Calm the F*** Down

We have just had a horrible tragedy: 13 American service members killed and dozens of Afghans killed and injured. Instead of pulling together as a nation, we—or at least a large part—immediately began the finger-pointing. The vultures swooped down and began the now common effort of trying to score political points, using the tragedy to go after the real enemy: the opposing political party. This behavior is disrespectful to the dead. These people don’t care about those service members who died, they view this as an opportunity to gain political advantage in upcoming elections. Shame on them.

The people who are concerned are the civilians, former military, and current military who have done everything possible to rescue those who have not been able to get to the airport. That is true heroism, true valor, and honor. Between those individuals and the U.S. government, we have been able to evacuate over 120,000 people. The men and women who worked on this effort should be proud of that life-saving accomplishment. 

To those who claim this is the worst fiasco in American history, I argue that you don’t know your history, or have conveniently forgotten it. Does anyone remember the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983? We lost 241 Marines in this ill-conceived intervention in Lebanon. It ended with some desultory air strikes and naval bombardment, followed by an ignominious withdrawal four months later. Of course you remember 9/11 when an administration ignored the warnings and an intelligence community missed the signals, resulting in almost 3,000 Americans dead. The Khobar Towers bombing? What about our abandonment of the Kurds? Pick the date because we have abandoned the Kurds after urging them to fight on our behalf so many times that I can no longer keep count. Then there is Vietnam. 58,000 American dead and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and allied deaths. We don’t even know the actual number. I think these are greater fiascos than the recent tragedy at Kabul airport. And, unfortunately, it seems to be a pattern in American foreign policy.

Yes, there have been serious problems with our withdrawal from Afghanistan. We do not seem  to have prepared for all contingencies, assuming the best case scenario when we should have planned for the worst case. We were surprised by the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, though if we were honest, it was obvious to many on the ground that the Afghan government would not stand without direct U.S. support. However, this didn’t happen in the last few weeks, as some would have you believe. Mistakes were being made from day one that would ensure our mission would fail. We were just not honest about it. This is not a Democrat or Republican failure, it is an American failure.

As president, Biden bears ultimate responsibility, it comes with the office. And Biden has accepted responsibility, unlike all the past presidents who would never acknowledge their part  in this failure. Asking every president and senior official to resign every time we take casualties or fail in a mission would doom the U.S. to a failed, ungovernable country. Every president would resign, though I would bet you money that those demanding Biden’s resignation would not do the same when their turn to fail comes, as it will.

I ask everyone to calm down in the title of this article because we should not make decisions that impact our national security based on emotions. No good decisions can come from emotional reactions. We have much bigger problems to deal with. We all need to put aside partisan bickering, focus on what went wrong in Afghanistan, and how to avoid it happening again in the future. Yes, you are angry, enraged at the withdrawal for numerous reasons. You have reason to be. The willingness of those who fought in Afghanistan- to stay beyond the 20 years in order to accomplish the mission -is admirable. But do not let this anger cloud your judgment. This mission had failed long before August of 2021.

The first problem lies with the military, especially with senior leadership. This is not about “woke generals.” This problem goes back to at least the Vietnam War, and was present throughout different administrations. Military commanders are good at tactics and at the operational level, but can’t seem to get strategy down. This is critical since the civilian leadership depends on the senior military leadership for strategic advice. I have witnessed general officers working on Iraq and Afghanistan focused on the deployment of platoons and companies when their job is the big picture, the strategy of winning a war. I get a sense that senior leadership [today?] seldom can provide useful input into war-winning strategies like was done during WWII. At that time there was a strong partnership between civilians and the military to develop and execute a strategy to win the war.

The second problem is the propensity in the military for being less than honest. Ever since Vietnam, there has been a tendency for the military to put a positive spin on things even when they are not going well. The constant drumbeat during Vietnam that we were winning the war, turning a corner, only to be stunned by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launching a major offensive throughout the entire country during Tet demonstrated that we were not winning the war. Even though the military beat back the offensive, the American people realized that victory was not at hand. This has played out in both Iraq and Afghanistan. One example was the debate during the early campaign in Iraq, where the military claimed that incidents against U.S. forces were declining, a sure sign that we were winning. That debate ended when CIA analysts pointed out that the reason attacks against U.S. forces were declining was because the military had changed the definition of an attack, raising the bar on what would be considered an attack.

This appears to have also been the case in Afghanistan. Progress reports on the capabilities of Afghan forces were allowed only to reflect positive progress. Negative reports of their capabilities were not allowed. Part of this manipulation of facts is the can-do attitude of the military. It is hard for them to point out failure. Part of it is careerism, that corroding desire to advance in rank at all costs.

The military does not bear all the blame. Civilians have also been found wanting. I see experts who were deeply involved in the war in Afghanistan expound on how we should have stayed longer, how certain aspects were working, etc. These experts are merely trying to avoid responsibility for their failures and to protect their reputations as smart people for future positions in government. They are so desperate to defend themselves that their logic becomes twisted. How could we have prevented the loss of 13 service members by staying longer? That would have only led to higher casualties.

While not stated by experts, it appears that some would want us to stay in Afghanistan for the sake of egos. No one wants to admit failure, especially if they are perceived as being smart and capable national security experts. Again, we saw this in Vietnam, where we pursued a war that those in power understood we would not win, but they did not want to be labeled as having “lost” Vietnam, resulting in protracting the war for years, and at a higher cost of life. The egos of experts and senior officials and politicians are not worth a single American life.

Political leadership—all political leaders, not just the president—think in two, four, or six-year increments. They are focused on their next election. That is the nature of democratic politics. Such short increments do not lend themselves to long-term thinking. We managed to do it during the Cold War, developing a long-term strategy of containment that was pursued by both Republican and Democratic administrations. That type of long-term strategy seems to have disappeared with the loss of our Communist adversary. We need to develop better strategic thinking. Whatever they are teaching at the various war colleges doesn’t appear to be working.

The political leadership of both parties in the executive and legislative branches supported our mission in Afghanistan with a never-ending supply of money and authorizations. They never seriously questioned our strategy, our goals, they just kept funneling money into it. They bear equal responsibility. If Congress really cared about Afghanistan, as they claim they do now, they could have investigated, been more aggressive in hearings and briefings, and eventually forced a decision, given their power over the purse. They didn’t. Frankly, they didn’t care. They were too busy pursuing political power, and the war did not resonate with voters. They failed the American people and the service members who sacrificed in Afghanistan.

While we need to understand what went wrong with the evacuation and how we were so surprised, I believe that more importantly, we need to understand how we got the entire Afghanistan thing so wrong. Why did we miss the signs of the Afghan government’s weakness? Why do we continue to fail at missions like Iraq and Afghanistan? Where are we failing strategically? Why, after so many years, so many deployments, so much effort, did we not understand Afghanistan? The current problems with Afghanistan were a long time coming, 20 years worth. They didn’t happen overnight, as much as politicians want us to believe that.

Finally, we need to be careful about politicizing the military. We are veering too close to demanding that general officers support one political ideology or another. Politicians are attacking military officers because they disagree with them because they don’t support a particular agenda. I am seeing a military officer corps that is becoming highly partisan in their outlook. This is third-world stuff, banana republic behavior. We need to keep the military out of the political infighting or we will regret the results.