Some Book News and Afghanistan Withdrawal Analysis
First, some book news. I crossed a major milestone in the publication process this weekend. I received the line edit of the manuscript from my publisher and completed my review and revision. I also completed the dedication page, with the supervision and approval of Squeak.
The text of the book is now final and will go into layout.
More info about the book is available in Madville Publishing’s catalogue.
The next step will be proof reading in book form. I also secured my first “blurbist”— or is it “blurber”? “Blurber” makes me think of “Rural Juror” from 30 Rock, but I digress.
If you or someone you know has millions of social media followers and wants to write a blurb, let’s talk.
A note to paying subscribers, there’s an Easter Egg at the end of this post. It’s another outtake from my book that I cut during editing, and it details my travel from Tunisia into Libya on the day that rebel forces took Tripoli.
Now, onto one of the big stories of the last week: the Afghanistan After Action Review.
The Defense Department completed its review of Afghanistan policy from January 2020 through August 2021. The Biden administration delivered the classified review to Congress and issued an unclassified summary. The tone of the summary document is—not surprisingly—entirely self-serving and essentially says that President Biden did everything right under the circumstances.
The main takeaway from the summary was, “It was the Dukes! It was the Dukes!” In other words, the Biden administration was handed a set of conditions by the Trump administration, so anything that went wrong was the other guy’s fault, as the summary states.
President Biden’s choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor.
There is a lot of truth to that, but it’s hardly the complete story. Now, to put things in context, we need to remember some details.
In February 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban signed an agreement—the Doha agreement—stating that if the Taliban met certain conditions, all U.S. troops and contractors would leave Afghanistan no later than 14 months from the signing, which translated to May 1, 2021.
Broadly speaking, the Taliban was required to ensure that no terrorist entities used Afghan soil to recruit, train, or plot activities that threatened the United States and its interests. Technically, the Taliban did not have to “cut ties” with al-Qaida, and AQ members could hang out in Afghanistan if they weren’t plotting to attack the United States.
The other condition the Taliban had to meet was to start negotiations with the Afghan government. The parties were not required to complete a political agreement before U.S. troops left, which was one of the flaws of the accord with the Taliban.
The Taliban started talks, which basically went nowhere, but that technically satisfied the condition set by the Trump administration, which was eager to get out of Afghanistan.
As the lead Inspector General reports that I oversaw in 2020 and early 2021 stated, there were serious questions about whether the Taliban was in compliance with its counterterrorism objectives. This is from the February 2021 report:
As of the end of this quarter, the U.S. Government had not indicated that [the ongoing relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban] constituted a violation of its agreement with the Taliban, nor that such a violation could affect the timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan. According to the DoS, the U.S. interagency group tasked with monitoring Taliban compliance continued its mission during the quarter. DoS officials declined to provide the Lead Inspector General with a releasable assessment of whether the Taliban is in compliance with the U.S.-Taliban agreement. In late January, after the end of the quarter, the Biden Administration indicated it is reviewing whether the Taliban is meeting its obligations under the agreement.
However, President Trump was pushing to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan well before the May 1, 2021, deadline, as the summary states.
On September 28, 2021, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley testified that, on November 11, he had received an unclassified signed order directing the U.S. military to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan no later than January 15, 2021. One week later, that order was rescinded and replaced with one to draw down to 2,500 troops by the same date.
The Trump administration brought the troop levels down to the bare minimum needed to continue any sort of support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Even then, the only reason the 2,500 could do much of anything to help Afghan forces was because the Taliban and United States agreed to a ceasefire in the Doha agreement. People who argue the United States could have ignored the agreement and kept 2,500 troops in Afghanistan in perpetuity conveniently ignore this fact, which the summary points out:
Secretary of Defense Austin testified on September 28, 2021, “the intelligence was clear that if we did not leave in accordance with that agreement, the Taliban would recommence attacks on our forces.”
And additional troops would have been needed to provide security while attempting to continue supporting Afghan forces.
Regarding the execution of the withdrawal terms of the Doha agreement, the summary report states:
During the transition from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration, the outgoing Administration provided no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies. Indeed, there were no such plans in place when President Biden came into office, even with the agreed upon full withdrawal just over three months away.
That tracks with what I was hearing from Defense Department officials during 2020, but there was an interesting nuance. People were saying that they did not believe the United States was going to follow through with the Doha Agreement as written. There was a prevailing sense in the Pentagon that there would be some sort of side agreement or addendum that would at least allow contractors to remain in Afghanistan to provide training and support—particularly maintenance—for Afghan forces. But some believed that there would be some sort of deal to keep a contingent of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
My sense was that people who had invested years in the Afghanistan war simply couldn’t believe that it was just going to end, especially given that the Afghan security forces were decades away from being self-reliant. People seemed to be in denial.
