On February 15, The New York Times published an article entitled, The Taliban Close In on Afghan Cities, Pushing the Country to the Brink. In it, reporters Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Taimoor Shah outline the push that the Taliban have made across Afghanistan. They have taken control of several important sectors of the country, strategically staging themselves in preparation for the May 1 deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal as outlined in the Afghan Peace Agreement signed last year. They call the Taliban’s offensive “brazen” and say that President Biden has been put into a “dangerous political bind” leaving the country in an “especially precarious state.”
In fact, the Taliban offensive is not brazen, but simply common sense. The Taliban now have the upper hand in a country we’ve struggled to control and revitalize for two decades. But this isn’t news. The Taliban resurgence began in 2014 and has only gotten stronger in the past six years.
The resurgence was actually predicted in June of 2013 when President Obama began his new strategy and the generals did nothing.
In 2013, the Afghans controlled over 80 percent of the rural areas, and casualties were at an all-time low. The bottom-up Counter-Insurgency (COIN) strategy was working. Assessments from experts at RAND and advisors in the Special Operations Joint Task Force, SOJTF-A, strongly recommended not changing the strategy. The Taliban were degraded, disrupted, and neutralized. They admitted they had no answer for the Village Stability Operations (VSO) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) strategy.
It took less than a year for the Taliban to turn the tide, al-Qaeda to re-emerge, and ISIS to join the fight.
Now, everything has reversed, our casualties have increased, and we have zero leverage at the negotiating table. Our policy makes no sense. Our strategy is broken, and the generals’ operational approach is ineffective. None of this is worth another body bag or hospital bed.
To make matters worse, there has been zero accountability.
In early February, a panel including General Dunford who, on the military side, is responsible for this mess, and Kelly Ayotte, who lacks the experience to sit on this panel in the first place, recommended to reverse President Trump’s withdrawal. Their report instead favors the continued funding of the military-industrial complex and provides top cover for Congress, senior civilians, and the military for poor policy and strategy.
I could not disagree more with the panel’s findings. I believe it would be a serious error to change the course established by the Trump Administration.
Not only did the report cover the butts of Congress, scads of general officers, and senior civilians for making nearly 20 years of bad decisions, but it is also based on a massively flawed assumption. It presumes that our withdrawal from Afghanistan will make America more dangerous and susceptible to a future terrorist attack but provides no credible assessments to support this conclusion.
It is the lack of a consistent, comprehensive, counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that has stymied the nation’s stability. Three administrations have mishandled Afghanistan. I give credit to President Trump for promoting our withdrawal. It is way overdue.
Unfortunately, it was two secretaries of Defense and two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that did not provide him with a withdrawal plan. In addition, four CENTCOM commanders, three SOCOM commanders, and four ISAF commanders have failed as well.
Although I am a proponent of withdrawal, there is a proven way to succeed against the Taliban, but the current strategy is not it. There is, however, no appetite for this type of COIN strategy and we should not continue with our current military efforts. Instead, we need a regional focus that gets us out of the “muddle through” tack in Afghanistan that has shackled us to the country for 20 years.
But our departure needs to be an international effort with an acute focus on economic support and diplomacy underwritten by political endorsement. The U.S. military would need to leave a small, regional counterterrorism capability to support the Afghan government with targeting al-Qaeda and ISIS.
And those that lament that the Taliban will take over need to remember that the Taliban have been part of the Afghan government since the first democratic election in 2004. The Taliban are Afghans. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are not.
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I have many friends in Afghanistan and lost servicemembers in combat. I do not take this lightly.
With nearly 20 years, 2,218 Killed in Action, 20,093 Wounded in Action, and three trillion USD spent, 90 percent of the country rests outside the control of the Afghan government. We are not getting the strategic results we require for the investment.
As I write this, the following observations have continued to plague our efforts. I highlighted these missteps while on active duty as I did now in retirement. They were not received well by the establishment then and I am sure will not be received well now. Nothing in the recent report will fix this and we will continue to muddle through.
As the poet Archibald MacLeish put it, “there is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.”
Our tactical level units have performed admirably, but our political leaders, policymakers, and senior general officers have failed them. As a retired general officer, with 10 tours in Afghanistan, I include myself in these failures. We have lionized the generals when we should have supported our servicemembers that did extraordinary work under poor policy, strategy, and an inadequate operational approach.
Good tactics never fix bad strategy.
It is therefore important that we draw the right lessons from the experience if only to partly redeem the sacrifices made by the servicemembers who fought there.
We have done all we can do for the Afghan government. It is time for our servicemembers to come home. Once and for all.
This article was originally published on February 23rd, 2021.
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