I lost a soldier in Operation Desert Storm to “friendly fire.” It wasn’t the common case for such events. No one mistook my soldier for someone else, put him in the crosshairs and pulled a trigger. He wasn’t someplace he shouldn’t have been. There was, indeed, no human error involved. A hundred or so artillery shells were in the air heading to an Iraqi army target that had previously been fired upon. One shell malfunctioned dropping is bomblets short of the intended target killing my soldier, a young sergeant very popular with his colleagues.
After the cease fire I conducted a thorough investigation of what had happened, a review captured in a lengthy report. I shared that report with the soldier’s father, with whom I had made contact via what we now call “snail mail.” The two of us became regular correspondents, and he decided to come visit my unit once we returned to our base in Germany.
Following the father’s request, I arranged a meeting between him and the soldiers who had been with his son when he was killed. We held the meeting beside the vehicle his son had been in when the deadly bomblets fell from the sky. His son’s colleagues each shared their stories about that terrible moment — what they saw, what they did, the efforts they made to apply first aid, the quick evacuation to an aid station. Many of them broke down in tears as they spoke. I allowed each as much time as he needed to share his experience.
When the scene fell quiet, I told the father that his son’s death was one of those unfortunate things that happens in war, which despite all effort always has its share of capricious misfortune. I will never forget the father’s reply. “Guys,” he quietly said, “I can tell many of you are upset, feeling guilt, wondering if you had done enough and should have done more. My son was where he wanted to be, with people he enjoyed working with, doing something he felt important. None of you are responsible for his death. The only person responsible is Saddam Hussein, and he’s the one who will face the judgment.”
This was a most gracious comment that greatly lifted a heavy burden from all of us. But reflecting on that moment, it seems to have contemporary relevance.
The recent fall of Afghanistan to resurgent Taliban forces has been a major shock for many Americans. Questions are rightfully being asked. After twenty years of American blood and treasure how could this happen? If the Afghan defense and security forces were larger than those of the Taliban, and trained and equipped by the US and others, how could they collapse so quickly? How could the central Afghan government disintegrate so rapidly? Why were more people — Americans and their Afghan supporters — not evacuated quicker? Why were key facilities abandoned so early? Why did we ever enter into a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban? How were the timing estimates of the intelligence community so wrong?
These are all valid questions worthy of exploration, examination, and consideration. And I expect such efforts from the Congress, government agencies, participants in this lengthy conflict, and — perhaps most significantly — historians, will shortly commence. That process should begin soon while records exist, key individuals are still alive, and memories are still fresh.
But what we are seeing currently is a rush to judgment before any of that has even begun. Senator Lindsey Graham, one seemingly incapable of missing any chance to score political points, has called for President Joseph Biden to be impeached for the rushed, seemingly chaotic evacuation from Kabul. Others blame Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump, for negotiating a withdrawal deal with the Taliban in the first place, one setting an unrealistic time frame for the US departure. Still others have called for the resignation of Biden’s entire national security team, arguing that their impressive educational credentials were not complemented with important operational experience — despite the fact that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is a retired general who once commanded the US Central Command with responsibility for the Middle East; that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken previously served four years as the Deputy Secretary; and that CIA Director William J. Burns is among the nation’s most experienced and decorated foreign service officers — and also a former Deputy Secretary of State.
But this is seemingly what we do. After World War II we had a blame game regarding who allowed the “Iron Curtain” to descend across Eastern Europe. In 1949 the question was “who lost China” — and some political opportunists wanted to blame General George C. Marshall, one of our greatest heroes, who had tried to negotiate an end to the Chinese Civil War. After Vietnam, the blame game was intense but brief; there was plenty of blame to go around.
Without question we need to understand, objectively rather than emotionally, what happened during the decades long effort in Afghanistan. Many, myself among them, believe that the fundamental error in the American effort in Afghanistan flows from the unrealistic expectation that a country able to resist foreign incursions for hundreds of years could quickly be restructured into something resembling a functioning western democracy; that a culture largely resistant to change could be made to accept an enormous amount.
And it’s not just western-style democracy that has failed in Afghanistan, so has eastern-style authoritarianism. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a friendly regime led by an Afghan communist. After ten years of futility, the Soviets signed an agreement and withdrew, setting the stage for the first Taliban takeover of the country in 1996. All of these experiences in Afghanistan lend enduring validity to Winston Churchill’s 1920’s observation about controlling far-flung, culturally distinct places. The native populations, Churchill said, “Prefer local government to good government.”