Either way, the point is that little serious withdrawal planning took place in the first year after the signing of the Doha agreement.
According to the summary:
In March, before he had made his final decision, the President directed his top national security officials—including the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director for National Intelligence—to begin withdrawal planning and account for a full range of contingencies.
Throughout this period, a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) was treated as a distinct possibility and the national security team started planning for it.
Granted, President Biden was sworn into office in January 2021, but the summary report states that withdrawal planning did not begin until fewer than 60 days from the original withdrawal deadline. In April, the president announced that he was going to complete the withdrawal, but not until September 11, 2021. That decision wasn’t about giving more time for the Taliban to comply with the Doha agreement, but because more time was needed to manage the logistics of the withdrawal.
The plan was to withdraw all military forces and contractors but keep the U.S. embassy in Kabul open and staffed—with a small security force at the embassy—since the expectation was there would be a functioning government, at least in Kabul, for the foreseeable future as the summary stated.
The Intelligence Community’s assessment in early 2021 was that Taliban advances would accelerate across large portions of Afghanistan after a complete U.S. military withdrawal and potentially lead to the Taliban’s capturing Kabul within a year or two. As late as May 2021, the assessment was still that Kabul would probably not come under serious pressure until late 2021 after U.S. troops departed.
As we saw, it all unraveled much faster as the Taliban made advances across the country and Afghan forces melted away. The hope and belief that Kabul would hold crumbled in August 2021.
As Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines stated on August 18, 2021, “[the collapse] unfolded more quickly than [the Intelligence Community] anticipated.” In fact, the collapse was more rapid than either the Taliban or the Afghan government expected.
While generally true, I think it’s safe to say there were low probability assessments that the Afghan government could fall rapidly there were people saying it was possible that the government could collapse rapidly. The assertions from administration officials that there was no intel predicting the government could collapse as quickly as it did always felt a bit disingenuous.
Regardless, what the public report doesn’t address is how much worst-case scenario planning took place, what the options were, and what steps were taken.
Ultimately, the Kabul government fell, and the United States sent thousands of troops back into the city to manage the withdrawal of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies. The report maintains that while not perfect, there was little else that could have been done in the execution of the mission.
Once the evacuation had been initiated, President Biden repeatedly gave clear direction to prioritize force protection, relying on the advice of his senior military officials on how best to proceed on operational decisions. … To manage the potential threat of a terrorist attack, the President repeatedly asked whether the military required additional support to carry out their mission at HKIA. Senior military officials confirmed that they had sufficient resources and authorities to mitigate threats, including those posed by ISIS-K.
Basically, the report is saying that the president did everything he was supposed to do, and the implication is that advisors are to blame if anything was less than ideal.
Keep in mind, the summary report was written by the administration. It was not an independent assessment and it’s also an open question whether the classified report uses the exonerative tone.
Either way, the unclassified summary brings little new to the narrative and debate. Fans of President Biden will see it as additional reinforcement that all the failures in Afghanistan took place before Biden came into office and he played a bad hand as well as possible. Biden detractors will argue the summary ignores the fact that whatever Biden inherited, as president he had the ability to change course and tear up the agreement or take other steps to lead to a better outcome.
As self-serving as the report is, one bit at the end really jumped out at me.
More broadly, when the President made the decision to leave Afghanistan, some worried that doing so could weaken our alliances or put the United States at a disadvantage on the global stage. The opposite has happened. Our standing around the world is significantly greater, as evidenced by multiple opinion surveys. Our alliances are stronger than ever.
While it’s certainly fair to debate whether U.S. standing in the world is “significantly greater” and alliances are “stronger than ever,” even if true, the statement ignores enormous causality: Ukraine.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, allies were questioning the value of relying on a nation that many said had abandoned its partners in Afghanistan. There was a lot of debate about U.S. leadership and standing in the world in the months after the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Putin stepped into the breach and rehabilitated America’s image by invading Ukraine. Putin reinvigorated U.S. alliances. Finland is a NATO member today not because of American leadership in leaving Afghanistan, but because of existential angst caused by Putin’s invasion of a democratic European nation.
Even with the invasion that has pumped new life into NATO, other U.S. allies continue to hedge. Saudi Arabia is rebuilding ties with Iran and Syria as China is increasing its soft power activities in the Middle East and Africa. A lot of countries—most recently Honduras, which switched its diplomatic alliance from Taiwan to China last month—are seeing China as a preferred partner.
Now, for paid subscribers, please enjoy the following outtake from Passport Stamps.