August 15, 2021

The fall of Kabul – who did not see this coming?


A U.S. helicopter flies over Kabul (Rahmat Gul - AP)

Thanks to the Biden Administration’s disastrous handling of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the world is about to witness another botched evacuation reminiscent of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Those of us who served in Vietnam will never forget the disturbing images of Huey helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the American embassy.


It appears that history is about to repeat itself.


President Biden announced, probably against the advice of his senior military leadership, that the United States would withdraw all of its forces by the end of August. I can’t say that I blame Biden for not listening to the same generals who created the absolute disaster that Afghanistan has become.


Let’s review how we got here. Soon after the al-Qa’idah attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban to surrender ‘Usamah bin Ladin to the United States. The Taliban refused, triggering the U.S. invasion of the country and the removal of the Taliban, to be replaced by the Northern Alliance. The American military began operations to eliminate al-Qa’idah, including bin Ladin.


By early December, the U.S. and its allies (including Northern Alliance, British, and German forces) had forced the remnants of al-Qa’idah to seek shelter from the relentless air attacks in the Tora Bora cave complex near the border with Pakistan. An Afghan militia leader claimed that he had negotiated the surrender of al-Qa’idah, including bin Ladin, and they were working out the “modalities of bin Ladin’s surrender.”


I remember shaking my head in disbelief. Rather than committing U.S. forces to the capture or killing of bin Ladin, we agreed to “outsource” it to an unreliable Afghan warlord. I said to anyone who would listen that there is no way this group of Afghans was going to turn over a fellow Muslim, a fellow warrior, to the United States. It was just not going to happen. President Bush refused to commit U.S. forces to an attack, believing Pakistani lies that they would apprehend bin Ladin if he tried to enter Pakistan.


We all know what happened – this “working out the modalities” was merely a ploy to buy time to allow tribal forces on both sides of the border to spirit bin Ladin into Pakistan, where he remained until U.S. forces tracked him down in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011. The Pakistanis had no idea where he was for almost ten years? I find that hard to believe.


After the end of the Battle of Tora Bora, I maintain that the United States had achieved its major objective of the invasion of Afghanistan – to remove al-Qa’idah from the country. The survivors of the organization who accompanied bin Ladin into Pakistan dispersed to other areas to continue the fight – Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb.


So why did the United States feel compelled to remain in Afghanistan, a country that has been known as “the graveyard of empires?” You would think that knowledgeable people in the American intelligence, military, and diplomatic communities would have recognized the folly of committing a large military force to Afghanistan except to oversee the orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops.


For reasons that I cannot fathom, some bright light, probably at the State Department, came up with the idea that we should try to introduce Western-style democracy into this tribal society. This phenomena – starting out to do one thing (removing al-Qai’dah) and morphing into another (nation building) – is called “mission creep.” We Americans excel at it.


The obvious, but faulty, analogy that some will point out is the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. There is nothing remotely similar to reintroducing democratic institutions in Europe and creating democracy from nothing in Afghanistan.


Of course, the first step in any of these efforts is to establish security – that usually means more troops. The American military presence continued to grow to combat the threat still posed by the resurgent Taliban. In my view, at that time, the Taliban did not represent a threat to the United States. Al-Qa’idah did, and was dealt with.


Did I want the Taliban to resume control of Afghanistan? No. Did I think that the continued presence of American and allied troops would prevent it? No. I thought the presence of foreign troops would only be able to postpone the Taliban’s return to power, but in the end not prevent it. Why didn’t our supposedly bright military leaders tell the President(s) that? If you can’t win a war, don’t fight it.


As we have seen time and time again, a smaller, committed force can outlast a superpower and defeat the incompetent indigenous forces supposedly trained and equipped by their sponsors. The Afghan army was never a capable fighting force, despite the huge expenditure of American and allied resources and massive training efforts.

Why not? Because their hearts were not in it. Most of the troops willing to join the Afghan military or security forces were doing it for a paycheck, not a burning desire to keep democracy alive in Afghanistan.


On the other hand, the Taliban fighters are true believers. They will fight to the death to achieve their objective – the reintroduction of an Islamic state in Afghanistan. They also enjoy enough popular support to continue to fight on despite the efforts of the United States and its allies.


It is only the presence of foreign forces that prevent the Taliban from retaking the entire country. With the irresponsible manner of the Biden withdrawal, it is only a matter of time – I give it days – before the Taliban regain control.


In a press conference on July 8th, Biden claimed that a Taliban victory was not inevitable, citing the fact that the Afghan military of 300,000 was among the best equipped in the world, and capable of defeating the 75,000 Taliban fighters. Just two days ago, the Pentagon spokesman claimed that Kabul was not in imminent danger. Clearly, neither one of them has a grasp on the reality of the situation.


My bottom line: We should have left Afghanistan after ‘Usamah bin Ladin was allowed to “escape” to Pakistan in an act of perfidy in 2001, or at the latest in early 2002, and prevented the loss of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.