“[It was] a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” – British army chaplain contemplating the British retreat from Afghanistan, 1843
Those same haunting words could very well have been written by a Russian tank commander as his column pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989. And, sadly, they could have been written by one of our own Marines in August of 2021, contemplating the unnecessary loss of 13 more comrades at the 59th minute of the 11th hour of our nation’s longest war.
As the old cliché goes, history may not always repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And if the fiasco of President Biden’s shameful Afghanistan withdrawal one year ago this week didn’t exactly resemble the experiences of Queen Victoria or Leonid Brezhnev, it certainly may have found a similarity with Gerald Ford watching helplessly as the last U.S. helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the Saigon embassy in 1975.
One must draw upon these historical analogies when reflecting upon this nation’s humiliating final chapter to one of our most costly misadventures. The operation in Afghanistan squandered so many lives and so much capital with almost nothing to show for it in our nation’s history.
For decades to come, historians will conduct round table post-mortems on the ill-conceived Afghanistan operation. They will question what our nation achieved in return for its estimated $2.5 trillion investment and 2,400 service personnel killed, with many more wounded and incapacitated for the rest of their lives. Was 40,000 civilians dead worth the cost of that brief taste of Western liberalism?
But, even if the U.S. operation in Afghanistan did have to end, must it have ended with such ignominy? How did what had been planned to be a phased, organized withdrawal turn into a stampede for exits of such haste and confusion that warehouses full of U.S. military hardware were left behind? Our Afghan departure degenerated into an embarrassing scene of chaos at the Karzai International Airport, complete with the shocking imagery of desperate civilians clinging to the sides of U.S. transport planes during take-off, only to fall to their deaths. Not to mention anywhere from 100 to more than 300 U.S. personnel and thousands of loyal Afghan civilians left behind to suffer cruel retribution at the hands of the victorious Taliban.
Another obvious question to ask is why were there so many imperiled U.S. civilian personnel and friendly Afghanis still in Kabul at all when the Taliban rolled in — many riding in fighting vehicles taxpayers paid for?
On April 14, 2021, President Biden announced that the last U.S. troops were scheduled to be gone by September 11, 2021. This date was chosen solely for its symbolic — and political — significance rather than any military calculation. This allotted a mere 150 days to organize the withdrawal. So, as the date approached, in spite of the deteriorating situation, the White House stood fast to its timetable. And worse, a report from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations states: “…the [National Security Council] did not conduct its first senior meeting to discuss the withdrawal until August 14 at 3:30pm, just hours before Kabul fell, when evacuations became life or death for Americans, Afghans, and U.S. military personnel.”
The Biden team’s stubborn adherence to a schedule dictated by symbolism took no account of the change in circumstances on the ground — especially when they contradicted the assumptions under which said schedule was envisioned. What changed was the speed with which the Taliban took over the country on its relentless drive to Kabul.
According to Brian Klaas, a political analyst at University College London: “The White House was clearly blindsided and unprepared for the speed of Afghanistan’s collapse. Even Biden allies will not try to claim this as a job well done or say this is what they had planned. After all, nobody would have planned for a last-minute evacuation that was just thrown together out of necessity.”
In the case of Afghanistan, the administration underestimated the enemy’s strengths while overestimating its own. This error was compounded by the administration’s misguided confidence in the indigenous Afghan National Security Force. Biden assured the American people on July 8 that the U.S. and its partners in Afghanistan had “trained and equipped nearly 300,000 current serving members of the military” – a critical element to his justification for why the U.S. could withdraw.
Biden went further, predicting that, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Yet, despite billions in training and equipment over 20 years, this Afghan army — touted so confidently by a befuddled commander-in-chief — proved to be a mirage. Just 38 days later, the Taliban triumphantly entered Kabul, having easily swept aside the Afghani defenders.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted: “I did not — nor did anyone else — see a collapse of an army that size.” But anyone with a history book could have certainly seen this, given the level of corruption in the Afghan army and political leadership — as well as the speed and ferocity with which Afghan guerillas have always moved against weakened opponents. Ask the spirits of Elphinstone’s slaughtered army of 1842. (Perhaps Gen. Milley should have been reading more Jules Stewart and George MacDonald Frasier and less Ibram X. Kendi.)
What should have been a grim harbinger of where things were headed to the White House, State Department, and Pentagon that fateful summer of 2021 was the fact that, as we pulled troops out, the Taliban rapidly moved in, swallowing huge swaths of territory while occupying one provincial capital after another. At that point, the troop pull-out should have been halted, and perhaps U.S. deployment to Kabul Province even increased, albeit temporarily, so that order in and around the beleaguered capital could be maintained while evacuations continued.
