The aftermath of the evacuation of Kabul is resulting in self-inflicting collateral damage for President Biden. The president has created a crisis in confidence regarding his leadership abilities in the military and intelligence communities. First, a little background.
Prior to the 2020 election national, security leaders had praised then-candidate Biden’s honesty, leadership, and integrity.
On September 24, 2020, Breaking Defense, a digital magazine covering defense policy, technology, and politics opened a story thus,
“Many of the most respected defense leaders in America have come together to oppose another term for President Donald Trump and went even further in endorsing Joe Biden for president in 2020.”
The open letter was signed by nearly 780 National Security leaders including 22 four-star generals and admirals, five former Defense Secretaries, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and even a NASA administrator, Charles Bolden.
The letter began by saying, “President Trump has gravely damaged America’s role as a world leader. Trump has disgraced America’s global reputation and undermined our nation’s moral and diplomatic influence.”
In that letter these 780 national security officials wrote of then-candidate Biden with glowing praise;
”We believe America’s president must be honest, and we find Joe Biden’s honesty and integrity indisputable. He believes a nation’s word is her bond. He believes we must stand by the allies who have stood by us. He remembers how America’s NATO allies rushed to her side after 9/11; how the Kurds fought by our side to defeat ISIS; and how Japan and South Korea have been steadfast partners in countering North Korean and Chinese provocations. Joe Biden would never sell out our allies to placate despots or because he dislikes an allied leader.”
“Joe Biden believes in personal responsibility. Over his long career, he has learned hard lessons and grown as a leader who can take positive action to unite and heal our country. It is unthinkable that he would ever utter the phrase “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
“We believe that Joe Biden is, above all, a good man with a strong sense of right and wrong. He is guided by the principles that have long made America great: democracy is a hard-won right we must defend and support at home and abroad; America’s power and influence stem as much from her moral authority as it does from her economic and military power.
Joe Biden has the character, principles, wisdom, and leadership necessary to address a world on fire.”
Reading the letter one gets the sense that these national security officials had very high hopes for the Biden administration. Then, just seven months into his term, President Biden presided over the worst public humiliation of the United States since our withdrawal from the Vietnam War. The manner in which President Biden led this effort resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. servicemembers, hundreds of U.S. citizens left behind, billions of dollars in U.S. arms falling into the hands of a terrorist organization, the abandonment of tens of thousands of friendly Afghans, who will likely be killed, and the prestige and reputation of our country around the world in tatters. Many of the criticisms leveled at President Trump in the letter could be said of President Biden now as well.
What we’ve seen in the few days since this debacle concluded on August 30 are ominous signs that there may be another problem now for President Biden: a loss of confidence in his judgment and leadership by the very same sort of national security officials who praised his leadership, character, and integrity last year.
A New Letter by Retired Flag Officers Emerges
Days ago, a new open letter surfaced. It is signed by 130 (so far) national security officials and calls for Biden’s top military brass to resign,
“As the principal military advisors to the Commander In Chief (CINC)/President, the SECDEF and CJCS were the two top military officials in a position to recommend against the dangerous withdrawal in the strongest possible terms.
If they did everything within their authority to stop the hasty withdrawal and the President did not accept their recommendations, then knowing the disastrous consequences looming, the retired flag officer signers believe these top military advisors should have resigned as a matter of conscience and public statement.
A fundamental principle in the military is holding those in charge responsible and accountable for their actions or inaction. There must be accountability at all levels for this tragic and avoidable debacle.”
Biden’s political supporters have attempted to dismiss this as a partisan stunt but the criticism leveled here is against Secretary of Defense Austin and Joint Chief’s Chairman General Milley as President Biden’s principal military advisors. They are being faulted for carrying out a hasty evacuation. They closed Bagram Airbase and didn’t have the troops and resources in place to ensure the evacuation was orderly and successful in not damaging American prestige and credibility before our allies as well as our enemies. That really can’t be dismissed as simply partisan.
