Many Afghanistan post-mortems will be written. All will identify many problems. But two major flaws in U.S. policy are readily apparent and warrant immediate attention. Although it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions, the current tragedy likely stems in part from false assumptions — embraced by the White House —about the Afghan military and the recently ousted Afghan government. Assumptions may seem like a mundane aspect of military planning, but they are critical for the success of any military operation.
All planners know that assumptions are warranted when there is a lack of information to continue planning. They are “suppositions taken as true in the absence of truth,” as noted on page I-5 of joint planning doctrine. If additional information emerges, assumptions can become facts. If there is information that shows an assumption is wrong, the plan must change. If a plan is executed based on assumptions that prove to be wrong during execution, the operation will fail unless there is a contingency plan for the failed assumptions. This is why all planners remember Von Moltke’s adage, “no plan survives contact.”
What the world is witnessing in Afghanistan may be the result of executing plans based on two erroneous assumptions that proved false during execution.
First, U.S. planners assumed that the Afghan government and military would remain at least marginally effective. They assumed that the Afghan security forces would hold and provide adequate security to sustain the status quo until the withdrawal of U.S. forces this summer.
The second assumption was a political consideration based on the first assumption. Planners assessed that if the U.S. withdrew all American civilians and all at-risk Afghan personnel before the military withdrew, it would doom Afghanistan to immediate collapse following the U.S. military departure. According to this line of thinking, by withdrawing all U.S. civilians and at-risk Afghans first, America would be telegraphing that it had no intention of continuing to support the Afghan government and military. Washington hoped that after the U.S. military withdrawal, the Afghan government and military would continue to operate, and Americans and other foreign nationals (diplomats, NGOs, businesspeople, journalists, etc.) would go about their business with security provided by the Afghans.
The U.S. tested the waters by withdrawing the military first — tearing off the bandage all at once to finally end the military mission in Afghanistan by August 31, 2021.
Little did America know that regardless of its assumptions, the Taliban likely had prepared the political and military battlefield through effective influence operations that co-opted and coerced Afghan political officials and military personnel to not resist the Taliban advance. Accordingly, when the Taliban began its offensive, the fighting was limited, and a rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces ensued.
One of the things the U.S. military does well is training host nation forces in the importance of the rule of law and civilian control of the military. However, when the U.S. military looked for civilian leadership and control in Afghanistan, all it saw was corruption and deal making. Afghan military personnel had to fend for themselves, and the Taliban provided opportunities for survival. It is likely that during the entire duration of the U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations, the Taliban was sending night letters to coerce civilian and military leaders to not resist and prepare them for the Taliban takeover.
More civilian leaders and military personnel likely made deals that would cause them to put down their arms and leave office when the Talban began to execute its advance throughout the country. While the U.S. and the international community seem to have been caught off guard by the speed of the Afghan government’s collapse and the advance of the Taliban, the Taliban probably did not expect such rapid success either. However, it had plans in place to seize the opportunity.
In hindsight, if Washington had anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and security forces, America would have evacuated all U.S. civilian and at-risk personnel before the military left.
The worst-case planners in the military had recommended the execution of a non-combatant evacuation order (NEO) operation first; the U.S. would withdraw its forces only upon the NEO’s completion. But the White House may have deemed that approach politically unfeasible, because the execution of an NEO would generate the impression that America was leaving under duress and abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban. The contingency plan the military then devised was to pre-stage forces in the Middle East if an NEO was required.
Despite the tragic events now unfolding in Afghanistan, the United States would be significantly worse off had the military not conducted the contingency planning and pre-positioned forces. But the White House likely approved the sub-optimal plan. Now the military and the remaining Americans and at-risk Afghans are left holding the bag.
Reports are also emerging that there is a kind of circular firing squad within the U.S. government assigning blame for the Afghanistan debacle. The Defense Department is blaming the State Department because Foggy Bottom opposed the evacuation of U.S. civilians and at-risk personnel. State is blaming the intelligence community (IC) for not giving it adequate warning. The IC says it has been predicting this outcome in various forms for months.
It is likely, however, that the Defense Department provided all the necessary options, and the White House — likely with concurrence of State — selected this suboptimal course of action. Likewise, the IC probably provided accurate assessments, but the White House failed to heed them because they undermined the two important assumptions. President Biden failed to grasp the sophistication of the Taliban campaign as well as the effort the Taliban put into influence operations and into the preparation of the political and information environment during the peace negotiations.
President Biden has correctly accepted responsibility for the U.S. withdrawal and has said, as President Truman put it, that the buck stops with him. However, there are thousands of Americans trapped in and around Kabul. There are an estimated 80,000 Afghan visa applicants. President Biden seems unconcerned with their plight.
The only way to salvage this debacle is to prevent it from becoming a greater tragedy. Although the mission is scheduled to end on August 31, 2021, the president must keep his promise and order U.S. forces to remain until we get all Americans and at-risk Afghans safely out. Washington must communicate to the Taliban that its failure to allow safe passage of all personnel to the airport will result in U.S. military continued operations to secure them.
America must ensure the safe evacuation of U.S. and at-risk personnel. It needs to conduct the NEO operation until completion. Washington has a moral responsibility protect Americans and those whom it has promised to help. It must not compound this tragedy. America can leave no one behind.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
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