Unavailable Options

As I’ve said before and will probably say again, I support President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and President Biden in carrying that decision through.  Our withdrawal should have taken place 60 to 90 days after we first entered, but better late than never.  We could stay one hundred years and Afghanistan would remain what it is.

On the other hand, the conduct of our withdrawal has been a mortifying mess.  Yesterday we lost thirteen American servicemen dead and more wounded, doing what the U.S. military does so well: occupy fixed positions, follow predictable routines and get surprised when an enemy walks through the door we leave wide open.  The military responds, “What other options did we have?  All we hold is the airport, we have to defend that and try to get Americans and Afghan allies out through it.  We have no option other than being sitting ducks.”

In fact, there were options and there should have been more.  The first and most important was at the strategic level.  As soon as the Biden administration decided to follow through with President Trump’s decision to leave, it should have sent a loud, clear message to the Taliban that we will leave only on our own terms.  Those terms should have been, first, a “decent interval” of perhaps a few months before the Taliban took Kabul.  I’m well aware we did not expect the Afghan government and army to collapse as quickly as they did, but that possibility should have been recognized early in our planning.  Quisling regimes seldom last very long after the occupying Power that created them leaves, and Afghans are well practiced at going over to the winning side as soon as one is clear.

Second, we should have told the Taliban our timetable will be determined by us, not by them.  We have the power to do that, and it made little sense for the Taliban to fight us when we were leaving. 

Third, — and this remains an option even after our debacle — we should have offered the Taliban an alliance against ISIS-K.  Unofficially, U.S. forces have already acted in support of Taliban troops fighting ISIS, primarily with intel and air strikes.  ISIS-K is the most dangerous enemy the Taliban faces because the Islam it promotes is more “pure,” which is to say brutal and, in terms of governing a country, unworkable.  An alliance with the Taliban against ISIS-K would serve the interests of both parties, would have given us an orderly and even “friendly” withdrawal and probably would not have left us with thirteen dead and more, I fear, to come.

This strategic option was not recognized by the Biden Administration because the Washington foreign policy elite cannot think in these terms.  Nothing ends the career of one of those tuft-hunters and yes-men faster than being accused of “realism.”  Now our troops and our country pay the price.

If the striped-pants set blew it at the strategic level, the military failed to see much less grab an option at the tactical and possibly operational levels.  Imagine, for a moment, that our six thousand troops in Kabul were not American but rather belonged to the Wehrmacht or the pre-1967 IDF.  Would they have simply sat on an airfield waiting for it to hatch while the Taliban dictated what we could and could not do?  Either one would have taken Kabul from the Taliban in a matter of hours, and, this time bottom-up rather than top down, dictated to them how and when we would leave.

That tactical option, once exercised, would have opened up the possibilities of operational maneuver.  All over urban Afghanistan, young Afghan males are appalled at the prospect of being governed by a bunch of illiterate hicks with bushy beards and AKs.  The Taliban’s victory is shallow: they beat the Afghan army, which had not been paid in months, so most did not fight, but they did not conquer Afghanistan.  Ethnic rivalries are already surfacing, which, added to urban insurrections, could roll the Taliban back.  Suppose our Wehrmacht or IDF forces took Kabul, passed out rifles and RPGs to all the young men who now see their freedom gone and then moved on to retake other Afghan cities the same way and create anti-Taliban militias?  They would still withdraw from Afghanistan, but they would have left behind what we should have left in a post-60 or 90- day withdrawal: a new government in Kabul and an Afghan civil war that would keep the Taliban busy for a long, long time.

Unfortunately, while the Wehrmacht and the IDF had the ability to adapt quickly and sometimes radically to new situations, the U.S. armed forces do not.  They remain stuck in the Second Generation of modern war, which means nothing can be done but through elaborate, time-consuming processes.  They could no more turn our humiliating withdrawal at Taliban sufferance into a victory that they could win the Fourth Generation war in Afghanistan we fought for twenty years.  Until someone with authority figures out that Second Generation armed forces are useful only for parades and air shows, and demands real military reform, we will continue to get our butts kicked.  And, as in this case, both the civilian and the military leadership, if we can call it that, will be to blame.