by Austin Bay
August 17, 2021
In the first two weeks of August, America's withdrawal from Afghanistan became a humiliating rout. Make no mistake, the U.S. has suffered a major diplomatic and psychological defeat that will have resonance throughout the world.
Understand that I think that since 9/11, America's essential mission in Afghanistan has been what I call Guard Duty Writ Large. I first used that description in 2012. To protect U.S. national security at home and abroad, America had to attack and damage militant Islamic terrorist organizations. That meant denying them bases in anarchic regions, like Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. Denying doesn't mean we have to occupy those places. It definitely doesn't mean we need to engage in nation building and culture-changing -- those are mega-challenges.
We can strike Yemen and Somalia from the sea. Landlocked Afghanistan presents a problem. The closest air bases are six to seven hours away. Guard duty in Afghanistan means -- or meant -- maintaining an on-the-ground presence, primarily to support Afghan forces and refuel allied aircraft, but also to occasionally conduct U.S. air and ground raids on high-value targets throughout the region. The special operations raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in his Pakistan compound was launched from Afghanistan.
Many in the defense and intelligence community agree that guard duty was the essential mission. Some argued nation building would ultimately give pro-democracy Afghans the tools to guard themselves. We did try that. Afghan corruption undermined the effort.
In many respects, the U.S. Afghanistan operations since mid-2019 have been guard duty. The last American combat death occurred in February 2020. Pro-democracy Afghan government military and police forces did most of the fighting, with the U.S. and NATO providing air and fire support and intelligence assistance. This support meant the Taliban couldn't defeat the Afghan government. In this case, stalemate aided America's essential mission.
Unfortunately, high-visibility American political and media narrators, particularly on the left but also on the right, would call me an advocate of endless U.S. military commitments and condemn guard duty as a form of "forever war." I use scare quotes because I'm not quite sure what "forever war" means in the real world. It measures time like a Hollywood movie -- beginning and end. That's disconnected from reality. The term works as angry rhetoric but fails to address on-the-ground security.
Fact: U.S. military personnel have been in South Korea far longer than they have been in Afghanistan. There is no peace treaty between South and North Korea. Don't tell me Afghanistan is America's longest war.
And don't tell me American withdrawal means the war in Afghanistan is over. It's not. In July 2021, the stalemate ended and anti-Taliban forces collapsed after they lost U.S. and allied air support. The Biden administration made no attempt to counter the Taliban's surprise offensive. The Taliban filled the vacuum America's incompetent withdrawal created. Al-Qaida, the Islamic State group and other homicidal terror factions will eventually return to Afghanistan.
The stalemate protected pro-democracy Afghans who believed America would defend them and, failing that, give them refuge. State Department bureaucrats say it will take 12 to 18 months to process their visa applications. Meanwhile, Taliban death squads will execute the tens of thousands who fail to escape.
It didn't have to be this way. A well-executed withdrawal would have saved their lives and perhaps saved the anti-Taliban government. The acronym is NEO -- Noncombatant Evacuation Operation -- "the departure of civilian noncombatants and nonessential military personnel from danger in an overseas country to a designated safe haven ... "
The U.S. military is highly skilled at NEO. Even a NEO involving an area as large as Afghanistan could have been planned and prepared in 30 to 45 days if the Joint Chiefs of Staff had coordinating power and the State Department arranged for temporary refugee housing in third-country safe havens. The decision to withdraw from the huge air base at Bagram was utterly stupid, at least until threatened Afghans were extracted.
President Joe Biden gave his withdrawal speech on April 14. There was time. Incompetent, arrogant and oblivious White House leadership compounded by obscenely bad interagency planning created the horror we witness and the slaughter to be.