One of the document’s signers was Brigadier General Donald Bolduc. Among his 10 combat deployments over 36 years of service, six were to Afghanistan and one to Iraq. He was also the commander of Special Operations Command Africa. General Bolduc has been a guest on SOFREP Radio previously. SOFREP asked General Bolduc to comment on whether the manner of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan has caused a crisis in confidence in President Biden’s leadership. The general said the following,
“There’s no question there’s a leadership crisis in Washington DC. What we saw out of Afghanistan was a complete failure of military strategy and policy. We then saw the White House take no responsibility and refuse to change course after the situation got worse. Now, we have Americans and Afghan civilians still in harm’s way, with a [p]resident that is willing to just turn his back and forget about them. With no one willing to stand up and push back against bad policy, it’s evident that there are no true leaders in the White House.”
Veteran Calls to Suicide Hotlines Spike Sharply
As the Insider has reported, calls to suicide hotlines by veterans have spiked sharply in the last two weeks. The Insider, The Daily Beast, and the BBC all report that the various government and non-government veteran suicide prevention groups are seeing spikes in calls from 12 to over 100 percent.
If the mission to evacuate Kabul was as successful as the administration claims, why are veterans having thoughts of suicide over it?
Office of Naval Intelligence Warns Against Disrespect
The Office of Naval Intelligence has warned servicemembers and even military retirees from “disrespecting senior government leadership (e.g. the President, Vice President, Congress, Secretary of Defense, Service Secretaries, etc.).”
On August 27 in The Daily Wire, Chrissy Clark reported that the Office of Naval Intelligence has emailed its assigned servicemembers, civilian employees, and even retirees instructing them to be careful about the manner in which they criticize the president. The email read in part,
“Given the heightened political and social atmosphere surrounding Afghanistan, it is important to remind our uniformed personnel (active duty and reservists on temporary active duty) and military retirees of their responsibilities and obligations under Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Department of Defense Directive 1344.10. While it is vital to protect the constitutional right of freedom of expression for these groups, consistent with mission accomplishment, national security, and good order and discipline, it’s important to remember certain limitations. Namely, uniformed personnel and military retirees are prohibited from disrespecting senior government leadership (e.g. the President, Vice President, Congress, Secretary of Defense, Service Secretaries, etc.).”
We reached out to the Office of Naval Intelligence and inquired about the authenticity of this email, and received the following reply from an official spokesman,
“The Department of the Navy (DON) will continue to comply with legal, policy and ethical standards of conduct regarding political activities. As a foundational principle, DON personnel acting in their official capacity may not engage in activities that associate the Department of Defense with any partisan political campaign, election, candidate, cause, or issue. Political activities of uniformed personnel are governed by 10 U.S.C. § 973 and DoD Directive 1344.10, ‘Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces’ and all uniformed personnel are subject to the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, most relevantly Articles 88 (Contempt toward officials) and 134 (General Article). Civilian personnel must follow the Hatch Act, (5 U.S.C. §§ 7321-26). The email entitled ‘A few words about Afghanistan’ was sent to Office of Naval Intelligence staff on August 23 and was sent in accordance with the policies outlined above.”
It should be noted that an email like the one the Office sent does not happen as a matter of routine. It would have been prompted either by employees voicing harsh criticism of the administration in public or of the Navy anticipating it in the near future. While it is possible for retirees to be tried under the UCMJ for “disrespecting senior government leadership (e.g. the President, Vice President, Congress, Secretary of Defense, Service Secretaries, etc.), “it is exceedingly rare to see charges brought against retirees. We could find only a single case, nearly 100-years old, of a retiree court-martialed for disrespect for elected officials. He was acquitted.
Marine Officer Who Lit His Career on Fire to Take a Stand
Several days ago, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller, the commanding officer of School of Infantry East, Advanced Infantry Training Battalion, openly criticized the actions of senior leaders citing, specifically, their lack of accountability and responsibility to the ranks below them. The lower ranks that follow the orders given them by these senior leaders. The lower ranks that pay the price in blood for the errors and miscalculations of their senior leaders. LtCol Scheller stated in a video he posted on Facebook that he knew the full consequences of his actions. That it would end his career three years short of retirement and a pension and healthcare benefits.
