Challenges, tragedy in Afghanistan
By Special Mercury Contributors
A Marine calms an infant during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021. Image by Marine Corps Sgt. Samuel Ruiz.
Strategic incompetence in the fall of Afghanistan
By Bill Connor
Like many Afghan war veterans, I have watched the rapid Taliban seizure of Afghanistan with much deep emotion. I left my wife and three young children for a 15-month combat mobilization as an infantry officer adviser to Afghan National Security forces fighting the Taliban. I was fully prepared to give my life, as were the other veterans who served there. Some did not return, and many returned with wounds seen and unseen. During my time there primarily as the senior United States military adviser to Helmand Province, many of our Afghan allies were killed or wounded. As the Taliban sweeps into the places I served and has seized the capital within weeks, I cannot remain silent. I do not believe this had to happen, and the Biden administration made catastrophic mistakes and continues to do so. Let me explain.
First, the Taliban followed a seasonal pattern of fighting throughout the War in Afghanistan. They primarily fought from late April with what we called the “Taliban Spring/Summer Offensive” to peak fighting by August tapering until around late October. They didn’t completely stop fighting, but during the late fall and winter the Taliban pulled back to Pakistan or stayed in remote Afghanistan locations. In a criminal lack of judgment, Joe Biden announced and began the unilateral American withdrawal at the start of the fighting season in April. Even worse, Biden planned the complete pullout during the height of the Taliban offensive in August. This meant that the most substantial change of the war, the removal of critical American support and enablers, was made at the height of the Taliban surge.
What should have happened was a conditions-based plan to withdraw U.S. forces during the winter. The withdrawal should have been complete by the start of the Taliban spring offense (Trump set a date of May 1). Additionally, the Afghan National Security Forces should have been set up for success to fight without the support they relied upon for two decades. We should have kept a few thousand Americans in place during the first fighting season on standby, to be withdrawn the next nonfighting season. Those Americans would also ensure American equipment did not fall into the hands of the Taliban.
We should not have withdrawn from Bagram Air Base (which we did early in the pullout) until the final phase of American withdrawal. The Kabul airport is in the middle of the city, and therefore vulnerable to being overrun by refugees. That airport is also in a vulnerable position due to the terrain, allowing it to come under indirect artillery fire and direct fire from high ground. It has limited runway capability that can easily be put out of commission. Bagram is only 40 miles away and in a secure location with multiple runways. Bagram would have allowed support to the Kabul airport, including ferrying people by helicopters from Kabul back to Bagram. Additionally, we kept 5,000 terrorist prisoners at Bagram who were released when we left. Those fighters helped the Taliban seize Kabul and now pose a threat to the U.S.
As we saw, the Kabul airport was overwhelmed with refugees, resulting in mayhem and death. Our troops were finally able to bring some semblance of order on the military side of the airport, but the problems have kept thousands of U.S. citizens and allies trapped outside the airport as the Taliban screens away massive hordes of Afghans circling the airport.
Regrettably, the American forces at the Kabul airport were not allowed to venture outside the airport to seek U.S. citizens who could not get in. This was an administration decision, apparently to reduce risk. Other nations, among them the United Kingdom, Holland and France, sent armed patrols into Kabul to retrieve citizens and/or allies. Some reporting indicated that the U.S. senior leadership at the airport attempted to stop these patrols.
As a result of the number of U.S. citizens and allies stranded outside the airport, I was in contact with fellow veterans about plans to help get people out. Help like this from Afghan War veterans has become widespread. As reported by ABC News:
“Former members of the military and CIA have consolidated their own efforts with a separate group calling itself ‘Task Force Dunkirk,’ a reference to the massive evacuation of British and other Allied forces from France in 1940 under threat of the Nazi juggernaut.
“‘I spent the primacy of my career in special operations, and that gave me access to a lot of people who are like-minded, and a lot of people who have lived with the Afghan people and love the Afghan people and have been with them for 15, 20 years,’ retired Marine Lt. Col. Russell Worth Parker, a spokesman for the group, said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.
“‘We couldn't stand by and just watch people we know fall to a very, very certain fate,’ he added.”
