On July 8, President Joe Biden discussed his plan for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan by a self-imposed August 31 deadline when he proclaimed, “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army…They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country [of Afghanistan] is highly unlikely…There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the embassy of the United States from Afghanistan…”
Those choice words would mark an inflection point of a humiliating, embarrassing, and injudicious example of a cataclysmic unforced foreign policy error. A month later, the Taliban had recaptured all the territory – and more – that it ceded to the U.S. and its allies, over 20 years ago. The Afghan army, “300,000 well-equipped — as well equipped as any army in the world,” according to Mr. Biden, gave up without a fight.
The Taliban captured Zaranj, the first provincial capital, on August 6. On August 8, three more provincial cities, Sar-e-Pul, Kunduz, and Taluqan, fell. On August 12, Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat, along with Kandahar, were taken. Next up was Mazar-i-Sharif, a large city situated in the nation’s north. Then, Jalabad fell. On Sunday August 15, Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, was captured and the American flag was lowered at the U.S. embassy.
Embassy staff worked furiously to destroy hard drives and shred papers before they were whisked away to the airport under military escort. Parallels to the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon inevitably followed.
Foot In Mouth Disease
Mr. Biden’s proclamation will probably go down in history along with these presidential quotes made famous by their inaccuracy:
“Read my lips, no new taxes” – George Bush
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman” – Bill Clinton
“If you like your health insurance, you can keep it.” – Barack Obama.
Those quotes certainly elicit a laugh. However, what is transpiring in Afghanistan is no laughing matter. It is, according to international human rights attorney Kim Motley who spent over a decade in Afghanistan, “a human-rights nightmare…this is like Saigon on steroids,” she said.
After the Taliban swiftly regained control of the country, a disorderly evacuation of U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, and loyal Afghans intensified. The ~2,500 U.S troops remaining in the country retreated to the airport. Additional troops were summoned for reinforcement.
Almost six thousand U.S. troops are now situated inside the airport. Americans - assuming they got through increasingly violent Taliban checkpoints, were allowed entry. Most have now boarded flights out of Afghanistan. Afghans have been less fortunate.
In disturbing scenes, thousands of Afghans have been – and are still - trying to enter the airport and secure a flight out of the country. Conditions are dangerous – children have been trampled to death – and unsanitary. Some Afghans have proper documentation, others do not. What they share is a justifiable fear of the Taliban.
In a harrowing video, desperate Afghans were seen running next to a C-17 military cargo plane taxiing down the runway. A few individuals grabbed hold of the moving giant, only to plummet to their deaths after it took off. One was a 17-year-old soccer star who played for the national team (football was banned by the Taliban when they previously ruled the country). Another refugee was later found dead in the aircraft’s landing gear.
Stop and ponder this thought: ordinary Afghans so fearful of retribution, they would risk death by attempting to cling to the outside of a moving jetliner, or hide in its landing gear, in a futile attempt to flee.
Over the last two decades, many thousands of Afghans worked tirelessly as translators, drivers, logistics specialists, and in many other occupations to help America. In return for their dedicated service, these heroes were offered something called a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV. This program was signed into law in 2008.
When President Biden ordered a full departure from Afghanistan by August 31, the onus fell squarely on his administration to expedite SIV processing to provide deserving Afghans a safe relocation to the United States, as promised. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, as of last week “18,000 (SIV) applications were still waiting to be processed.” Some applications have languished for months, even years.
As of this writing, some fortunate Afghans have managed to reach the airport, get inside, and evacuate. (Too) many others are still stuck outside the gates, around Kabul, and in other parts of the country, hemmed in by Taliban checkpoints. Their lives are in danger.
Instead of being proactive, Biden & Co are now scrambling to ensure safe passage to the airport for a few hundred Americans remaining in the country, numerous Afghans, and process thousands of SIV’s in a matter of days. With a coherent plan, this was avoidable. However, lack of a sound strategy often results in disorderly chaos with suboptimal results. Regretfully, we are witnessing this unfold in real-time.
