Afghanistan War’s Chaotic Ending

After 20 years, the conflict closes much as it began.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez

The twists and turns in David Zucchino’s NYT report “U.S. Conducts Drone Strike in Kabul and Winds Down Airlift as Deadline Nears” are something else:

A U.S. drone strike on Sunday destroyed an explosives-laden vehicle that the Pentagon said posed an imminent threat to Afghanistan’s main airport, as the massive airlift of Afghans fleeing Taliban rule shut down just two days before the scheduled final withdrawal of American forces.

Afghans said the drone strike killed as many as nine civilians, including children, and the U.S. military said it was investigating the assertions.

The U.S.-led coalition told Afghans awaiting transport out of the country that for them the airlift was over. “We regret to inform you that international military evacuations from Kabul airport have ended,” it said in a text message sent late Saturday night, “and we are no longer able to call anyone forward for evacuation flights.”

The airlift has flown more than 117,000 people out of the country since Aug. 14, most of them Afghans, and some Afghans may already be in the airport waiting for flights, but it is leaving untold thousands behind. The desperate, dangerous scramble to reach Kabul’s international airport and the deadly attack there last Thursday by an Islamic State branch have defined the chaotic and bloody end to America’s longest war.

The U.S. military rushed to fly its remaining service members and equipment from the airport, its last outpost in Afghanistan, ahead of the Tuesday deadline set by President Biden to close out a war that began after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Britain, which has played the second-largest role among NATO forces in Afghanistan, withdrew its last troops on Sunday.

For Americans and their allies, the final days in Afghanistan continue to be among the most perilous and uncertain. For several days U.S. officials have cited “specific, credible threats” of impending attacks, and the Pentagon has stopped publicly stating the declining number of troops at the airport for security reasons.

Afghans have lived for nearly 20 years under an American security umbrella that held out the promise of a better future and allowed for a more modern society connected to the rest of the world. With the return of the Taliban, that dream has died and an uncertain future beckons, especially for women and girls, who were brutally oppressed under the Taliban a generation ago.

It almost perfectly encapsulates the entire conflict. A necessary response to a terrorist attack both prevents another one and kills untold innocents. A heroic effort saves a massive number of people and leaves behind many more. Hopes raised and dashed.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It almost perfectly encapsulates the entire conflict. A necessary response to a terrorist attack both prevents another one and kills untold innocents. A heroic effort saves a massive number of people and leaves behind many more. Hopes raised and dashed.

    QFT.

    ReplyReply
    1
  2. Ken_L says:

    It’s almost as if everything America has tried to do to shape the world in its own image over the last 50 years has been an exercise in stupendous self-deception. But I’ve no doubt that it will wreck other countries in the future, confident that this time it will avoid the errors of the past.

    ReplyReply
    6
  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Afghans have lived for nearly 20 years under an American security umbrella that held out the promise of a better future and allowed for a more modern society connected to the rest of the world. With the return of the Taliban, that dream has died and an uncertain future beckons, especially for women and girls, who were brutally oppressed under the Taliban a generation ago.

    A beautifully written paragraph that tugs at the heart strings…while completely ignoring that Afghans refused to fight for that better future in a more modern society.

    ReplyReply
    7
  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    WASHINGTON—Expressing disbelief after an attack on evacuees at the Kabul airport killed Afghan civilians and U.S. troops fleeing a war zone, the nation was reportedly stunned Friday that a 20-year catastrophe could end so catastrophically. “You could never imagine in a million years that a barbaric disaster could result in a barbaric disaster like this,” said Euclid, OH resident Peter Olean, echoing tens of millions of Americans who were baffled that a pointlessly violent quagmire from start to finish wasn’t going out on a high note. “We’re watching several decades of chaos devolve into chaos right at the end—I mean, who could’ve seen that coming? Things had been going so poorly for 20 years, with so much needless loss of human life, but you never expect that the end would go so poorly and result in the needless loss of human life. It boggles the mind. Honestly, it makes you wonder if the evacuation and the last 20 years of brutal military incursion in Afghanistan should have happened at all.” After hearing about Blackwater founder Erik Prince and others charging thousands of dollars to evacuate desperate people out of Afghanistan, the disgusted nation was reportedly floored to learn that a 20-year conflict engineered to make war profiteers rich could end with war profiteers getting rich.

    ReplyReply
    13
  5. Kathy says:

    To answer a question by @JohnSF from yesterday, what if this had happened on the Golden Ass’ second term.

