In a few weeks, the U.S. military went from being in control of Afghanistan to staging a frantic evacuation of troops and civilians from an isolated, vulnerable airport in the middle of Taliban-occupied Kabul. What went wrong?
The collapse of Afghanistan was quick. In late May, U.S. forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA) controlled Afghanistan, and everything was in place for a late August departure. The Taliban launched an offensive to retake the country. In early July, despite significant losses of territory, President Biden promised that Afghanistan would never fall to the Taliban. On August 10, when the Taliban began taking major cities, U.S. officials estimated that the government could fall in as little as 30 days. Five days later, the entire country fell as Taliban forces entered Kabul unopposed. And by late August, U.S. forces, isolated at Kabul’s international airport and surrounded by Taliban forces and frantic mobs of people trying to flee, conducted an ad hoc evacuation.
We can divide what went wrong into three decision-making failures, each owing to an inability to update operating assumptions. First, a failure to accept that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and adapt to the situation once it was apparent. Second, a failure to adapt to the speed of the Taliban’s offensive by building contingencies to protect the U.S. evacuation effort. Finally, a failure to appreciate the dangers of being besieged in Kabul and to take steps to protect U.S. troops and civilians. Let’s examine each in detail.
The U.S. leadership didn’t anticipate, nor did it adapt to, the Taliban’s victory in the guerrilla war. This failure wasn’t due to a lack of prior warning that the nation-building wasn’t working and that we were losing the guerrilla war. Our government received plenty of feedback, from warnings from outside experts to reports from troops and civilians returning from Afghanistan. I provided testimony to the House Armed Services Committee to this effect all the way back in 2009.
The leadership’s unshakable attachment to the viability of the Afghan government and the success of nation-building wasn’t based on evidence. It was a belief based on a political and institutional need that it be true. It was necessary to maintain the illusion that the U.S. was there to modernize and globally integrate Afghanistan at the political level. Institutionally, it was needed to justify the losses (thousands of U.S. lives) and vast expense (trillions of dollars) already consumed by the venture and protect the careers of those involved with it. As a result of these imperatives, dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy and by political factions committed to the social-reform effort there.
As government troops gave up without a fight, it was clear early on that the Taliban had decisively won the guerrilla war. Guerrilla wars are slow-moving conflicts fought in the moral sphere. You can picture a guerrilla war as opposing planets competing through gravitational attraction. The way you fight it is to create the highest gravity possible (a moral pull that attracts: incorruptibility, moral integrity, altruism) while causing the competing planet to break apart (moral repulsion: corruption, unpopular social changes, selfish abuses). Because of the dynamics of this type of warfare, when victory arrives, it often does so suddenly, with the complete disintegration of the opponent. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, and we should have quickly accepted this fact.
The U.S. leadership was disoriented by the Taliban’s rapid drive to retake the country. The U.S. assumed that it could control the pace of the conflict during the retreat through diplomacy alone. U.S. diplomacy with the Taliban had convinced American leadership that the Taliban would stay on the sidelines until the U.S. had departed. As a result, the U.S. withdrew most of those forces that it would have needed to bolster the Afghan National Army. For example, air support missions were flown from bases and aircraft carriers up to 1,000 miles away. Worse, the withdrawal compounded the failures of nation-building: the withdrawal of contractors like DynCorp—which was paid billions of dollars to train (unsuccessfully) the Afghan military to maintain and support its aircraft—led to an immediate loss of organic air support.
When it became clear in July that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and were conducting a maneuver-based offensive to take the country, the U.S. should have responded by deploying contingencies. Chief among them should have been retaking the abandoned and defensible (not surrounded by a heavily populated city) Bagram airbase north of Kabul to ensure air support and evacuation missions were always available, particularly if the single runway at Kabul’s airport was damaged or denied. With Bagram swiftly reopened, stepped up air-support missions for the Afghan army could have been provided, slowing the Taliban’s advance. Additionally, special operations units could have been employed to evacuate civilian personnel stranded by the rapidity of the Taliban’s advance. And the leadership should have radically sped up the evacuation of U.S. civilians and accelerated the awarding of visas to Afghan nationals who might be at risk. It didn’t: the State Department was still forcing citizens to pay a $2,000 repatriation fee—more for non-citizens—and sign promissory notes if they didn’t have the cash, up until August 20, five days after the fall of Kabul.
Instead of adapting, the U.S. leadership froze—overloaded by a fast-moving ground campaign that constantly shifted priorities and disoriented by deceptive Taliban diplomacy that promised a return to the status quo. While the U.S. talked, the Taliban acted. The result: textbook maneuver warfare. It was so effective that when the Taliban began to take major cities in early August, all American leaders could do was plead with the Taliban for mercy.
The final stage of the decision-making meltdown in Afghanistan occurred after the Taliban took Kabul and surrounded U.S. forces confined to the airport. After boxing itself in, the U.S. leadership could do little once the Taliban took Kabul in mid-August. At that point, the war moved into its final stage: attrition. Attrition is fought in the physical sphere. It’s won by physically damaging an opponent or disconnecting them from sources of support and materiel. In this case, the Taliban successively detached the U.S. mission from the rest of the country, the rest of Kabul (where many people remained trapped), and from the civilian side of the airport. It then slowed the pace of movement through the gates, through mobs, checkpoints, and finally through the use of proxy attacks (ISIS-K).
Unwilling to recognize that the U.S. mission (thousands of troops and civilian personnel) and the tens of thousands of civilians were at grave risk of being completely cut off by an attack on the airport itself (a single runway that could have been easily shut down), the U.S. chose to assume that the Taliban would allow them to continue the evacuation unimpeded. That was proven false as the noose tightened around the airport.
As the evacuation dragged on, it became increasingly evident, even to a U.S. leadership unwilling to admit it, that the Taliban could turn the U.S. mission into a hostage crisis within hours. To prevent this outcome, the U.S. was undoubtedly forced to make concessions to the Taliban. On the surface, this took the form of government public messaging that increasingly depicted the Taliban as reformed and reasonable rulers of a new Afghanistan—trustworthy partners who would help protect the U.S. mission from harm and assist in evacuations. Behind the scenes, there may also have been concessions on removing the Taliban from terrorist watch lists, removing trade restrictions, and providing access to Afghan government funds. Announcements on such concessions, if they occurred, would obviously be delayed due to the political costs of revealing them now; by the end of 2021, we’ll probably know the extent of the capitulation.
The U.S. failed to recognize and adapt to all three phases of the retreat from Afghanistan, from the loss of the guerrilla war to the Taliban offensive to the siege in Kabul.
Despite this failure, it’s likely that nothing will be done to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future. Politicized analysis of the retreat will depict it as a victory for diplomacy. Few U.S. soldiers were killed, and over 100,000 people were evacuated. Further, claims will be made that any analysis that doesn’t support this narrative is the equivalent of delusional disinformation. The institutional failures that prevented successful adaptation, from recognizing the failure of nation-building to the danger of relying on a single point of failure during a military evacuation, will be glossed over and forgotten. From the start of the effort decades ago to its ignoble end, nobody responsible for the venture will accept any accountability for it. No one will suffer damage to his career or incur reputational damage, except those brave souls who tried to stop it.
Unfortunately, war is an unforgiving teacher. During the next war, these unaddressed shortcomings in decision-making could become critical failures in a catastrophic loss.
Photo by MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES