How should we deal with our failure in Afghanistan?

How should we deal with our failure in Afghanistan?

Remarks to a Panel of the Rhode Island National Guard

It’s 9/11  Hello, darkness, my old friend.  America has done it once again.  We have waged a failed war in yet another foreign land and dishonorably abandoned those we went there to help. 

Or did we go there for some other reason?  Did Afghans ask for our help?  Or did we provide it without consulting them?  It’s human nature to see only what you want to see and to hear only what you want to hear.  It’s going to take us a while to determine what went wrong if we ever do.  There is an African proverb that declares: “to get lost is to learn the way.”  Let us hope we now do so.

Neither DOD nor U.S. foreign policy has ever undergone an audit.  In the twelve minutes allotted to me, I am not going to attempt one.  Still, you learn more from failure than from success, and after-action reports are essential to both strategic and tactical effectiveness.  The soldiers and airmen of Rhode Island’s National Guard, like others, served honorably and sacrificed much for our country in Afghanistan.  As members of the R.I.N.G. you are fully justified in spending some time teasing out the factors that shaped America’s twenty-year misadventure in “the graveyard of empires” and its outcome.  So, before I get to what must be done, let me briefly outline a few possible contributing causes to where we are.

On October 7, 2001, eleven days after the first CIA special operations unit had been inserted, the U.S. officially invaded Afghanistan.  We had two objectives.  The first was to capture, kill, or bring to justice the al Qaeda architects of the 9/11 terrorist attack on us, who were foreign residents of Afghanistan.  The second was to chastise the Taliban government sufficiently to ensure that it would not again offer safe haven in Afghanistan to terrorists with global reach.  By early December, the Taliban had been removed from power.  Most of Osama Binladen’s followers had been killed, though he himself remained at large.  The U.S. and British irregular forces searching for him in the Tora Bora cave complex asked for reinforcement by a battalion of U.S. Rangers or elements of the Tenth Mountain Division.  The White House and Pentagon denied their requests.  Osama got away but, with that exception, the United States had essentially achieved the objectives for which we had invaded Afghanistan.  Osama’s execution ten years later by Navy SEALs had nothing to do with the forever war there and had no effect at all on it.

Carried away by our success, in 2002, we began moving the goalposts this way and that.  There was no debate about why this was necessary or appropriate.  Soon, no one could offer a coherent explanation of why we were fighting in Afghanistan.  You can’t accomplish a mission when you don’t know what it is.  We violated the basic principles that must guide all wars: set clear objectives, stick with them, and stand down and let the diplomats go to work when they are achieved.  This was a grievous failure of leadership at the top of our government.  It was also a catastrophic failure of our political system and of civilian control of the military.

The Constitution assigns the responsibility for authorizing war and declaring war aims to Congress, not the president.  But Americans no longer have any confidence in Congress, so for seventy years (since the undeclared war in Korea), we have let Congress evade its responsibilities and avoid accountability for doing so.  We have looked instead to the president and what some have called the foreign policy “Blob” to make decisions about peace or war for us.  Our recent “forever wars” suggest that the Founding Fathers may have had a point when they stipulated that the people’s representatives debate wars and set objectives for them before we launch them.

In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out.  I’m not an umpire so I can’t tell you how many strikeouts we’ve had at the game of hit and run democratization, but I can think of more than three.  Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria come to mind.  The findings of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) suggest that about 30 percent of outlays, or around $300 billion, was lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.  Perhaps President Biden is right that we should end what he called the “era of major military operations to remake other countries” and that military intervention should be reserved for situations in which political, economic, and diplomatic instruments of statecraft cannot be applied.

Once the U.S. military was assigned to evacuate Americans, allies, and Afghans associated with us from Kabul, it did what no other armed forces would have been able to do.  Those who participated in that operation have every right to be proud of it.  But those who should have pulled together an orderly evacuation should be ashamed.  Our government’s failure to get its act together reflects malorganization – a bloated National Security Council staff that dictates rather than coordinates policy – and the hollowing out of our government’s capabilities by excessive politicization, denigration of public servants, and budget cuts. 