    I’d have been far more critical, I freely admit, but there’d have been a major difference: The Ass would have carried out the withdrawal and evacuation under the terms of his “genius” greatest deal he himself struck (worry not, he’d have found someone else to blame).

    One can thus argue whether Biden should have kept to that deal. Not being familiar with it, I can’t say. But one cannot govern simply by undoing everything the previous administration did. Some things are worth undoing, no doubt. Others can be changed slightly. others can be left in place. In the matter of international treaties and diplomacy, IMO it’s best to get stuck with a bad deal, than to signal America’s foreign policy posture and treaties, are all subject to major alteration with every presidential succession. Naturally with exceptions for catastrophic deals.

    ReplyReply
    1
  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Biden Deserves Credit, Not Blame, for Afghanistan

    America’s longest war has been by any measure a costly failure, and the errors in managing the conflict deserve scrutiny in the years to come. But Joe Biden doesn’t “own” the mayhem on the ground right now. What we’re seeing is the culmination of 20 years of bad decisions by U.S. political and military leaders. If anything, Americans should feel proud of what the U.S. government and military have accomplished in these past two weeks. President Biden deserves credit, not blame.

    Unlike his three immediate predecessors in the Oval Office, all of whom also came to see the futility of the Afghan operation, Biden alone had the political courage to fully end America’s involvement. Although Donald Trump made a plan to end the war, he set a departure date that fell after the end of his first term and created conditions that made the situation Biden inherited more precarious. And despite significant pressure and obstacles, Biden has overseen a military and government that have managed, since the announcement of America’s withdrawal, one of the most extraordinary logistical feats in their recent history. By the time the last American plane lifts off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 31, the total number of Americans and Afghan allies extricated from the country may exceed 120,000.

    In the days following the fall of Kabul earlier this month—an event that triggered a period of chaos, fear, and grief—critics castigated the Biden administration for its failure to properly coordinate the departure of the last Americans and allies from the country. The White House was indeed surprised by how quickly the Taliban took control, and those early days could have been handled better. But the critics argued that more planning both would have been able to stop the Taliban victory and might have made America’s departure somehow tidier, more like a win or perhaps even a draw. The chaos, many said, was symptomatic of a bigger error. They argued that the United States should stay in Afghanistan, that the cost of remaining was worth the benefits a small force might bring.
    ……………………………….
    The very last chapter of America’s benighted stay in Afghanistan should be seen as one of accomplishment on the part of the military and its civilian leadership. Once again the courage and unique capabilities of the U.S. armed services have been made clear. And, in a stark change from recent years, an American leader has done the hard thing, the right thing: set aside politics and put both America’s interests and values first.

    ReplyReply
    9
  7. Gustopher says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    A beautifully written paragraph that tugs at the heart strings…while completely ignoring that Afghans refused to fight for that better future in a more modern society.

    And you have written a perfectly fine paragraph that ignores the fact that the Afghan army wasn’t regularly paying its troops because of the massive corruption. Or that the police were shaking people down for bribes.

    I’ll put that on the US. If we spend 20 years setting up and propping up a government, we should root out the corruption at least to the level where the people living under that government don’t prefer the consistency of a fundamentalist theocracy.

    ReplyReply
    3
  8. JohnSF says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Afghans refused to fight

    The Afghan forces suffered 65,ooo combat deaths.
    Or don’t they count, for some reason?

    ReplyReply
    3
  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Gustopher:
    @JohnSF:
    C’mon…the Taliban took over the country in about 30 seconds.
    As to corruption…there is no doubt Bush/Obama/Trump managed to fuck this up.
    But we didn’t look to Lafayette to keep the English at bay.

    ReplyReply
    1
  10. JohnSF says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    But we didn’t look to Lafayette to keep the English at bay.

    True enough.
    You looked to de Grasse.

    ReplyReply
    1
  11. JohnSF says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    C’mon…the Taliban took over the country in about 30 seconds.

    The Afghan armed forces were in an utterly untenable position due to the Doha Agreement removing the logistic/maintenance support they were reliant on for air transport and fire support.
    Royal United Services Institute analyst Tim Willasey-Wilsey report, June:

    “The Afghan army is spread across the country in piecemeal district centres (often surrounded by Taliban-controlled countryside) and have to be resupplied by air. This is not a sustainable model.”

