Terrorist Strike Hits Afghan Evacuation

Thirteen Marines and dozens of Afghan civilians are dead in a much-anticipated attack.

The much-feared possibility became reality yesterday, with a terrorist attack both marring an already-chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and threatening to draw us back into a conflict we’re so desperately trying to escape after almost two decades.

WSJ (“Kabul Airport Attack Kills 13 U.S. Service Members, at Least 90 Afghans“):

More than 100 people were killed, including at least 13 U.S. service members and 90 Afghans, at the Kabul airport Thursday when two blasts ripped through crowds trying to enter the American-controlled facility, disrupting the final push of the U.S.-led evacuation effort.

A suicide bomb attack at the airport’s Abbey Gate was followed by an assault by gunmen, officials said. Another bomb attack took place nearby, at a hotel outside the airport, officials said. Eighteen U.S. service members were injured, the Pentagon said.

The attack marked the deadliest day for the U.S. military in Afghanistan since 2011, and came just five days before the Biden administration’s deadline for the complete military withdrawal from the country. The military expects more attacks, Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters.

The internal politics of this, as a reminder, are rather complicated:

U.S. officials attributed the violence to Islamic State’s regional offshoot. Islamic State claimed responsibility in a report posted by its Amaq news agency.

The Taliban are a sworn enemy of Islamic State, and shot dead one of the group’s top leaders in Afghanistan hours after taking over the Kabul prison where he was held. The two Islamist groups have fought each other in Afghanistan since 2015, particularly in the eastern part of the country. As recently as Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman told Iranian state media that Islamic State no longer existed in Afghanistan.

“We strongly condemn this gruesome incident and will take every step to bring the culprits to justice,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.

The enemy of our enemy, in this case, is very much not our friend. Regardless, the evacuation mission must go on:

In the wake of the violence, Gen. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters the U.S. planned to continue with its evacuation of U.S. citizens and allied Afghans.

Since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban took Kabul and effectively solidified their control of Afghanistan, the U.S. has evacuated about 100,000 people, the White House said Thursday. Gen. McKenzie said the U.S. estimates that around 1,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan.

Gen. McKenzie said the U.S. would continue to coordinate with the Taliban on security outside the airport gates, sometimes sharing information with the militant group. He said the group’s fighters had been searching individuals en route the airport, and that he didn’t know how a suicide bomber was able to get through Taliban checkpoints, acknowledging a “failure” somewhere.

“If we can find who is associated with this, we will go after them,” Gen. McKenzie said.

This was the inevitable reaction of his commander-in-chief as well. WaPo (“Biden struggles to address the most volatile crisis of his presidency“):

President Biden on Thursday confronted the most volatile crisis of his young presidency, the deaths of at least 13 Americans in Afghanistan that threatened to undermine his credentials as a seasoned global leader and a steady hand.

In emotional comments at the White House, Biden made clear that the attack would not cause him to rethink his strategy. Rather, he said, it reinforced his belief that the war must end and that the evacuation must proceed. He framed the deaths as the sacrifice of heroes performing a noble mission, and he suggested that any move to cut short the evacuation of Americans and their Afghan supporters would amount to caving to the terrorists.

“I bear responsibility for, fundamentally, all that has happened,” Biden said, addressing the nation hours after the deadly attack. His voice broke as he invoked Scripture, history and personal loss to decry the double suicide bombing at the entrance to the Kabul airport, which stands as the last small acreage controlled by the United States in Afghanistan nearly 20 years after the war began.

Biden promised to track down the killers responsible for the massacre, who he suggested were members of the terrorist group ISIS-K. “To those who carried out this attack: We will not forgive,” he said. “We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

This promise was not only expected but obligatory. Any US President would do the same and any who didn’t would be immediately condemned by public opinion. Indeed, even some Democrats are criticizing him for getting us to this point. But vowing to hunt down terrorists and make them pay is what got us here to begin with.

The President, rightly I think, has signaled that the response will come at a time of our choosing rather than being rushed to give the appearance of toughness. But he faces a public both impatient to get out of the conflict and angry at this attack.

