Who Did What – Accountability is Due- And What Can Be Learned
On our last outing together. we attempted to frame how we got where we are. Not the harder part. What might we learn and what should we do?
How Did We Get to This Point? Was This a Unique Thing in Our History?
This is the hard part to state. This was not unique, and we got to this point the same way we have before. We failed to know when to leave, we overestimated our allies and underestimated our opponents. Good people were left twisting in the wind and at the merciless hands of the new warlords.
We made many of the same errors in Vietnam. Far too many who trusted us were left behind, although striking numbers of them eventually made it out (remember the Vietnamese boat people?). America has a large Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian citizenry now, contributing to America as second and third generation citizens. But many never got that chance.
Far, far worse examples happened under Trump as a matter of deliberate choice. We walked away from Kurdish fighters who had risked it all to support our efforts in the Middle East.
We gave Turkey free rein to slaughter them. It was the single most shameful walk off I think this country has ever committed. I am ashamed as an American. And while he was at it, Trump never let an opportunity go by to undercut NATO. That, at least, has been largely repaired already by Biden, but the unshakeable trust we enjoyed will never be fully restored.
The Factors That Our Intelligence and Our Military Must Own
In reviewing how we got to this point in Afghanistan, I see shades of Vietnam. Do we never learn from our own history? It seems to me, the US military, my beloved colleagues of 30 years, and much of the intelligence community made the following errors:
- Optimism/Can Do Attitude: Our military, for good reasons, has a mindset of getting the job done when orders are given. This can lead to a “we can do this” mindset even when the reality is likely otherwise. Too often, it seems, senior military leaders, especially senior leaders on the ground, could not bring themselves to say this is not likely to end as our political leaders would like it to end.
- Make Them in Our Image: We have a terrible proclivity to try remaking foreign forces in our image, to make them look like the US Military. And those foreign forces want to do that same thing. But it seldom works out. The Afghan military never had the technological or logistical resources or traditions to operate the forces we helped them build. They relied totally on never ending US military and contractor support. When those assets departed, the house of cards collapsed.
- I have mentioned before that I worked for a company doing support work in Afghanistan, and we made this same pitch, to no avail. We recommended building on what Afghanistan had (mostly Russian equipment) and building a sustainable native force. Instead, we built something that could not operate alone.
- Using Conventional Troops in Special Operations Roles: The early stages of the war were phenomenally successful. The Northern Alliance swept to one victory after another. The key to this success was careful insertion of US Special Forces, primarily US Army green berets, with additional support from the other services special ops forces and limited CIA operational forces. After the initial victories, the scale of the US operations went very large and conventional troops were put into special operations and advisory roles.
- Such use of conventional forces does not work and never has. Creating a special forces solder takes years of training and experience. The average special ops solider is older and more experienced than conventional troops. You can’t create them quickly, no matter how badly you want them. For the time I spent in Special Forces, I was in awe of my team mates every day. When I left them, I thought I would never see their likes again. I was correct. Not everyone can perform these missions. In fact, very few can do them.
- Not Acknowledging When to Say It’s Time to Stop: This goes back to the first point, that of excessive Can-Do mentality. Biden was right as Vice President when he said converting this conflict into a nation building mission was unlikely to succeed. We likely could have avoided a lot of pain and an ignoble ending had we declared victory once the Taliban was defeated out thrown out of power and left a small contingent of special operations/intelligence assets to help the new government and its military mature.
- Political leaders would have been more likely to take that decision had more of the senior military leaders advised them to do so. A topic for another discussion in another time, but this might be one indicator that we need more special operations officers in our most senior ranks. If you have not walked in those shoes, you may not understand what is best at such decision points.
The Moral Issues (and they carry practical aspects with them)
Just so we don’t get lost in the details, let’s end this review with the moral imperative:
- Those left behind: Too many were left behind. We owe them, period. Much did go on and is still going on behind the scenes. But we need more. This is our obligation and we are doing a lousy job of meeting it.
- Those who got out: Many have come to America and from what I hear and read, they are getting warm receptions from communities. Great. Let’s do more of that and keep it up until they truly can take root. For most, this is an unimaginable uprooting of everything they know, including language, profession, and culture. They will make great contributions as new American citizens. If you have not already done so, find a way to reach out now and help as you can.
- Facing up to and incorporating the lessons learned: We just don’t seem to do this well, do we. Repeating the same mistakes is a costly way to live. Perhaps we need a serious interagency, military/civilian task force to take on what we need to do to break this chain from one generation to another.
- What about Afghanistan going forward: That is a tough one. We have some moral imperatives here but working through the Taliban seems a doomed exercise. But we also have some practical concerns. We need not try to run Afghanistan, but we walk away completely at great peril to our own interests. Will be interesting to see where we all are in another decade.
That is a lot to think about
Hey, at least we got to think about something besides Ukraine and Taiwan for a few minutes.
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