Reps Seth Moulton, a former marine (D-MA), and Peter Meijer (R-MI.), traveled to Kabul earlier this week. Their G-rated conclusion is “we won’t get everyone out on time.” Mr. Moulton’s X-rated conclusion, “The thing that everybody needs to understand, even if you completely agree with the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw, the way they have handled this has been a total f**king disaster.”
Our Word Is (Not) Our Bond
No One Left Behind (NOLB) is an organization that helps Afghans who assisted America resettle in the United States. According to NOLB, hundreds of Afghans that worked with us over the last two decades have already been executed by the Taliban.
Ex-CIA officer and NOLB co-founder Matt Zeller said “I have a list of 14,000 names right now of people who want to get out of Afghanistan.” But, unfortunately, the Taliban have a list of Afghans that helped America over the last two decades, too; the Biden administration provided it to them.
According to multiple sources as reported by Politco:
“U.S. officials in Kabul gave the Taliban a list of names of American citizens, green card holders and Afghan allies to grant entry into the militant-controlled outer perimeter of the city’s airport…They had to do that because of the security situation the White House created by allowing the Taliban to control everything outside the airport…But after thousands of visa applicants arrived at the airport, overwhelming the capacity of the U.S. to process them, the State Department changed course — asking the applicants not to come to the airport and instead requesting they wait until they were cleared for entry. From then on, the list fed to the Taliban didn’t include those Afghan names” Said one defense department official speaking on the condition of anonymity “Basically, they just put all those Afghans on a kill list…It’s just appalling and shocking and makes you feel unclean.”
Former Marine Peter Kiernan opined, “we’ve forsaken the bonds of camaraderie and abandoned our allies.” Continued NOLB co-founder Zeller, “how do you expect anyone to ever trust us again?”
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Thomas Freidman argued that (Biden & Co’s) “failure to create a proper security perimeter and transition process, in which Afghans who risked their lives to work with us these past two decades could be assured of a safe removal to America — is appalling and inexplicable.”
In addition to being embarrassed and humiliated, America will suffer lasting reputational damage as an ally and embolden our foes. Opined former Senior Indian Diplomat Nirupam Rao, “The U.S. withdrawal…showed utter disregard of what it would unleash in its wake…It has devalued the worth and credibility of American power in the region.” Former Taiwanese Defense minister Andrew Yang said “ (this)…is a lesson to learn…Taiwan should depend on its own self-defenses instead of U.S. support.”
Contradictions, Intelligence & Intransigence
On July 13, a classified cable was sent via the State Department’s confidential dissent channel to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and another unnamed State Department official that warned of Afghanistan’s imminent collapse following our planned withdrawal on August 31. Additionally, President Biden’s top military advisers including General Frank McKenzie and General Austin Miller recommended the U.S. keep the ~2.500 remaining troops in the country until a concrete peace agreement could be hammered out. When asked about this, Biden responded that “no one said that to me that I can recall.”
General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff argued “There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.” This position was seconded by Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken. However, the classified cable sent last month presented unambiguous evidence to the contrary.
What is transpiring in Afghanistan is less the result of an intelligence failure – there was ample intelligence and tangible evidence that the Taliban had “strategic momentum,” according to Mr. Milley himself. Instead, the debacle in Afghanistan is primarily the result of President Biden’s refusal to follow the advice of his own military advisers. Biden’s intransigence has already been costly in human life, human rights, and our nation’s reputation.
To be fair, it is important to note that serious issues existed in Afghanistan well before Joe Biden came into office. Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump each presided over strategic mishaps in the country; then kicked the can down the road. And Biden loyalists will certainly point to Donald Trump agreeing to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by his own arbitrary deadline, May of 2021, before even hammering out formal plans, much less agreeing to a ceasefire.