His team is reportedly quite shaken that this attack took place despite significant advance warning that it was coming. They should certainly work to figure out what went wrong. But, as I was discussing with students—themselves mostly mid-grade military officers—this morning, the goals of rapidly evacuating as many Afghan civilians as possible, ensuring that no terrorists infiltrate the group (only to be evacuated on US military aircraft to a US military base), and security at the airport are mutually incompatible.

The President called those Marines who died in the attack “heroes.’ While that label is applied so liberally as to be hackneyed, I think it appropriate in this case. They willingly put their lives at risk—fully cognizant that this very attack was a distinct possibility—in order to help evacuate noncombatants to safety. That’s the highest calling of a Marine and the very definition of heroism.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Joe Biden, Terrorism
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. Lounsbury says:

    One should keep in mind the maxim, no permanent friends, only permanent interests (or to paraphrase Lord Palmerston saying, no eternal allies, no perpetual enemies – perpetual interests…)

    The Talebans have an interest in hunting down the DAESH, and division amongst them as a jihadist groupement is of long-term interest.

    The US rather made a long-term blunder in 2001 in black-and-white thinking with respect to Taleban factions (and as well Iranian associated Shiite factions). Perhaps you can start to lose that habit.

    Perhaps this all though will put paid to the escalating expansion of the number and breadth of Afghans you are supposed to evacuate.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    In the Open Forum I linked to a piece by Adam Silverman at LGM on the bombing and IS-K. Seemed appropriate to repeat the link here.

    The window of opportunity for today’s attack has two roots. The first is that large numbers of Afghans are constantly approaching Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul attempting to get into the airport in order that the US can get them out. The second is that Islamic State Khorasan’s leadership, like that of Islamic State proper, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and all of our non-state and state adversaries actually watch our broadcast and cable news and read our newspapers. They’ve seen the slanted reporting in every major US newspaper and on every US news channel about what President Biden is or is not doing and should or should not be doing. They’ve seen every tweet and quote from every Republican elected official, think tank denizen, and pundit delineating everything the Biden administration is doing wrong and calling for more US military personnel to be sent to Afghanistan, an indefinite extension to the Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation, and in some cases a complete repudiation and abrogation of the deal the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban. Today’s attack was directly intended to take advantage of both of these realities. The physical one – all the Afghans attempting to get to the airport in Kabul – and the informational/psychological ones resulting from the execrable and irresponsible news media reporting and the politicization of the withdrawal by both Republican officials and an entire ecosystem of people who have gained fame and fortune solely by commenting about the war.

    Silverman takes a fairly deep dive into IS-K and their relationship to the Taliban. The enemy of our enemy is definitely not our friend if their interest is inflaming the conflict to harm us as well as our Taliban enemy. The Taliban want us out, we want out, IS-K wants to provoke us into staying.

    Their goal, as Silverman explains, is to destroy the “grey zone” in which Muslims live their lives in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. In this, our Republicans are IS-K’s friends.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    First US troops in Afghanistan in the past 15 years that died doing something worthwhile — helping people get to freedom.

    I’m not sure they were heroes, as they were blindsided while doing other work, not doing anything particularly heroic that everyone else wasn’t, but their lives weren’t squandered on what was clearly going to be nothing lasting. I hope that brings their families a bit of peace.

    I feel worse for those whose lives were squandered — those who died maintaining an occupation that everyone knew was doomed to fail, just because no one knows how to end a war.

    None of this changes the big picture — we need to leave Afghanistan, and help as many of our friends leave as we can.

    And if Senator Hawley thinks that this is reason to call on Biden to resign, he should be beaten to death and his remains scattered in a field for vultures and other carrion eaters.

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  4. Lounsbury says:

    @Gustopher: Blindsided is hardly the word mate. There were warnings of precisely this sort of attack and they were nevertheless on the line trying to achieve some modicum of a secure result between contradictory objectives that anyone rational would see was elevating risk (and they doubtless could see ergo…). That is reasonably heroic for its modern usage meaning reasonably stiff-spined and brave.