Once it became clear the Taliban had every intention of racing to Kabul, our immediate policy should have shifted to a holding action in which at least our most valuable asset, Bagram Air Base, could be secured. Instead, it was decided to abandon that most important outpost for the past 20 years and instead use the Karzai International (a single runway civilian airport located in Kabul) for evacuations. As Gen. Milley conceded, due to insufficient troop strength, one had to go: “If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had or stayed the same or exceeded what we had. So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made.”
But, if this is the case, then Gen. Milley et. al. chose poorly. “If you want to conduct an evacuation, you don’t do it from an airport that’s literally almost in the heart of the city,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “A military planner would know that as soon as things started going south in Kabul, and the Taliban was on the march, that [Karzai International Airport] would be flooded.” And once flooded, the opportunities for infiltration and terrorism were rife. And 13 distracted Marines, who were too busy acting as traffic cops, paid the ultimate price for this incompetence when a suicide bomber inevitably struck.
Not only did we hastily abandon Bagram Air Base, our most valuable military base in the region, to the Taliban, we left them a smorgasbord: $7 billion worth of military hardware, helicopters, fighting vehicles, night vision goggles, heavy and small arms, millions of rounds of ammo, as well as who knows what else. Your tax dollars at work.
One wonders why we did not issue warnings to the Taliban that clouds of A-10s and B-52s awaited them should they emerge outside the gates of Kabul before we decided it was time to go. (One cannot imagine the Trump administration not doing all it could to keep Bagram open and Kabul out of Taliban hands until an orderly exit, rather than chaotic mob scene, could be completed.) But, as with so much of this humiliation, these questions remain unanswered.
So where did the events in the “graveyard of empires” one year ago leave our nation’s standing in the world? In a word: weak.
The events that unfolded in Afghanistan showed us that something is wrong in our military and the civilian leadership overseeing it — not with the caliber of our fighting men and women, or the quality and lethality of our hardware. Something is rotten at the top.
A political disease has seemed to have eaten away at the primary function of any armed forces: to efficiently apply deadly violence to protect and advance our national interests. Perhaps if the top brass cared more for the science of waging war and less for gender fluidity, or if they refocused on giving real support to the brave fighters in the field whose lives are in their hands rather than imposing woke textbooks upon them, and perhaps if they had had the cajones to march into the Oval Office and say, “Mr. President, or whoever is running the circus, this plan is unrealistic,” things might have been different.
But this is the world the Biden White House made. Not in the plan to withdraw, which was long overdue, but rather in its botched execution.
U.S. allies and enemies watched and took notes — the former with foreboding and the latter with glee. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Heino Klinck said in August 2021: “The current chaos is being viewed and portrayed as a tragic mix of American incompetence, negligence and weakness and that certainly furthers Beijing’s narrative of U.S. decline.”
Klinck then added presciently: “And we see in the propaganda coming out of Beijing and coming out of Moscow, that our adversaries are gloating and conveying that America cannot be trusted. So, this has to worry our friends and partners, particularly in Taiwan as well as in the Ukraine.” Six months later, an emboldened Putin invaded Ukraine. And China’s rhetoric and military posturing, stemming from its seven-decade hunger to absorb Taiwan, has dramatically escalated.
Finally, where did this leave Afghanistan itself? Perhaps Mark Steyn said it best a decade ago: “Six weeks after the last NATO soldier leaves Afghanistan, it will be as if we were never there. …We came, we saw, we left no trace. America’s longest war will leave nothing behind.”
Not everyone is so blind to the lessons of history as those in and around the White House, whether they be the fathers of Liz Cheney or Hunter Biden. As with so many ill-conceived missions imposed upon our troops over the post-World War II years, our fighting men and women deserve a better legacy to account for the cost of their lives and limbs than what the Biden administration forced them and the nation to endure.
Something has to change before confidence in our military, and thus its capacity to still attract some of America’s finest to its hallowed ranks, is eroded beyond restoration. What happened in Afghanistan was a wake-up call. Whether we learn from it or not will matter for a resurgent U.S. military and foreign policy down the road. Or, as the Russians and British before us, future historians will merely shake their heads and marvel at the tragic stupidity of it all.
Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader, columnist, and author of the World War II novel Of Another Time And Place as well as the best-selling novel dealing with PTSD and Autism The Extraordinary.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.