The civilian side of government is supposed to give our armed forces timely guidance, intelligence, and diplomatic support, not hand them the bag at the last minute.  Civilian control of the military is not just an essential element of democracy, it is meant to free the nation’s servicemen and women from politics so they can focus on becoming more professional and effective on the battlefield.  Generals and admirals are taught that it’s their job to implement, not make policy.  But when successive presidents were asked when the United States could withdraw from Afghanistan or Iraq, they evaded their responsibility by answering, “when my generals tell me I can.”  Sadly, far from refusing to substitute themselves for our civilian leaders, our military commanders began to enjoy offering policy advice to anyone who asked. 

Logically, this should make our senior military officers accountable not just for their failed implementation of bad policies but for coming up with those policies in the first place.  But when they retired from active duty, they stayed on as talking heads.  They and the Blob’s most celebrated cheerleaders for the war in Afghanistan are on TV right now explaining why the U.S. and allied failure there was the fault of everybody but themselves.  They say Afghans just wouldn’t fight.  Tell it to the more than 30,000 Afghan soldiers killed by the Taliban! 

Maybe we should pay more attention to sustaining the legitimacy of the government we are propping up.  Maybe we should reconsider whether counterinsurgency doctrine is relevant to “nation-building.”  Maybe we need to rethink how we train client state armed forces and whether it’s wise to make them dependent on us and on weaponry that can’t be maintained without us.

In one way or another, both our civilian and military leadership let us down in Afghanistan.  Sadly, it’s unlikely either will be held accountable.  For twenty years, we did things to our own satisfaction, not that of Afghans, who decided not to carry on when we had had enough and left, taking our contractors and carpetbaggers with us.  Now, whether we learn from our errors or not, we have to deal with their consequences. 

This is not our first war to end in a humiliating horror scene with helicopters.  South Vietnam fell at the end of April 1975.  We were able to evacuate around 125,000 Vietnamese almost directly to the United States.  But 3 million refugees fled Indochina — Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.  Half a million likely perished at sea. 

The Vietnam War was much more unpopular than Afghanistan.  But Americans took in refugees because we knew it was the honorable thing to do.  By 1992, we had resettled more than a million Indochinese refugees in this country.  They and their descendants have more than justified this decision with their contributions to American society.

The part of our immigration system relevant to refugee admissions collapsed under the avalanche of arrivals from Southeast Asia.  I was drafted to revive and reorganize it and to draw up legislation to cope with the crisis.  But reorganization would have accomplished nothing without the truly heroic efforts of voluntary agencies, churches, and other elements of U.S. civil society and the amazing generosity of the American families who supported these NGOs, took in refugee families, and helped strangers settle into their communities.  Many of the organizations that managed resettlement then have since gone out of business.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has an Office of Refugee Resettlement that lists those that remain. 

We are about to test the capacity of our country to do the right thing for those who face persecution for their association with us in Afghanistan, as we did for Indochinese before them.

I fear that our most endearing characteristic as Americans may be our amnesia.  Having let refugee admissions and the infrastructure that managed them wither away, we are now once again faced with the need to reconstitute lost capabilities.  To its credit, the Biden administration is now urgently attempting to do so. 

But do we remember how to organize and implement massive refugee resettlement?  Can the voluntary agencies rebuild their capacity to meet the challenge?  Americans are less religious now than we were in 1975.  Will our churches, synagogues, and mosques rise to the occasion?  Can we speed the transition of Afghan refugees to a useful role in our society?  Is there room for innovative ideas like a “GI Bill for Afghan Interpreters?”  Will American veterans be as helpful to the Afghans they worked with in Afghanistan as these very same Afghans were to them when they were there?  Can our welcome to these men and women and their families redeem the dishonor of our disorderly departure from their country?

I would like to think that we are still the capable, generous, and welcoming people we were when we took in the human casualties of our earlier policy failures.  We will soon know.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

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