    @gVOR08: DAISH – athough I suppose here it’s DAIK[*] Afghani which sounds like a kind of turkey (which then is quite amusing dialectal word play…) – indeed wants to achieve a kind of apocalyptic black-and-white relationship (really quite un Islamic as per traditional theology, but..).

    [*dawla islamiyya fi khorasan]

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  5. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:
    Silverman’s piece is well worth reading.
    However, he omits the widely known connections between the Haqqani Network and ISIS-K.
    And the Haqqanis are in turn part of the Taliban alliance.

    As in almost all these cases, these groups are fluid, overlapping, fuzzily bounded, and made up of multiple factions that often shift between alliance, cooperation, co-existence, competition and enmity. It’s a recurrent theme.
    And there are allies of convenience and enemies of convenience.

    Jihadi stew.

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  6. Lounsbury says:

    @gVOR08: it is worth noting a clarification as the way this Silverman has written could give the impression tawhid is a particularly Saudi thing.
    ** “The Saudi concept of tawheed, the radical unity of the Deity.”

    Tawhid is very fundamental to Islam even if traditional beliefs sometimes make it fuzzy (indeed quite fuzzy but such is traditional religion regardless of which Abrahamic flavour one has), but by the book, but I think this is really meaning “the Saudi [Wahhabi] version of tawheed”

    The later text semi-clarifies this but he continues to use the word tawhid in a funny fashion from my perspective – meaning the radical Wahhabite derived idea – which is not the sense I as an Arabic speaker would take away out of context.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    The President called those Marines who died in the attack “heroes.’ While that label is applied so liberally as to be hackneyed, I think it appropriate in this case. They willingly put their lives at risk—fully cognizant that this very attack was a distinct possibility—in order to help evacuate noncombatants to safety. That’s the highest calling of a Marine and the very definition of heroism.

    If risking your life to help the vulnerable isn’t heroism I don’t know what is.

    I was very pleased with Joe Biden’s speech and press conference. I’m liking him more and more. He’s real.

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  8. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:
    “…Talebans have an interest in hunting down the DAESH”
    Do they indeed?
    Certainly the ISI would like to put them down as too dangerous to tolerate (hardly on ethical grounds, given their fondness for Lashkar-e-Taiba )
    But elements within the Taliban alliance have worked with members of ISIS-K before.
    And probably would again, if it were convenient.
    Though as Silverman indicates, Deobandi South Asians and Arab Wahhabi Salafi’s are unlikely to see eye to eye.

    Incidentally:

    Perhaps this all though will put paid to the escalating expansion of the number and breadth of Afghans you are supposed to evacuate.

    Is this supposed to be a benefit?

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Lounsbury:
    We are neither subtle enough nor brutal enough to be competent occupiers.

    And we are far too 21st century in our military doctrines, training and equipment to be training largely illiterate soldiers meant to form the army of a nation of 37 million which, absent American dollars, can’t afford the proverbial pot to piss in. Calling in an air strike from a 60 million dollar jet firing a seventy thousand dollar missile is not a viable approach.

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  10. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    His speeches are good.
    His underlying policies, also.

    A policy of leaving Afghanistan certainly defensible.

    Abiding by Trump’s Doha debacle, arguable, given the possible consequences of revocation.

    Abandoning Bagram, being forced to dance to the Taliban’s tune, lack of consultation with allies, and failing to initiate evacuation earlier, a massive miscalculation.
    For which he deserves at least a share of the blame that will come his way.

    Except that coming from hypocritical Republicans, who were just fine with Doha which led to this. (Withdrawal ≠ Doha terms)

    (Were I American, I’d still vote for him every day and twice on a Sunday)

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  11. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: Yes, it is a benefit, given the utterly stupid expansion of numbers to hundreds of thousands.

    The DAIK represent a threat to the core Taken and interest. This their executing DAIK leaders without fuss or bother.

    Takfiri ideology, much better word than Silverman peculiar use of Rashid, is rather evidently however not Arab as Arab, it is free floating ethnically

    @Michael Reynolds: Relearning old imperial lessons.