Instead of ensuring all American citizens and Afghan allies were withdrawn, the Biden administration is sticking to an August 31 pullout date of all forces. This has brought overwhelming criticism of America from throughout the world, including such staunch allies as the UK. China has taken advantage of the situation, telling Taiwan it cannot trust the U.S. and should not oppose China attempting to bring Taiwan under Chinese control.
Then, on August 26, multiple suicide bombings occurred at the Kabul airport, killing 11 U.S. Marines, one Navy Corpsman and one Army staff sergeant; the blast critically injured dozens of other Americans and killed or injured hundreds of Afghans. The bombings have been claimed by Islamic terror group ISIS-K, who are allegedly not under the control of the Taliban. Due to the chaotic nature around the airfield, it is likely Islamist groups will attempt to destroy American aircraft, and I fear there will be more U.S. deaths. The last group of Americans to leave Kabul will be in a precarious position.
This catastrophe demands accountability, starting with the Biden administration. Afghanistan has fallen within weeks due to incompetence. By comparison, after Americans withdrew from Vietnam, South Vietnam held out for more than two years before falling. Interestingly, then-Senator Joe Biden voted against providing South Vietnam promised support before Saigon fell. He has learned nothing and has created a much worse situation with this lack of judgment. America and her allies deserve much better.
Bill Connor is a 1990 Citadel graduate, 30-year Army infantry colonel (ret.) and combat veteran. He was the Senior U.S. military advisor to Helmand Province Afghanistan 2007-2008. He is a writer and attorney and lives in the Charleston area.
A Marine interacts with children during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 18, 2021. U.S. service members are assisting the Department of State with an orderly drawdown of designated personnel in Afghanistan.
Photo by Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara.
Risks of Afghanistan blame game
By David Savage
“Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” The same applies to those now attempting to politicize it, including Republican leaders attempting to put distance between themselves and the previously heralded Doha Agreement, which was recently and hastily deleted from the RNC website. To be clear, America was tired of endless and futile war in Afghanistan. After 20 years it was long past time to leave. We all knew what would happen when we did, and to now feign shock and point fingers is both disingenuous and dangerous.
We remember that the Trump administration in February 2020 negotiated, without Afghan government involvement, the Doha Agreement that freed 5,000 imprisoned Taliban and set May 1, 2021, for the final withdrawal of American troops. Those freed Taliban were recently televised sitting in the Afghan presidential palace.
Despite continued Taliban attacks in violation of the agreement, openly reported by the DOD to Congress and President Trump on May 19, 2020, and August 18, 2020, the Trump administration kept to the agreement by reducing U.S. troop levels from 13,500 to 2,500. It takes more than three logistical soldiers to keep one fighting soldier in the field — the “tooth-to-tail” ratio. You do the math. You cannot even secure Charleston County with 2,500, so how were we going to secure a country?
On November 16, 2020, Sen. Rubio forewarned of “a Saigon type of situation” and Sen. McConnell warned the drawdown “would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish to harm us.” These warnings were sounding after Biden’s election win while Trump was still refusing to concede or even cooperate in the presidential transition process.
As Biden took office on January 20 the “batter was already mixed.” The Taliban had made strategic gains with their 5,000 released fighters who rejoined their units and now greatly outnumbered the 2,500 remaining U.S. troops. Biden’s, and America’s, choice was either a continued withdrawal or a major surge of troops to fight a strengthened Taliban.
Casualties are only “minimal” when not your loved one. Twenty more years, anyone?
On April 14 Biden announced that all troops would be removed from Afghanistan by September 1, extending the previous May 1 deadline. On April 18 Trump promptly reminded us of his role in coauthoring this unfolding tragedy by stating, “We can and should get out earlier … I planned to withdraw on May 1, and we should keep as close to that schedule as possible.” His was a recipe for an even-more-disastrous outcome stranding thousands more upon our withdrawal.
As Congresswoman Mace correctly explained in her recent Post and Courier op-ed, responsibility lies at the feet of many, and on both sides of the aisle. We either accept collective responsibility and learn from the last 20 years or we play the political blame game and condemn ourselves to the sacrifice of a future generation and significant national wealth.
David L. Savage is an attorney in Charleston and served as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1984-1990.