One More Relook at Afghanistan – Surely Not the Last – OK, Two Looks

Who Did What – Accountability is Due- And What Can Be Learned

Part I

My intent today was to post a modest review of a few key points we should keep in mind about Afghanistan. Turns out it is more than “a few” points, so today is Part I of a two part posting, the second one coming next Friday. With apologies for excessive verbosity, but this one just would not fit into one tiny box. Off we go.

Public Perceptions

 The general public does not seem to think much of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and since the last steps took place on Biden’s watch, he is taking the major political hit. A recent two-part article in The Atlantic and a just released DOD after process review made some severe criticisms of the Biden team. In part that is a fair judgment; in part it is not, as we will discuss below.

Many entities had key roles in how this war evolved and how it ended. Foremost among these are the previous and the current US administration, the US military and intelligence community, and the Afghan government.

There are practical, historical, and moral lessons that deserve to be addressed. We will make a small effort at those actors and those lessons in this blog today.

 What the Trump Administration Did to Make Disaster Almost Guaranteed

In short, they did about everything they could to ensure a bad ending, although it fairness it had been obvious for some time that it was not going to end well in any case. For reasons discussed below, it was apparent that neither the Afghan government nor its military would stand for long.

But even at that, Trump made it far worse:

  • He conducted secret negotiations with the Taliban, completely shutting out the Afghan government on the talks or the agreements that resulted until all was a done deal. This hastened the unravelling of Afghan government and forces markedly.
  • The only real criteria the US asked for was to not attack our forces while we were withdrawing. What the Taliban forces did to Afghanis was up to them. We were not going to engage them in the final months, with rare exceptions, so we basically enabled them to concentrate on killing their fellow countrymen – which they did with increasing numbers as time went on.
  • The Trump defense department gave about zero information to the incoming administration on anything, including all things Afghanistan. The new team came in blind at the very last part of the end state. This was the most shameful thing I have ever heard a departing administration commit.
  • By the time Trump left the White House for the last time, only 2500 US troops were left in Afghanistan – not enough to accomplish anything.
  • Over the last several months, US military and intelligence communities had asked urgently to begin withdrawals of Afghanis who had worked closely with the US, along with their immediate families. The Trump administration refused, stalling, and saying No at every turn. In part, this was at the request of the Afghan government, fearing such a move would increase public panic.
  • But mostly it was because people like Stephen Miller thought any foreigners allowed in was always a bad idea and Trump did not seem to feel we owed these people anything, even though their lives were at high risk specifically because they worked with us.
 What the Biden Team Found on Day 1

By the time Biden took the oath of office, he found he had only those 2500 troops on the ground. That is not even enough for a decent parade. They needed an additional 5000 just to secure the one airport used to complete the exit.

Biden had about 90 days left on the agreement Trump had “negotiated.” His options were to complete the withdrawal as outlined, junk the agreement, and face major new fighting with thousand more US troops deployed, or make some minor changes. He opted for that last choice, extending the withdrawal into early Fall and hastening plans for withdrawal of US forces and Afghanis.

The realities on the ground by the time Biden came into office meant that getting significant numbers of Afghanis and dual citizenship Americans was going to be very, very difficult. One concern I have is stories that Biden himself did not feel inclined to risk much for these people.

The thought reported by some was that perhaps Biden did not think we owed them because they helped us; we were there to help them, so we had done what we should or could. I hope that is an inaccurate interpretation of the president’s thinking.

I know Biden has long thought we should have left Afghanistan but leaving behind those who chose to stand with us would be a moral failure that I would find disappointing in a president. There is no way to know where the truth lies on this one, so it worries me. I hope this is not the case.

The Performance Score Cards

Overall, we have some truly mixed results to reflect upon.

Everyone in the military and civilian intelligence community grossly underestimated how fast the Taliban would take power. Everyone. By a lot. This meant the last part of the end game was forever trailing and reacting to events on the ground. The US was playing a reactive, defensive hand at every stage once the end game began. Even the Taliban were surprised how fast things went.

The actual airlift and supporting operations were impressive, to say the least. In the worst conditions imaginable and in the shortest time frame imaginable, over 100,000 people were safely evacuated. The mechanics and logistics of all this were done as well as could be done – better than could have been expected.

That does not take away the pain of watching people by the thousands crowd the gates to the airport, trying desperately to get in, even passing babies overhead in hopes of at least getting their children to safety. Will any of us ever forget the image of people clinging to the outside of a military transport as it took off, then falling to their deaths. I don’t know what the Biden administration could have done to minimize scenes like these, but they are in part America’s shame to carry forever.

Next Time

When we reconvene on Friday, we will take on how we got here, whether this is a unique situation or not, and the moral imperatives that remain before us. See you soon.

        Bill Clontz

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