    “Afghan security forces have begun to surrender to the Taliban. The procedure is quick and simple…
    The message is usually; “The non-believers are leaving Afghanistan. They are defeated. Your leaders are corrupt. You can surrender now and we will protect you; or you can fight and we will kill you.”

    “In several provinces, including in the north, the Taliban are tightening their grip on those cities which are still held by the government. The Taliban will soon be in a position to cut off food supplies and demand their surrender, possibly offering a similarly lenient dispensation to the population.”

    House of Lords Committee report, January:

    ANSF had faced “a constant fight that involves pretty intense combat nearly every day”.
    45,000 security personnel had been killed since 2014. The “number of casualties and the brunt of the fighting” borne by Afghan forces since 2015 was “incredible”…

    …elements of US capability were critical to the avoidance of a potential catastrophic failure of ANSF

    ReplyReply
    2
  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    While I am open to the potential that a response was necessary (but don’t hold that position myself), what I keep coming back to is the question *was this response necessary* or even a good idea. Having said that, I will step aside in anticipation of the next group claiming an obligation to send a few divisions of other people’s children and rent a soldiers (aka National Guard) to the next field where we’ll need to water the TREE OF LIBERTY [TM].

    ReplyReply
    2
  13. wr says:

    @Gustopher: “I’ll put that on the US. If we spend 20 years setting up and propping up a government, we should root out the corruption at least to the level where the people living under that government don’t prefer the consistency of a fundamentalist theocracy.”

    That’s the problem when the administration propping up the government is already as fundamentally corrupt as W’s. It’s hard to tell the Afghans to take their hands out of the pockets of their citizens when yours are already burrowing in…

    ReplyReply
  14. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    I’ll put that on the US. If we spend 20 years setting up and propping up a government, we should root out the corruption at least to the level where the people living under that government don’t prefer the consistency of a fundamentalist theocracy.

    That really misses the problem though. Corruption (aka, patronage in Afghan terms) is a defining feature of Afghan society and has been for centuries.

    The mistake, therefore, wasn’t that we failed to root out corruption – the mistake was ignoring the reality of Afghanistan and building and promoting institutions at odds with their social and cultural norms. In other words, the efforts to build institutions that required Afghans to put aside their tribal and familial identities in favor of a national identity were doomed from the start.

    ReplyReply
    8
  15. Gustopher says:

    @Andy: Patronage needs to move towards taxes, which are much more predictable.

    The people of Afghanistan seem to prefer the Taliban (harsh, brutal, predictable) to getting a shakedown every time they interact with the government. And that starts with paying police and soldiers enough that they don’t have to live on “tips”. And that starts with actually making sure the police and soldiers get paid.

    ReplyReply
  16. Gustopher says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    C’mon…the Taliban took over the country in about 30 seconds.

    30 seconds, plus about a year of negotiating surrenders and stand downs behind the scenes. Without the Afghan army standing down and/or joining with the Taliban, it would have taken more than 30 seconds.

    It took less time than they expected, as the surrenders hit a tipping point and caused the President to take a long lunch in another country*, but it was all because of the successful local diplomatic work before then.

    ——
    *: are the reports that people in his office didn’t know he fled until they got back from lunch true? I have no idea, but I hope so.

    ReplyReply
  17. JohnSF says:

    @Gustopher:
    If you think the Taliban were/are incorruptible due to their religious fervour, you are mistaken.
    Some are, but a fair number of the Taliban coalition were happy enough to take a pay-off pre-2001.
    Charitable donations to the cause, usually covered it.

    ReplyReply
  18. JohnSF says:

    @Andy:
    Excellent point; though even by Afghan standards a lot of the recent governments were really pushing the bounds of the acceptable.
    A modest percentage off the top of turnover, or a small “gift” is normal enough.
    Wholesale robbery for no return, another matter.

    The almost funny thing, though, is how some people who have wittered on about “we cannot impose our values…” come over all fainting couch when the Afghan government and army don’t behave like a cross between a bunch of Lutheran seminarians and the Marine Corps.

    ReplyReply
  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    And the rather remarkable happenstances which led to de Grasse being there at precisely the right moment, and with damn near the entire French fleet. Luck is the true God of War.

    We judge so much with hindsight. Somebody find me someone who on Aug 10 was saying Kabul would fall within a week.

    ReplyReply
  20. inhumans99 says:

    I was surprised by what my mother said to me over the phone this past weekend.

