A Few Words About Afghanistan

Events Like This are Big on the Human and the Historical Scale. Here, A Few Personal Notes

Everyone Is an Expert – NOT

It did not take long for the chorus of “I knew this was coming” to sing in full voice. In fact, a lot of what transpired certainly was predictable, but not all of it. I am, shall we say, a bit doubtful about all the Monday morning wisdom now in print and on the airways.

Similarly, I am less than impressed with all the “wisdom” of those who get the dynamics of history but are not actually burdened with decision making, which is always a tougher arena. Deciding when to cut your losses without making those who sacrificed that they did so for no reason is a lot easier than it sounds when you pontificate from your recliner.

Much of the criticism now being heard is absolutely justified, but a bit of humility and allowing a little time to digest and reflect seems to me not too much to ask.

Some Personal Factors That Shape My Responses

Last week was the anniversary of my commissioning as an Army officer; that added to my mood of reflection on current events and recent history. I suppose I might look at all of this somewhat differently than a lot of people, for three reasons.

One, I had the good fortune to invest three decades into serving in the US Army. A good piece of that was overseas and I am especially grateful that a part of that time was in Special Forces. I have seen some of this up close.

All that taught me two valuable lessons: that the two hardest things an army can do are (1) Defeat a dedicated insurgency on its own turf, and (2) Train a foreign army. We created Special Forces specifically for these missions. The number of people qualified to do these tasks well is small indeed.

During my time in a Special Forces unit and as an instructor in the Special Warfare School, I was impressed daily with the skills, experience, and maturity of those around me. If the entire armed forces could be represented by a full football stadium, this component could fit in a school bus. When we ask others to do this work, we should not expect much success.

Two More Lessons Learned

Two, I worked for some years for a civilian firm on contract to the State and Defense Departments to help do some of the capacity building in Afghanistan, and in other places. The bonds between US military units and the foreign armies they try to train are important, but our contract folks stayed in place for long tours, often years. Our military and US Government compatriots received quick orientations on the new cultures they were plunging into, did their best for a few months, and left. It started all over with every rotation. You don’t have to be steeped in related disciplines to see how this limits progress and development.

And this is the third version of this movie I have seen in my adulthood. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are different places and were different conflicts, but the similarities in outcome and shortfalls is striking. More on this a bit later, but for now, I am reminded of that famous quote from Desmond Tutu, “What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.”

 The Human Toll

The human toll of such things is almost unbearable to contemplate, much less to see and hear as we do today. If your heart is not breaking with what you see now, you are a dead soul. Many good people have tried hard to do right, to little or no avail. Afghanistan is a better place today than it was, but that may soon be over.

We may yet do better than in the past on getting out those we owe a debt, but the speed of the Taliban victory makes that a hard score to earn. There is nothing more important before us at this moment. Get out everyone we can and help them make a new life. If a few come out who technically do not belong, so be it.

The Vietnamese and Muong who came out of the fighting in Southeast Asia have contributed to this country mightily. Beyond that, it is the right thing to do to bring them out. If we do not stand by those who stood with us, what values do we have?

The Needed Dialogue and Examination Inside the US Military

I have long and often stated that conflicts like this are essentially political in nature; the armed forces cannot win them alone. That is fundamentally true, but the military has 3 heavy burdens that must be owned up to and addressed:

  • Everyone seemed surprised how fast the Taliban rolled up the battle space. It seems inconceivable that the intelligence was so far off. Part of that would be military intelligence. Were the signs missed or did leaders choose not to listen?
  • The military culture is one of Can Do. You get orders, you figure out how best to get the mission accomplished, and you get to work. This is a necessary mindset as a general guideline. But as noted above, any military professional knows in their hearts that missions like Afghanistan cannot be carried out by conventional, rotating troops. In addition, those working close with Afghan units surely picked up the hollowness so prevalent. Was this not widely reported? Was telling the leadership what was true too hard to accept? Or did they just not listen?
  • The Taliban is as strong as ever militarily. They inflicted massive casualties over the last couple of years on Afghan civilians and armed forces. This record supported their political and social credibility. Why were our forces and the Afghan forces so unable to deal crippling blows to those capabilities? Given their capacities and political options, it is no wonder they were confident of victory.

