; our trading of the five Taliban for Sergeant Bergdahl; whether the Sergeant deserved (?!) to be rescued because he put himself and others in harm’s way due to his own actions; and the general view of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy as weak. All of these things are worthy of discussion, but they are all separate issues and should not be rolled up into one big free for all. They need to be addressed in context and as stand alone issues, even as they are inevitably related.
It seems to me, as others have stated, that the real reason for this exchange is to tidy up loose ends as the war in Afghanistan winds down. There are certainly humanitarian overtones to the case, and I’m glad that the Sergeant and his family will be reunited. As a matter of policy, I don’t think we should have sent five Taliban leaders to Qatar in exchange. They may be under close supervision for the next year, but if they are still alive a year from now, they will most certainly get back in the game and actively work to undermine U.S. interests.
To me it is a finer point than whether or not to “negotiate with terrorists” or discussions over how many Taliban equal one U.S. soldier (in my eyes an American soldier is worth an infinite number of Taliban, but I understand we won’t trade limitless numbers of them, nor should we do so). It is just a matter of reality that these wars are different and the fact that some of those we have captured will never go home. Nor should they ever go home. We totally mischaracterize the nature of this conflict by talking about prisoner exchanges and the like. This is not World War I or World War II. There will be no armistice or peace treaties. There will be no Marshall Plan for the Taliban or for Al Qaeda.
I look forward to someday hearing the rest of the story. There are many curious aspects to this case and I don’t think we have heard all of it. Given what we know so far, if we wanted to get Sergeant Bergdahl home, we should have gone and brought him home.