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  12. Mikey says:

    @JohnSF:

    Abandoning Bagram

    It would have taken a lot of American troops to hold Bagram, which is nearly 70 km from Kabul along routes it would have been well-nigh impossible to defend against many attacks of the sort we saw yesterday. It would be riddled with IEDs.

    Trump’s shit deal with the Taliban left Biden with options ranging from bad to worse. I’d say it’s too early at this point to judge how divergent what he should have done is from what he actually did.

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  13. JohnSF says:

    utterly stupid expansion of numbers to hundreds of thousands.

    Why is that stupid, in principle?
    In practical terms unachievable, especially if given Aug 31 termination.
    But why is it a benefit?

    Taliban have executed IS-K/Daesh-K readily enough, certainly.
    Some of them have also, from time to time, co-operated with them.
    And would again, given the right conditions.
    I suspect just now the Talib real objection to IS is the same as that to any who dispute their rule: can’t they see tha Taliban are a wonderful thing?

    Certainly some Talibs are outraged by some IS denouncing them as failing to be true Muslims.
    Which is ironic, given their record of condemning other Afghans on similar grounds.

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  14. Kathy says:

    All I know for sure is this would be a good time to fund Dr. Brown’s Flux Capacitor research.

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  15. JohnSF says:

    @Mikey:
    Helicopters.

    Though in fact Bagram would not have been ideal for civilian flights.
    Holding Bagram might have delayed the fall of Kabul.

    If it had not, then it would enable the positioning of a credible, less vulnerable temporary base.

    It would have taken a lot of American troops to hold Bagram

    Arguable. Bagram is clear enough of urban crowding, and big enough internally, to enable the use of firepower that cannot be used in Kabul without a lot of dead civilians.

    It would be riddled with IEDs

    Well, currently the Taliban are saying they aren’t the nasty guys who blow up civilians.
    Perhaps they’d keep IS-K in check. Very grim LOL.

    And escalation is not necessarily a one sided affair.

    True, Trump’s characteristically incompetent approach to witdrawal left Biden in a poor situation.
    But the Bagram bug-out was still mistake, and obviously so.
    It’s the main reason why the British military and key (non-idiot) MP’s of both parties were (and are) so furious.

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  16. Michael Cain says:

    The President, rightly I think, has signaled that the response will come at a time of our choosing rather than being rushed to give the appearance of toughness. But he faces a public both impatient to get out of the conflict and angry at this attack.

    In short, Afghanistan is not sovereign territory and we will conduct military operations there whenever we see fit?

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  17. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I will agree. That said, he is going to have to respond to this in a material way at some point, ideally soon enough to avoid the optics of looking like he was forced into something he otherwise didn’t want to do by bad coverage. Platitudes are good, and I have no doubt they were heartfelt, but they remain just words. The electorate wants blood. I think it’s fair to say his presidency depends on it. It won’t survive a non-response.

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  18. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Calling in an air strike from a 60 million dollar jet firing a seventy thousand dollar missile is not a
    viable approach.

    Actually, air power substituting for heavy ground forces (armour, artillery) has its merits in this sort of situation. If not cutting edge fighters.
    One longer term plan was to transition to the Afghan Air Force using prop attack planes (Tucanos, Hawkers), transports and helicopters for support and fast, light Afghan Special Forces (who, incidentally, are still fighting in the Panjshir)

    It was the air orientation of the Afghan forces that meant that Trump’s Doha deal was a military as well as political catastrophe. It would have required time for the Afghan military to switch stance to a non-air dependent system.
    Their collapse was no mystery: it was predictable and predicted.

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  19. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    Same with any “sovereign” territory.
    Provoke a Power at your peril.

    Always has been the case, always will be.

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  20. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: I am entirely uninterested in abstract magical principles or other abstractions, but one of cold hard logistics. You can fan wank scenarios for exits to your heart’s delight, have at it.

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  21. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Mikey:

    I’d say it’s too early at this point to judge how divergent what he should have done is from what he actually did.

    I hear many people saying he should of done it diferently…no real, concrete, suggestions of how he could have. Vague words…safer, more competently, blah, blah. Kind of tiring, actually.
    Most of the GOP, if you listen, is simply saying that the only safe way to get out is to stay there forever.