Biden and Trump

However, one might feel about this current US Administration in general and on this set of issues in particular, credit is due to President Biden for his speech to the nation on Monday the 16th of August. He spoke hard truths and did not evade that this is a moment of great sadness and tragedy.  He correctly asked how many more lives over how much more time would naysayers have us throw into the pit of this conflict, to what end. It was a landmark speech.

Let us be clear about how much this routing at the end belongs to Donald Trump.

  • The last administration struck deals with the Taliban, including springing their leader from prison, without any effort to include the Afghan government. Those on the government side, including their armed forces got the message loud and clear that they were excess baggage. Political and military leaders started making deals with the Taliban as soon as the Trump deals became known.
  • When Biden took office – with no handoff coordination from the Trump gang – he was in the last 90 days of a complete drawdown and had only 2,500 troops on the ground – not enough to do anything. His options were complete the withdrawal without delay or cancel the treaty, put back in thousands of troops, and restart the war, with no prospects of a better ending down the road. Trump could have made several different choices to make this go better for us and the Afghans. Typically, he chose the shortcut.Read the Text

    If you think this sounds like a bit of hyperbole, read the document Team Trump signed with the Taliban. Its not a long read. Talk about giving away the store; the Taliban must have been amazed at the deal they got.


Back to the Fundamentals

In all three of the aforementioned conflicts, we used conventional troops for unconventional missions. Perhaps more importantly, we wound up casting our lot with host country governments that were stunningly incompetent, corrupt, and tainted with the impression that they were puppets of a foreign power (us). This in three countries with a long history of colonialism and occupation.

The insurgencies got a free ride as patriots. In all three cases, there were valiant and dedicated soldiers who did their best. They were sacrificed to incompetent senior military and civilian authorities.

We need to understand this is a mission set unlikely to succeed, but should we decide to try it yet again somewhere, sometime, we need to stop doing it as a pickup game. This requires very special troops that take years of development.

Now What?

There will be a good dose of finger pointing and political theater, to be sure. Beyond that, I hope we can (1) Rescue as many as possible, (2) Leave no stone unturned to leverage and find ways to communicate with the Taliban, at some level, (3) Actually learn some lessons as a government, and (4) Do some soul searching as a military to stop repeating this scenario. Our present and future soldiers deserve better from this nation.

        Bill Clontz

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11 replies to A Few Words About Afghanistan

  1. Good one Bill. We need to understand this perspective…especially voiced from the experience of a 30 year veteran and someone who has been there in the mud.

    • Thanks, Jerry. We do live in interesting times.

  2. Thank you Bill for your service and for this insight into what is happening.

  3. Bill: I agree with all of your observations and resist quibbling. As with Vietnam and Iraq, the outcome is deeply disturbing. At the strategic level the US still does not grasp the basic nature of international politics. It’s not about good guys vs. bad; its about anarchy and how to manage peaceful outcomes by the wise use of power. With respect to the tactical level of specific interventions, our naive expectations–that we can intervene and then leave–are confounded by the repeating lesson unlearned: “if you break it, you own it.” The decision to intervene should be understood in these terms. As the most powerful nation on the planet we must understand that what we decide not to do is just as significant and what we commit to doing. Deciding to leave Afghanistan, and the aftermath of that choice, will reverberate for years, not only here at home, but throughout the world.

  4. I appreciate your thoughtful common sense here, Bill. What I most worry about are the ignorant Republicans shouting anti-Biden slogans, and the impossibly stupid Kevin MCarthy blustering about how the US should not have abandoned Bagram after the military brass told Biden it was the thing they’d recommend.

    • Thanks, Jeanne. I surely agree with your judgment of McCarthy. There was a time he was a serious political figure. Now he is simply a national embarrassment and one of those responsible for the death of his party as something to take seriously.

  5. Bill, thanks for your thoughtful insite. I personally agree with getting our people out of harm’s way, however, the planning and execution could have benefited from help and advice from people with your level of experience experience..
    Chris van Wandelen

  6. These are the things none of us “every day” people have no idea about. Just my personal opinion, but Pompeo and trump should be brought up on charges for dereliction of duty for that agreement. Benedict Arnold was a god compared to what trump has done to this country

    • I do remind those who pillory Biden on the exit that he came in the bottom of the 9th inning on a terrible deal already agreed to and well underway, and he took an extra four months to get it as right as he thought he good. The deal signed by Trump and Pompeo was among the worst ever signed by the US government.

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