He later acknowledged that he expected to be court-martialed as well. In watching the video it is obvious that LtCol Scheller is deeply anguished at what his remarks are going to do to his career. He even questions whether he would have the courage to post the video at all. He explained, though, that strongly held conviction compels one to act no matter the personal consequences.
“What you believe in can only be defined by what you are willing to risk,” Scheller said.
LtCol Scheller is a decorated combat veteran who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has 17 years as a Marine. Looking at his assignments, the picture emerges that he was a career Marine on track to be a general officer within five to seven years. It could not have been an easy thing for an officer like LtCol Scheller to throw that all away, but he did.
Intel Community Leaks Call Between Biden and Afghan President Ghazi
A Reuters story on August 31, contained excerpts of a July 23 call between President Biden and Afghan President Ghani.
In the call, President Biden asked of Ghani to change the world’s growing perception that the Taliban were winning the civil war and that the Afghan government was on the brink of collapse,
“I have been meeting with our Pentagon folks, and our national security people, as you have with ours and yours, and as you know and I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things aren’t going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” President Biden told him.
President Ghani rather than dispelling such a notion as false, confirms it, “Mr. President, we are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support, and at least 10,000-15,000 international terrorists, predominantly Pakistanis, thrown into this, so that dimension needs to be taken account of.”
Later that day, President Biden was on the phone with President Ghani again. This time, he was joined by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, General Mark Milley, and U.S. Central Command commander General Frank McKenzie. According to the transcript of that call, Ghani was told again to change the perception, “In the United States, in Europe and the media sort of thing is a narrative of Taliban momentum, and a narrative of Taliban victory. And we need to collectively demonstrate and try to turn that perception, that narrative around,” President Biden said.
General McKenzie then added, “I do not believe time is our friend here. We need to move quickly,”
What media reports on this conversation do not mention was the why and who might have leaked this phone call to the media. It certainly wasn’t authorized. We believe the leak probably came from someone on the staff of the National Security Council. As for the why the Biden administration has said that no one anticipated that the Ghani government would collapse so quickly casting blame on the intelligence community, which had provided information to the president on the situation on the ground.
The transcript of this call on July 23 appears to show very clearly that the administration knew things were going badly and that there was very little time to turn things around. Rather than the intelligence community accepting the blame being assigned to it, this leak calls out the honesty of the president himself. The transcript also shows that the Joint Chiefs were willing to participate in promoting this illusion that the Taliban were not taking over Afghanistan. That should not have set well with the intelligence community. It also had to sign on to the false pledge made by President Biden not to leave any Americans behind.
An Emerging Crisis
All these things taken together point to an emerging crisis of confidence in the leadership, honesty, and integrity of President Biden by members of the military and intelligence community. The effects of such a crisis just seven months into his term can have dire effects on national security.
A great deal of unit cohesion and morale in the military, from top to bottom, is based on confidence in the honesty and integrity of its leadership, right up to President Biden as commander in chief. Young Americans who witnessed the humiliation of the United States in the Kabul evacuation and saw the tepid response of the administration to the deaths of 13 servicemembers, would seriously question any decision to join the military. People will still sign up for college money and job training, but they are of a different sort than the Americans who sign up because they want to fight under leaders they trust.
The military over the next several years will miss its recruiting goals for new servicemembers and NCOs will leave the services. This will cause the greatest problem since their experience and example in uniform is essential to training new enlistees. Most officers will not destroy their military careers, as LtCol Scheller did, especially flag officers who rely on Senate confirmation get their first and any subsequent stars on their shoulders. Many go on to have careers in the defense industry that require them to have good political connections in Congress.
If the military and intelligence agencies do not have trust in the leadership of the president and confidence in his ability to handle foreign policy, they will withhold full information from him fearing reckless or faulty judgment likely to lead to disaster or debacle. As we have seen with the leak of the phone call with President Ghani, they can enforce a kind of inside accountability by selectively leaking information to the press that undermines the administration. We saw this while President Trump was in office, as well.
Perhaps most ominous for President Biden is what has happened to that 2020 letter by 780 flag officers and national security officers and officeholders that had endorsed him for president. The website that hosted the letter has been taken down and those that endorsed him for president just a few months ago have been all but silent in voicing their support of President Biden in his withdrawal from Afghanistan.