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  22. Joe says:

    One should keep in mind the maxim, no permanent friends, only permanent interests (or to paraphrase Lord Palmerston saying, no eternal allies, no perpetual enemies – perpetual interests…)

    Lounsbury, meet JohnSF.

    Taliban have executed IS-K/Daesh-K readily enough, certainly. Some of them have also, from time to time, co-operated with them. And would again, given the right conditions.

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  23. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: 20 years on a plan… Rather of the quality of plans to colonise the moon really. All kinds of science fiction plans exist. Reynolds is quite right, The usA & NATO built a force 100 percent unsustainable for Afghanistan riddled from A to Z with inappropriateness. All actions since not handing over Afghanistan to a Loya Jirga and allowing the Afghans to make their own results have just been delaying the inevitable end.

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  24. Lounsbury says:

    @Joe: Yes and? You seem to be under the misapprehension there is a contradiction.

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  25. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:
    Well, I’m all for logistic realities.
    Which is why I said I practical terms unachievable,

    If you think that considering the implications of alternative times or capacity levels in scenarios is just wankery, assuming that a policy must be adhered to at all costs has problems as well.

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  26. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:
    It was, of course, unsustainable if the US/NATO pulled the plug.
    If otherwise, otherwise.

    My point has been that sudden termination was bound to result in prompt military/political collapse.
    To have a shadow of a chance, militarily, the Afghan regime needed at least a couple of years to pull out of unviable bases in most Ghilzai and Durrani territory, switch their operational model and logistics, set up new information systems, substitute artillery for air power around key points, etc etc.

    They were not given that time.

    Of course, even if they had, the result might have been similar, given the delusions of Ghani, the incompetence of Afghan Army leaders, the corruption and the “state capture” by local elites.
    And the difficulties of the required negotiated settlement.
    Politics was always likely to be more important than military power in the longer term.
    (I actually agree with you that a Loya Jirga and compromise settlement in 2003 or 2011 would have been the better course)

    But Trump’s route offered no chance whatsoever.

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  27. Joe says:

    @Lounsbury:
    No, I see no contradiction at all. I am underscoring that you are both making the same point about allies vs. interests, although it seems to be cast a little more nefariously with regard to the Taliban.

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  28. Lounsbury says:

    @JohnSF: Yes, that is the very bloody definition of unsustainable, for however many Friedman Units you want to for turning the corner, always another few Friedman Units for people to pointlessly die for.

    “They were not given that time” is a statement so absurd twenty years into the endeavour that it’s almost entertaining.

    No amount of time would ever make the Potemkin regime of the foreigners sustainable.

    When one has buggered up the cement for the foundation, no amount of post-facto ad hoc fixes changes the fact the foundation is buggered and the whole thing is coming down.

    Another couple years, another couple of surges would never change the foundations of the Potemkin regime being completely and utterly buggered up by the hubris of the Bush ibn Bush choices in 2001.

    @Joe: Very good then, although the calculation for the Talebans relative to DAIK rather changes with the foreigners one, their unifying common interest being principally killing the foreign kufar. Now… well now the internal contradictions are cast in relief and now the Talebans are the kufar (well really everyone not part of the club for the dear takfiri loons).

    The Dear Foreigners (that is us) have been a lovely cement to hold together the various contradictory factions in very good and old Afghan national tradition (as it being their sole and unique national tradition as Nation in our European usage).

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  29. Gustopher says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    The electorate wants blood. I think it’s fair to say his presidency depends on it. It won’t survive a non-response.

    What does that even mean? Ain’t nobody going to impeach him and remove him from office.

    Trump’s presidency survived far worse than not blowing up brown people fast enough for the bloodthirsty mobs with the attention span of a gnat.

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  30. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    I can guarantee one thing. If the GOP takes back the House, Senate, or both, in 2022, they will conduct like two million committee investigations on this incident at Benghazi, I mean “Kabul”.

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  31. mattbernius says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Friedman Units

    I have never seen that phrase before and I LOVE it!