Afghanistan, whether one is referring to the British, Russian, or American attempts at “good government,” proves the point. In the end, the blame for what happened in Afghanistan must be primarily ascribed to the Afghan government we tried so long to support.
And this failure occurred despite the length and intensity of the American effort. Three previous American administrations invested enormous time, money, and energy in establishing a functioning Afghan government, one supposedly built on democratic principles and reflecting the will of the people. This Afghan government was given every chance to succeed, including at one point the presence of 100 thousand US troops along with investments that actually exceeded the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country itself.
Many have argued that the Trump administration’s Doha Agreement with the Taliban, one that established a US withdrawal date of May 1, 2021, simply sent a message to the Taliban that it only needed to lay low, prepare, and then launch its offensive when US support to the central government became minimal before ending.
This is, of course, true. However, there is an obvious flip side of the coin. Setting such a schedule also sent a message to the US-supported Afghan government, informing it of the time by which it had to be prepared, that it had to end dysfunction, that it had to establish control in the countryside beyond Kabul, and that it had to demonstrate to its defense and security forces that theirs was a cause worth fighting for. The Taliban evidently used its time well; the Afghan government did not — neither the most recent regime of President Ashraf Ghani, nor the previous regime of President Hamid Karzai.
Seemingly, despite all American effort, the central Afghan government never succeeded in either governing or itself winning the ever-elusive “hearts and minds” of the rural population beyond Kabul. Why?
Perhaps that should be the first question to be considered by the numerous, inevitable investigations and studies that will soon be coming. All the objective measures of success — money, expertise, advisors, communications, troops, time — would suggest that the central Afghan government should have succeeded. But it did not — nor have any efforts in the past.
There is a reason Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires.” Numerous powers in the past have included Afghanistan within the sphere it considered under its control, but effective control has always been more imagined than real. It was never clear, despite all the positive assessments and projections of the past two decades, that the United States had “broken the code” on how to control and modernize Afghanistan. The steady flight of C-17’s evacuating people from the country during the past two weeks showed the latest futility of this enduring aspiration.
The massive American airlift was the final effort in the cumulative failed efforts in Afghanistan. The airlift itself, however, was a success for which the American people and its military should be proud. Over two weeks the American coordinated and executed airlift got 123,000 Americans and Afghans out of the country. But contrast, the 1940 British evacuation of Dunkirk extracted nearly 340,000 soldiers over nine days using some 700 ships and boats of various kinds, over 200 of which were sunk by German aircraft and mines. Ships can carry many more evacuees than even the largest aircraft but were obviously not an option in land-locked Afghanistan. Plus, the safety of Dover was a mere twenty miles away. Further in the past, the British evacuation of Kabul in January 1842 during the first Anglo-Afghan war was a harrowing story where only one officer from the Kabul garrison survived.
We tragically lost thirteen service men and women who were securing the Kabul airport. Their loss was painful, and certainly more painful for those who were there with them. But compared to what we have seen in the past, this evacuation should be remembered for its successes not its failures.
As the US Air Force has demonstrated on numerous occasions, its capability for air transport is unmatched by any other nation. In addition, the Army’s ability to rapidly move two combat brigades into Kabul to secure the airport was equally impressive. Both services demonstrated once again that the American military does well what it is structured and trained to do. But as a nation, we must learn that military limits exist and always will.
In 1978 I was a graduate student studying international relations at Harvard under one if its legendary professors, the late Stanley Hoffman. When we reached the portion of the course about the recently ended Vietnam War, I asked Professor Hoffman what we had learned from that terrible experience. He thought for a moment before stating, “I think we’ve learned the United States cannot win a war in Vietnam.”
We should have applied that lesson to Afghanistan. Obviously, we did not. But Hoffman had an implicit message beyond his explicit statement. Such a setback does not mean that the United States is no longer a major power. It does not mean that if challenged where its interests are clear that it will not act. It does not mean that our military is incapable. But it does mean that even great nations should keep their powder dry and recognize that every problem cannot be solved, that every intervention is not welcome, and that a friendly government may not be a capable government. That’s the lesson we need to learn. Let’s hope Afghanistan made that clear — yet again.