Basil Liddle-Hart famously wrote “The object of war is a better state of peace.” With this pithy admonition in mind, it’s difficult to see the precipitous US withdrawal from Bagram this week as anything but an admission of abject failure – made all the more damnable by the absence of any admission at all.
While Americans celebrated their Independence Day, the last US troops slipped out of Bagram Air Base, literally overnight leaving behind the detritus of 20 years: vehicles, supplies, weapons and ammunition – and a pervasive sense of betrayal among Afghan partners and NATO allies alike, given little warning of US plans for imminent departure.
And just like that America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan came to an end. Everyone knew of course that we were going to leave — but surely not without any coherent plan to shape what comes next. No ceasefire, no political agreements or military support arrangements to mitigate the likely onset of mayhem and civil war. Instead, a stealthy departure under the cover of darkness. A turning point without destination. A shabby, furtive end to America’s longest war.
Afghanistan was a costly war in every respect — dragging on interminably, while achieving few meaningful objectives. But the decision to withdraw so precipitously was a mistake. That statement remains true, whether you are a hardline proponent of real politick or someone who still believes that our nation represents certain values and should engage with allies and partners in a spirit of enlightened self-interest. Even if none of the dire prognostications about civil war and Taliban resurgence come to fruition, there can be no doubt that our swift exit has sent a message to the world about US reliability as a partner with consequent loss of influence — the coin of the realm in this era of so-called great power competition.
Most Americans agree with the decision to withdraw US troops. What many do not realize is that full-scale US combat involvement in Afghanistan ended seven years ago. And that the last decade has seen a vast reduction in U.S. military presence: from a high of near 100,000 in 2010-2011, to some 12,000 a year ago, to just 2,500 at the beginning of this year. And with a concomitant reduction in risk to force: it has now been 17 months since the last US soldier was killed in Afghanistan. The residual force, small though it appeared to be, was nevertheless important.
“This [reduced] force has the appropriate lethality and the U.S. government retains its counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan,” Gen. Scott Miller, commented to the Stars and Stripes in January.
This is no exaggeration. Those familiar with troop level calculus in support of partner nation operations , know that much can be achieved by employing a relatively small number of personnel with the right qualifications, such as special operators, combat air controllers, signals intelligence collectors, drone operators, logistics personnel and information and electronic warfare specialists. And, an element to provide force protection -- maybe a company or two of infantry.
Furthermore, by leaving this force in place, the US guaranteed the security of some 10,000 NATO troops involved in training the Afghan Army. Bereft of this assurance, NATO has also now departed. Simply put, a small US force could have remained in country to provide support for the Afghan military, while retaining leverage for US foreign policy in the region, at little cost in terms of risk or financial expenditure. Withdrawing them made no sense to except as a piece of political theater for a misinformed domestic audience.
“Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” the president announced center-stage in late June during a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, adding with unintended irony the non-sensical non-sequitur: “The senseless violence has to stop.” As though prompted by the simple act of US departure the Taliban could be relied upon to come to their senses, lay down their arms, and acknowledge the 2004 Afghan Constitution that embodies principles so alien to their pious, pre-modern ethos as universal education and rule of law.
U.S. leaders have long insisted the only path to peace in Afghanistan is through a negotiated settlement, but now appear to have abandoned this principle. US plans for withdrawal continued apace even as US officials complained that the Taliban were not adhering to their part of the deal agreed to in February of last year.
That Presidents Biden and Trump made the decision to withdraw against the recommendations of their military commanders should not by itself incur criticism. The right to go against such recommendations is a hallmark of the principle of civilian control, a cornerstone of our democratic values. But to do so, without demanding a plan to mitigate the risks that their Generals warned them against, suggests hubris and a reckless disregard for consequences.
Biden’s withdrawal strategy is based on one of two assumptions. Either terrorists will not be able to operate from Afghanistan, or they can be contained there by counterterrorism efforts. However, no planning has taken place to validate these assumptions, which have been widely challenged by experts.
Nick Reynolds, an analyst at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute wrote this week: “If the Taliban take over, al-Qa’ida and other organizations will regain a significant base of operations”.
This claim is borne out by recent US Government intelligence reports which indicate that ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda have grown stronger over the last decade “making it difficult for an organizational split to occur.”
The U.S. has pulled all its fighter and surveillance aircraft out of the country, and has yet to make any basing or access agreements with countries bordering Afghanistan such as Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. Until it does – and there are no indications that such agreements are even part of the plan - it must rely on manned and unmanned flights from ships at sea and air bases in the Gulf region, such as Al-Udeid in Qatar and al-Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates. This will increase response times and drastically reduce time on station.
In any case, one lesson that US Special Operations Forces have learned repeatedly over the last decade in places like Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Niger is that there is simply no comparison in efficacy between conducting remote strikes and accompanying partner nation forces on the ground. And without US contractor support to help sustain maintenance on Afghan aircraft, unilateral operations cannot continue indefinitely.
What will be the consequences of the hasty US departure? It’s too early to say, but the signs are not good. Violence in Afghanistan had escalated dramatically even before the US withdrawal. Taliban attacks on Afghan forces and civilians have intensified and the group has taken control of more than 100 district centers. The government still controls most cities, but several, including Kabul, are under siege and racked by suicide-bombings.
In a typically bureaucratic statement that conjures visions of power point slides with color -coded matrices, Pentagon leaders have said there is “medium” risk that the Afghan government and its security forces collapse within the next two years, if not sooner. They offer no solution.
“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if it continues on the trajectory it’s on,” Miller told the New York Times during a recent news conference. “That should be a concern for the world.” The world maybe – but apparently not the US Government.
“Hope” military planners are fond of telling one another, “Is not a course of action.” After this week’s events, it appears to be the only one we have left.
Andy Milburn is the former commanding officer of the Marine Raider Regiment and CJSOTF-Iraq in the counter-ISIS campaign. He retired in 2019 as the Chief of Staff of Special Operations Command, Central (SOCCENT). Since retiring, he has written a critically acclaimed memoir “When the Tempest Gathers”, and a number of articles for national publications. He is on the Adjunct Faculty of the Joint Special Operations University and teaches classes on leadership, planning, ethics, command and control, mission command, risk, special operations and irregular warfare at US military schools. He tweets at @andymilburn8