Afghanistan is a catastrophe by all accounts, a complete disaster and a tragic lesson to learn, and definitely to teach for generations to come. Two decades of continued fierce engagement, uninterrupted depletion of resources, and a sprawling graveyard that consumed the best of this nation; the men and women who sacrificed their lives for their country’s safety, security, and freedom. However, the question that remains unanswered is- what went wrong? Was it a military, intelligence, or leadership failure?
What happened on August 15th in Kabul was surprisingly shocking, beyond estimates, and unexpected. However, that may apply to the general public or the uninvolved. Others had no doubt what the scene would look like and expected the fall of Kabul in a matter of days, not weeks. The few days, weeks, and months leading up to this tragic event witnessed a heated debate about the immediate consequences and the aftermath of the prematurely planned and miscalculated withdrawal decision. However, the silent majority had no power or viable means to change the unpleasant reality.
It is not difficult to imagine what the final version of the portrait that depicts the U.S. foreign policy and international commitment will look like after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is best described as militarily miscalculated, operationally mismanaged, and a disastrous decision in terms of intelligence and counterterrorism aspects.
So, what went wrong? Did we miss the signs ? Or did we negligently ignore them?
Both the facts and the reality on the ground are simply indicating otherwise. The signs were visible; one could hear the parley all over Washington’s caliginous alleys and parks, the endless mumbling as the Starbucks waiting line extends outside the store and a general attitude that tells a story of disappointment, frustration, and a great deal of resentment. It all came simultaneously with a massive campaign in preparation to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, weak and ineffective military responses to the Iranian-sponsored militia attacks against U.S. installations and interests in Iraq, withdrawing the Patriot Missiles Systems, U.S. carriers, and all elements of military power from the Middle East. All the indications were pointing in the same direction; the promised shift in foreign policy seems to be in the “retrograde” situation, precisely as the evacuation from Kabul was described militarily.
Too many speculations, and endless accusations, public frustration, and intense feelings of betrayal and resentment among members of the military establishment, the intelligence community, and those who believed in supreme values, yet none of those in charge, military or civilians, seems to have an answer, or is willing to provide an explanation, and this is just widening the gap, increasing the division, and shaking the pillars of a country that calamities have not shaken as this one did.
When the U.S. Government launched Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) on October 7th, 2001, the operation was a starting point for a broader campaign, the “Global War on Terrorism.” The mission in Afghanistan has been carried out according to a strategic plan with two dimensions; the first was exclusively militarily, and the second is highly related to Washington’s desired position within the map of the post-cold war era. However, the exit strategy must have been missed in action or misplaced during the chaos (if it existed in the first place). Nevertheless, this situation is not unusual; the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was just another hasty and imprudent decision made by Obama’s administration. A decision that is best described politically and strategically as a leading cause to the catastrophic emergence of two of the most brutal terrorist empires, the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias in both Iraq and Syria.
Was it a military failure?
Militarily, after two decades in Afghanistan, the U.S. forces achieved three significant objectives; expelling the Taliban regime from Kabul, dispersing al-Qaeda’s resources and capabilities, and eliminating the chief of al-Qaeda (AQ) terrorist organization, Usama Bin Laden (UBL). However, the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan could not eradicate the leading causes of violent extremism, neither were they able to stifle the ideological expansion. The threat has increased over the years and transformed from a territorial and regional threat to a broader concept on the global and individual levels.
Additionally, the fact that the U.S. and its allies have not experienced major terrorist attacks since September 11th, 2001, does not necessarily mean that the global war on terrorism campaign has achieved the sought-after objectives. The conflict of interests, perceptions, the overlap of strategies and methodologies, and most importantly, the un-unified vision of the different involved U.S. government departments, agencies, and decision-making poles are just contributing factors that increased the complexity of the challenge. The theoretical ideologies, the behavioral influence, and the acts of terrorism cannot be defeated through conventional warfare tactics, especially while the mitigation measures are still confined to the scope of tactical confrontation.
Generally, the war on terror campaign has not been entirely successful, the outcomes of the war in Afghanistan are obviously tragic, and after two decades, Afghanistan is once again a Taliban empire and could potentially become a long-term safe-haven for every terrorist organization, and a geo-strategic refuge for both, terrorists and hostile countries.
The U.S. government invaded Afghanistan in response to the Taliban’s role in providing refuge and assistance to the al-Qaeda network, the entity responsible for the September 11th attacks. However, soon after the arrival of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban movement, the U.S. approach shifted the focus on forming a strong central government in Kabul, and that was a grave mistake that plunged the U.S. into Afghanistan’s deep and deadly quagmire.
Also, despite the billions of dollars spent in building and developing the Afghan forces, the Afghan military entities were not up to the standard in terms of commitment and ideological preparedness, not to mention the corruption and the tribal and social ties between high-ranking Afghan officers and the Taliban. Eventually, the socio-tribal factor imposed the rules; regardless of Taliban’s extreme ideology, political structure, and affiliations, the group represents an integral part of the Afghan social and national fabric, and the majority of Taliban’s leadership and fighters are descended from the “Pashtun” that represents more than 40 percent of the Afghan population.
Furthermore, during all the phases of the grinding engagement between the U.S. military and terrorist organizations, the U.S. military was heavily counting on the direct military confrontation, without taking into consideration the causes and the factors that generate and promote the violent extremism: war, internal conflicts, political disagreements, oppression, lack of recourse, lack of governance, mismanagement, corruption, and official misconduct.
