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Withdrawal or Escape?

Sep 06, 2021
  • Fan Gaoyue

    Guest Professor at Sichuan University, Former Chief Specialist at PLA Academy of Military Science

On Aug. 15, the Taliban seized Kabul without firing a shot. It is back in power after 20 years of fighting with the United States and its allies. The U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan after sacrificing 2,448 American lives and spending $2.2 trillion. While the fall of Kabul might have been predictable after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement this year, the haphazard withdrawal startled the world. 

Withdrawal simply an escape 

On television and in newspapers, people witnessed the scene: thousands of Afghans swarming into Hamid Karzai International Airport, with some clinging to a U.S. Air Force transport plane, which took off anyway. A man on the undercarriage dropped to the ground and died.

The U.S. military sent two Marine Corps battalions and an Army battalion to Kabul to safeguard the U.S. embassy and defend the airport. A joint U.S. Army/Air Force support contingent of around 1,000 personnel were to facilitate the processing of people applying for special immigrant visas to enter the United States. Routes to the airport were blocked and some American citizens were not able to reach the airport. Diplomats from other Western countries were eager to leave Kabul but there was no plane to fly them home. Young parents with babies in their arms had waited for days outside the airport to get a visa. All was despair and chaos.

How did a long-planned withdrawal turn into a panic escape? Who is responsible and who is to blame? 

Biden team’s incompetence exposed 

The debacle in Afghanistan is not the doing of one person but the incarnation of the Biden administration’s incompetence. Intelligence organizations such as the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, noted for their thorough information gathering, are at fault in Afghanistan this time. Misled by false intelligence and bad information, President Joe Biden, the commander-in-chief of the formidable U.S. armed forces, made a decision to pull the military out of Afghanistan by the end of August, 11 days ahead of his commitment. When asked by a reporter if it was inevitable the Taliban would take over Afghanistan, Biden answered firmly in the negative. Yet, a week later, Kabul fell into the Taliban’s hands. The slap to Biden’s face could be heard around the world.

It is said that the U.S. military has been good at operational planning. It should have known how many days and how much transportation capacity was required to evacuate its own personnel, along with 15,000 American citizens and 18,000 Afghan battlefield interpreters. It should have made detailed plans to fulfill the task in good order. But this was not to be. After 9/11, the U.S. persuaded its allies, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, to participate in the Afghan war. The U.S. should have coordinated with its allies before it decided to pull out, but none of them had been informed about the decision — not an email or phone call, let alone coordination. “America first” had its finest moment. 

Lessons learned 

U.S. forces have occupied and rebuilt Afghanistan for 20 years but had to leave the country in a hurry. Has the U.S. learned nothing from Operation Enduring Freedom, the official name of the U.S. global war on terror? Three main lessons come to mind:

First, it was never possible to recast Afghanistan with American values. After the Cold War, the U.S. tried to remold the whole world in its image — note Arab Spring, color revolutions and successive wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan became an. experimental laboratory in which the U.S. and allied militaries pushed back the Taliban and established a pro-American government, equipped and trained Afghan security and national defense forces and advocated American democracy, freedom and human rights. But 20 years later Taliban has come back, virtually unchanged.

Second, the decisive factor in winning a war is the support of the people and high morale, not weapons. The U.S. claimed it equipped and trained an Afghan force of 300,000 to support and defend the pro-American government. Compared with the less numerous and poorly equipped Taliban, the government had an overwhelming advantage. However, supported by the country’s rural population, the Taliban, with their high morale, swept the country in a week with little resistance. This confirms that equipment and sheer numbers are not the decisive factors — something that has played out many times in history.

Third, military doctrine should cover all kinds of operations. After the Gulf War, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military’s war-fighting doctrine developed rapidly. Its publications emphasized offensive and defensive operations but neglected retrograde and withdrawal operations. For example, the JP3-0 Joint Operations (2017 edition) mentions “attack” 57 times, “strike” 45 times, “offense” 65 times and “defense” 248 times. But “retrograde” appears only once and “withdrawal” four times without elaboration. Perhaps this explains why the U.S. military has failed in its Afghanistan withdrawal operations.

The notion that the U.S. military can fight and win all over the world has proved false yet again. It’s a myth. Gone with wind are America’s reputation, credibility and world leadership.

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