August 20, 2021

A Vet’s Perspective: Hard Times in Hard Places

Joe Biden grossly misrepresented the circumstances in Afghanistan.

As a former Marine officer, a veteran during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, I have spent years on the ground in the Middle East. As Joe Biden’s disastrous Afghan exfil unfolds, what follows are a few observations.

Afghanistan is a hard place: a hard place to govern, a hard place to live, and a hard place to serve. It’s also a hard place to write about. Not because it evokes painful memories, but because so many other people are flooding opinion and social media feeds with their hot takes. Two of the best I’ve come across can be found here and here.

Here are my own thoughts:

I’m neither a pessimist — it wasn’t all for nothing; we did make a difference and countless Afghans have had and will have better lives thanks to our sacrifices — nor an optimist — I don’t think we would have significantly changed the trajectory if we had just done a little more of this or a little less of that. If anything, my time in Afghanistan made me a pragmatist. I came to realize that no matter how noble your intentions or diligent your effort, sometimes you still don’t achieve the glorious results you envision. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try or that even modest improvements aren’t worth the effort.

As I’ve written before, it’s not very satisfying, but for a host of reasons sometimes the best results you’re going to achieve are sub-optimal — muddling along — particularly in a place like Afghanistan.

I once titled a presentation I gave to prospective advisers, “Observations from Afghanistan: Welcome to the Land of Sub-Optimal Solutions.” The photo on the title slide was representative: the starter had gone out on an Afghan Army unit’s Ford Ranger (itself a sub-optimal solution: I understand the “Buy American” requirement tied to our assistance funds but operating a fleet of fragile Fords in a Toyota-centric part of the world creates its own challenges). The soldiers manning the remote outpost could have thrown up their hands and waited (and waited) for someone else to provide the parts and mechanic to fix the truck or until the Taliban came and knocked on their door. Instead they figured out a way to get it started — even if not via the optimal method — and went on about their business. We would benefit from a similar mindset: We shouldn’t let our pursuit of the perfect blind us to the advantages of the good, and the downside to just walking away.

My main beef with Biden’s retreat is that it was justified with a combination of misrepresenting the circumstances in Afghanistan for the last 20 years and an unrealistic standard of success, neither of which are unique to him, or even to Democrats. The “we’ve been there for 20 years and have nothing to show” diatribe simply doesn’t hold up. Unfortunately, many veterans have been parroting these arguments, giving them additional credibility, and there weren’t enough concerned citizens willing to dig deeper than the sound bites to counter the narrative.

Although we have had troops in Afghanistan since 2001, there was only a four-year period, roughly 2009-2013, where we applied our full weight. Granted, that’s the period where we sustained the majority of the casualties and spent most of the money, but even that commitment was undermined by Barack Obama’s pronouncement that the surge would end on a certain date regardless of the conditions on the ground.

For the last seven years, we pursued a combined security force assistance (build up the Afghan security forces) and counterterrorism (capture/kill al-Qaida) approach that kept the situation at a manageable simmer for a relatively low cost. A 2,500-man U.S. military investment bought an additional 8,000-10,000 NATO troops that would have consigned the Taliban to rural areas indefinitely with minimal risk to the U.S.-NATO force, as well as providing invaluable operational and intelligence collection platforms in a rough neighborhood.

The dollar cost alone of the evacuation and loss of our embassy will likely exceed what it would have taken to fund that 2,500-man force for several more years, and we will be paying the bill for the loss of credibility and other intangible costs for decades to come.

Afghanistan has been a mess for most of our lifetimes. Infighting between factions led to the Soviet invasion and occupation. The Soviet’s departure led to a civil war that brought the Taliban to power (the first time) and provided al-Qaida a path to New York. We missed our chance for closure on Osama bin Laden and his AQ buddies early and began trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Because we had a patchwork of Western nations that took responsibility for (re)establishing different elements of the government, we ended up with an inappropriate-for-Afghanistan, Frankenstein-like centralized system that we’ve been struggling to keep alive ever since. A military-centric force is not the best tool and having different nations design different parts of the whole isn’t a recipe for successful nation-building, but they were the lemons we were given and we did our best to make palatable lemonade out of them.

A long series of sub-optimal solutions got us where we are today — or at least where we were earlier this summer. Biden’s surrender was flat out anti-optimal, or whatever the polar opposite of optimal is. Afghanistan wasn’t Switzerland, but it was better than it had been since the mid-70s and probably better than it will be going forward with the Taliban in power. Whether the return on investment was adequate is a fair question, but to say we made no progress is demonstrably false, which in turn invalidates the “therefore we never will make any progress and should just pack up and go home” part of the argument.

I can’t do better than Col. (Ret.) Andy Milburn’s assessment (written shortly after our late-night departure from Bagram Airfield in early July), so I’ll close with it:

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.

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