    As many folks are aware, my Dad is a Vietnam Vet, and he met my mother who volunteered for USO (they met in Turkey). Her dad was a high level Rolls Royce exec, and I still do not have the story behind this fact, but she had clearance to eat in the mess hall of a U.S. Battleship (I would love to know how that came to pass, my Sicilian mother w/security clearance to eat with U.S. troops during a time of conflict), she contributes to charities that provide care packages to soldiers that are deployed, and stuff like that, so pro-military, but she said something that will stick with me for a while.

    Instead of harboring any frustration with Biden that he somehow betrayed the troops by hastily getting them out of Afghanistan, she said to me almost matter of factly, at least one good thing to come out of the past couple weeks (besides the actual evacuations, which should go without saying) was that this will be the first Thanksgiving and Christmas in a long time in which soldiers will not be celebrating the holidays away from their families.

    For some reason that just hit me pretty hard especially considering that it is hard to believe the major Holidays are almost right around the corner. She is not wrong, that is certainly a wonderful thing for the families of these brave men and woman who spent so much time in Afghanistan trying their darnedest to make the world a slightly better place.

    Also, unlike Senator Graham, who is quick to trash Biden by saying he set the stage for another 09/11 event, I think it is too soon to make such harsh declarations and history might not be so unkind to the events of the past two weeks as one might think. I actually feel that Graham owes Biden a public apology, but since he is one of the biggest grandstanding Senators that exists, and one of the biggest horse assess that walk God’s green earth, well…I will not hold my breath waiting for him to apologize.

    ReplyReply
    3
  21. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    Royal United Services Institute analyst Tim Willasey-Wilsey report, June:

    “The Afghan army is spread across the country in piecemeal district centres (often surrounded by Taliban-controlled countryside) and have to be resupplied by air. This is not a sustainable model.”
    “Afghan security forces have begun to surrender to the Taliban. The procedure is quick and simple…”
    The message is usually; “The non-believers are leaving Afghanistan. They are defeated. Your leaders are corrupt. You can surrender now and we will protect you; or you can fight and we will kill you.”
    “In several provinces, including in the north, the Taliban are tightening their grip on those cities which are still held by the government. The Taliban will soon be in a position to cut off food supplies and demand their surrender, possibly offering a similarly lenient dispensation to the population.”

    Not forecasting Kabul would fall in a week, but the writing on the wall was pretty clear.
    Post-Doha, and after Biden determined to proceed on the basis of Doha, the regime was doomed.
    Few people like the idea of dying in a doomed cause.

    ReplyReply
    1
  22. a country lawyer says:

    It’s over. DOD reports the last of the troops have left Afghanistan, one day early.

    ReplyReply
    2
  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @a country lawyer:

    It was not one day early. The deadline, 12:00am 8/31 occurs at the beginning of 8/31, not at the end.

    ReplyReply
    3
  24. gVOR08 says:

    @dazedandconfused: Propinquity. Robert Farley has his usual Monday NATSEC Roundup at LGM this morning. He links to an article at War on the Rocks on the Revolutionary War Lake Champlain campaign.

    For the Americans to win at Yorktown, the French navy had to defeat the British fleet at the Battle of the Virginia Capes. And the French monarch had only been lured into an alliance because the Continental Army won the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, which had itself depended on an American strategic victory in a months-long naval campaign on Lake Champlain the year before.

    The article is a brief summary of the campaign as described in a new book Valcour; The 1776 Campaign That Saved the Cause of Liberty. Long story short, Generals Schuyler, Gates, and Arnold, yes that Arnold, overcame huge difficulties to carry out a delaying campaign. Benedict Arnold commanded a naval battle, with locally built gunboats, at Valcour Island in Lake Champlain. The battle was a tactical victory for the British, but helped delay their advance until winter set in, halting their advance. The delay gave the Continentals time to prepare and to defeat the British the next year at the Battles of Saratoga.

    ReplyReply
  25. Mikey says:

    My son is 17 and just started his senior year of high school and I just realized this is the first time in his entire life America has not been at war.

    I don’t know what else to say. It’s kind of overwhelming, actually.

    ReplyReply
    2
  26. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Reportedly the last flight was wheels up at 13:29 8/30 EDT.
    If my math is correct that would be 23:59 8/30 Kabul time.
    One minute before deadline.