These sensitive facts have been ignored or neglected by the U.S.-led coalition forces, CENTCOM, and other government agencies in charge of the situation in Afghanistan. Additionally, although many of the U.S. military generals in Afghanistan were fully aware of the critical issues facing the Afghan forces, they chose to focus on the military action, optimistic situational assessments, the extent of territorial control, and the statistical victories rather than diving deep into understanding the complicated historical, social and tribal structures of Afghanistan. Not to mention the unwillingness of any individual, military or civilian, to assume the role of whistleblower or to be the pariah in the midst of a bureaucratic struggle between decision-making circles and institutions, especially if retirement age approaches.
Was it an intelligence failure?
Intelligence activities are no less complicated than any military operation and perhaps more complicated and dangerous in many cases. The fall of Kabul was not due to intelligence failure. If open-source information is sufficient enough to indicate the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, then actual field assessment and activity-based intelligence (ABI) would reflect how serious the situation is on the ground. However, intelligence assessments and briefings have been re-shaped in the past two decades to deliver what the leadership (decision-makers) would want to hear rather than providing the naked truth. It is critical to realize that the OSS does not exist anymore, and what has been built by president Harry Truman has evolved over the years to keep up with the ever-changing threats and the sequential emergence of hostile countries and other terrorist groups.
The U.S. government and the decision-makers must rely more than ever on intelligence assessments and recommendations. It is critically important that the U.S. government realizes and acknowledges the seriousness of the current situation, the impasse created by the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the extent of the damage to the structure of the intelligence framework that has been built over the past twenty years.
Additionally, it is substantially important to understand that the Department of Defense’s (DoD) contributions and efforts in the war on terrorism (especially in Afghanistan, so far) will be significantly affected by many factors driven by the political circumstances on the ground and may experience operational, and organizational limitations depending on the region, or the territorial environments.
Ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan turns the confrontation into an intelligence war. Consequently, the need for clandestine activities, covert actions, operational preparation (OPE), or proxy warfare will noticeably increase exponentially with the increase in the level of hostile activity on the ground and the presence and expansion of the different terrorist organizations such as al- Qaeda (AQ), the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), (Haqqani Network), al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as the remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Impressions and Interpretations
Hostile countries, terrorist organizations, armed groups, and militants have concluded an unfortunate interpretation for Afghanistan’s debacle; a decrease in the U.S. power and influence, abandonment of values and principles, and incompetence in confronting opponents. What followed the shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused an impression regionally and internationally. Iranian activities in the Iraqi and Syrian depths have noticeably increased, fierce statements and preparation to seize power as soon as the last American departs Iraq, and increase in ISIS attacks in northern Iraq, not to mention the Russian calls for foreign troops to leave Syria. The entire situation is a serious warning signal and ample evidence of the hostile forces’ perception that the United States is helpless, rather paralyzed, and no longer possesses the military, intelligence, and strategic competence, neither to confront opponents nor to protect its allies in any part of the world.
Ending the war in Afghanistan should never be perceived as an end to the war on terrorism. The U.S. government must send a clear message and firmly assert, with actions, that the war on terrorism is not over, has not and will not fade, and the mission is continuing with greater determination, firmer persistence, and broader strength.
Violent extremism remains an impending threat to public safety, national security and a destabilizing factor threatening the regional and international societies. However, it is critical to understand the extent of the ideological threat posed by the different terrorist organizations and radical groups and the ability, means, and methodologies exploited by the different terrorist groups to infiltrate societies, influence/radicalize, and recruit operatives, rather than randomly targeting scattered geographic areas whenever a group emerges.
For the past two decades, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has been narrowly focused on the operational side, utilizing overwhelming military power and bypassing the root cause and contributing factors. Fighting terrorism as a concept requires a comprehensive targeting approach at both the ideological and the pragmatic levels.
It is a fact that counterterrorism activities receive considerable attention and may sound appealing or promising at some levels to policymakers, as well as the public. However, the counter-ideology, with all the strategic depth, and the complexity that comes with it, is another pivotal element in fighting the concept and the influential factors that lead to terrorist activities.
U.S. government agencies and counterterrorism institutions should consider a more effective and efficient approach to eradicate the concept of terrorism rather than exclusively focusing on preventative measures. A new approach will provide adequate remedies to the root cause and extirpates the motivational elements by employing the full spectrum of available instruments: military, diplomatic, economic, intelligence, informational, educational, and cultural.
The question that remains unanswered is the hardest one: if it was not a military failure and not an intelligence failure, then whose failure is it? The answer simply lies between the lines. In short, Afghanistan was not a twenty year war; actually, it was twenty wars that this nation fiercely fought, while the leadership delighted themselves with intangible outcomes.
With this unanticipated end, there is not much to be said, and regardless of our disagreements, division, and the different stances on this crisis, we can still find shared fundamentals that we can agree on without any hesitation.
“The honor is for those who have served and sacrificed to preserve the safety, security, and freedom of this nation. Those in uniform and civilian capacities, the heroic men and valiant women of the armed forces, and those who have served in silence; the silent warriors of the intelligence community. Prayers for the safety of those left behind, and a firm call for action; bring them back home safely, or let us do it.”