Thankfully, Mr. Trump, consistent in adhering to his habit of not honoring his own deadlines (nor his word), was unsuccessful. However, he reduced our manpower in Afghanistan to just ~2,000 troops (coupled with air support) when President Biden entered the oval office.
Undoubtedly, Joe Biden was not dealt a good hand. However, he did nothing to improve it. Instead of reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw, he pressed ahead with a symbolic (9/11/21) and then revised deadline of his own. (Mr. Biden has not been shy about reversing many of Donald Trump’s policies and executive orders – why he decided to proceed with this one is head-scratching). He misjudged the Afghan’s “well prepared” army’s will to fight, and when it became clear the Taliban were rapidly conquering vast amounts of territory, instead of reversing course – which he certainly had the political space to do - he continued to move forward.
Finally, by doubling down on his commitment to leave Afghanistan by an arbitrary deadline, he boxed himself in and compounded his mistake. Mr. Biden is determined to leave and seemingly nothing can change his mind. He should, at a minimum, wait until every American and Afghan ally that wants out, gets out.
Technology, Then & Now
When the Taliban last ruled the country from ’96-‘01, public executions, stoning’s, whippings, and other forms of cruel and unusual punishment were commonplace. Entertainment was banned. Women were treated like they were subhuman. Females could not leave the home without the accompaniment of a man, had to be covered from head to toe, and were forbidden to work, study in university, or even go to primary school. Often, they were forced to marry Taliban fighters when they were still children. (There have been credible reports of this happening again.)
Furthermore, there was no social media, and smartphones did not exist. Cell phones were rare; even land lines were a luxury. Today, social media proliferates throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban use Twitter too (astonishingly, its leaders have not been banished from the platform). Mobile phone penetration is ~70%. All worth mentioning because generally, technology prods people to behave better. Of course, most people do not change. But bits and bytes make it easier for them to be held accountable for their actions.
We certainly hope the causal relationship between technology and behavior pertains to the Taliban. Most likely, it will not. In fact, female professionals have already been ordered to stay home. Female students have been instructed not to attend school. Afghans loyal to the U.S., journalists, artists, human rights activists, etc. have already been targeted via door-to-door searches. More than likely, when the U.S. completes its withdrawal, the Taliban will revert to its brutal tactics of the past.
Most news reports related to this topic, this post included, have focused on Biden & Co’s failure(s) in Afghanistan. AT TQC, we also think it is appropriate to recognize the heroic job U.S. marines and other servicemen and women are doing on the ground in Afghanistan.
Since August 14, U.S. forces have evacuated and or have facilitated the evacuation in coordination with our G7 allies, of ~105,000 people, including ~5,000 Americans and over 65,000 Afghans. They have accomplished these heroic feats under extremely dangerous conditions. Other former military personnel are working tirelessly, pursuing every possible political channel to ensure safe passage for their loyal Afghan friends. We owe all these men and women a great deal of gratitude.
On August 16, Joe Biden addressed the nation and argued why he remained steadfast in his determination to leave Afghanistan:
“The mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of US forces. Those are the mistakes we cannot continue to repeat…How many more lives, American lives, is it worth, how many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?...”
Whatever the shortcomings of Mr. Trump’s policy in Afghanistan, an undeniable fact is that there had not been a combat-related casualty in Afghanistan for 18 months. Three days ago, two suicide bombers detonated themselves at Kabul airport and near the Baron hotel. Thirteen U.S troops were killed, along with ~170 Afghans.
America did not have to leave Afghanistan. Many of the same people who make the argument that “we have to leave at some point,” conveniently ignore the fact that U.S forces have been in Korea for over 70 years. As of this writing, ~28,000 U.S troops are stationed there. The world is a safer, more stable place because of it. Sometimes the status quo is the best alternative.
It is in our nation’s strategic interest to keep a small number of troops - coupled with air support - in Afghanistan. Our complete withdrawal will quickly result in a vacuum of stability. Extremists will fill the void. We sincerely hope we are wrong.