    ReplyReply
    1
  27. Bob@Youngstown says:

    Correction: that was wheels up at 15:29 EDT

    ReplyReply
  28. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Mikey:

    Well, I mean we’re technically still at war with North Korea, we’ve just been in a ceasefire for 68 years. =)

    ReplyReply
  29. Gustopher says:

    @JohnSF:

    Post-Doha, and after Biden determined to proceed on the basis of Doha, the regime was doomed.

    Few people like the idea of dying in a doomed cause.

    If the Afghan government was better meeting the needs of the people, then it would have enough support that it wouldn’t have been a doomed cause. This was not a popular government.

    We squandered two decades and that’s why we lost — I don’t know that we could have done better with the nation building, but there’s no doubt that we failed.

    And there is no reason to think that if we scrapped Doha unilaterally, and re-invaded, that we would have succeeded at the nation building in another six months, six years or six decades.

    Maybe if we didn’t tolerate rampant corruption and self-dealing, things would have been different. Or maybe we would have just been fighting the warlords and the Taliban.

    ReplyReply
  30. JohnSF says:

    @Gustopher:
    It is possible that the government was unsustaianble in any event; its level of dysfunction was certainly very high.
    My opinion for some time has been that the late government effectively ruling the entire country was unlikely, and that the bulk of the Pushtun provinces should be left to their own devices.

    But, it would not matter how much support it had, the military position was wrecked by Doha; and that in turn destroyed any political basis.

    ….t would have enough support that it wouldn’t have been a doomed cause.

    Popular support means nothing in such circumstances.
    Conquerors rarely ask for a vote of acceptance.
    External invader or internal minorities have often subjugated counties, entirely regardless of popular opinion, with the help of the occasional massacre, and the reign of fear.
    The myth of invincible national popular resistance is just that: a myth.

    ReplyReply
  31. wr says:

    @JohnSF: “The almost funny thing, though, is how some people who have wittered on about “we cannot impose our values…” come over all fainting couch when the Afghan government and army don’t behave like a cross between a bunch of Lutheran seminarians and the Marine Corps.”

    So we should have continued to prop up a thoroughly corrupt and inept government… to respect local values?

    I get that you are upset. But your points seem to get further and further removed from any kind of practical reality. Maybe you want to take a step back for a moment and think this all through instead of just lashing out at everyone who disagrees as if they are all quislings who are murdering your friends.

    ReplyReply
  32. JohnSF says:

    @wr:

    So we should have continued to prop up a thoroughly corrupt and inept government… to respect local values?

    Not necessarily;
    As I also said in the comment you refer to
    “by Afghan standards a lot of the recent governments were really pushing the bounds of the acceptable.
    A modest percentage off the top of turnover, or a small “gift” is normal enough.
    Wholesale robbery for no return, another matter.”

    As for the broader principle of stay/leave: I referred in another post to “(the)stubborn delusions of Ghani, the incompetence of the Afghan army leadership, the sheer dysfunction and corruption of the state, make withdrawal at least an reasonable option.”
    And in post just above:
    “It is possible that the government was unsustainable in any event; its level of dysfunction was certainly very high.
    My opinion for some time has been that the late government effectively ruling the entire country was unlikely, and that the bulk of the Pushtun provinces should be left to their own devices.”

    The more I have looked closely recently at reports on the scale of dysfunction in the Afghan state, the more I’m inclined to think that withdrawal may have been becoming unavoidable.
    Certainly I would not say someone advocating withdrawal was automatically in error.

    My objection is that IF a judgement were to be made that withdrawal is unavoidable, the grotesque betrayal inherent in Doha was still an utter disgrace. The blame for that rests with Trump, Pompeo and Khalilzad.

    But even if President Biden determined that withdrawal on those lines should proceed, it could still have been managed much, much better.
    There was no requirement to stick to the details of the deal, give the Taliban had already broken it themselves.

    ReplyReply
  33. Ken_L says:

    @JohnSF: Trump had already implemented most of America’s side of the Doha agreement by the time Biden took office. Most troops had been withdrawn, 5,000 Taliban fighters had been released from jail, sanctions had been lifted on Taliban leaders. The Taliban, on the other hand, had ignored its obligations apart from the promise not to attack Americans on their way out. All that remained was the final withdrawal, which Biden DIDN’T stick to. He extended the deadline for getting out by four months to allow more then 100,000 Afghans to pull out whom Trump would undoubtedly have left behind.

    ReplyReply

Speak Your Mind

*