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  32. dazedandconfused says:

    In violence it’s almost always a street thang, and in street thangs, Occum’s Razor is usually the best instrument.

    ISIL, unless they got permission from the Taliban, is calling the Taliban out in a specific way. “Who da baddest? We da baddest!” Probably scrounged up a couple disgruntled ex-inmates of Bagram to pull it off., which would preclude a direct attack on the Talibs. Such men would only be eager to blow themselves up if they can take Americans and/or Brits with them. More than that, ISIL knows it’s recruiting base is the young men who admire brutality.

    I can’t agree with Silverman’s guess this was intended to get the US back in. The most logical to-be-expected outcome would be us locking the airport gates and getting out even sooner.

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  33. Gustopher says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Blindsided is hardly the word mate. There were warnings of precisely this sort of attack and they were nevertheless on the line trying to achieve some modicum of a secure result between contradictory objectives that anyone rational would see was elevating risk (and they doubtless could see ergo…). That is reasonably heroic for its modern usage meaning reasonably stiff-spined and brave.

    Individually blindsided. One minute, you’re doing your job, the next instant someone near you explodes. Is that heroism? I’d call it bad luck that it happened on their duty shift rather than the next.

    They’re no more heroic than the soldiers who were there before they came on duty today — they faced the same risks. And it’s not like they had a choice to call in sick that day.

    They’re no more heroic that the soldiers going out day after day for the past 15 years when it was clear the occupation was failing and doing nothing lasting. They signed up to put their lives on the line for this country, and for what this country’s leadership declared to be in the national interest.

    I think “heroic” gets used a bit too cheaply, or not enough. Either all the soldiers are heroes, whether they get killed or not, or the word should be reserved for those who take an active role outside of that they are expected to do.

    If you’re going to die in the military, dying to help rescue people is a better, and more meaningful death than dying to prop up a failing client government for one more day. But it’s not more heroic.

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  34. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: If the GOPs take back the House in 2022 they will impeach Biden and they’ll make up whatever BS charges they feel like at the time. And if the Senate doesn’t convict they’ll do it again. And we all know it.

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  35. gVOR08 says:

    @dazedandconfused: Sorry, I think Silverman made a fair case. As he said, ISIS follows our news. They know Biden is taking a lot of heat politically. They see the supposedly liberal MSM piling on right along with the RW Wurlitzer. They know the Blob and the military want to stay in Afghanistan and have a long history of manipulating presidents. Scott Lemieux at LGM looks at GOPs suddenly disavowing Doha and claiming Trump would have stayed in,

    Watching Republicans who pretended to be in favor of ending the intervention under Trump turn the second they had any excuse should make it clear that there’s zero chance Trump would have been able to withstand the pressure from the Blob that would have started as soon as the final withdrawal began. Favoring ending wars in the abstract and doing the difficult business of actually ending them are very different issues, and everything about his history suggests Trump would have folded like an Atlantic City contractor the second cable news started beating the drums.

    IS sees all this and probably figured it was worth expending one suicide bomber on the chance Biden would fold under the pressure and stay. And they have more suicide bombers.

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  36. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:
    For the severalth time:
    The “twenty years” spent on the previous strategy is unfortunate, but beside the point.

    For the Afghan army, and hence any elements of the former regime to have survived, required pulling it’s units out of untenable positions in areas beyond the capacity of Kabul to rule.

    Those positions were based upon air support, air transport, and largely air based observation.
    Absent those things, their garrisons and outposts were frequently not just untenable but suicidal.
    And the army mobile striking units lost their means of finding targets, movement and firepower.
    The Doha agreement removed all that.

    Very few armies could have adapted the need for a fundamental change in the way they operate, while in combat conditions, in less than a couple of years.

    The Afghanistan project may or may not have been unachievable as it had developed.
    I think a unitary Afghanistan was a mirage; and the political context never really addressed.

    But I’ll keep on repeating: whatever else may be the case politically, Doha, if implemented, was a non-survivable event for the regime.

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  37. dazedandconfused says:

    @gVOR08:

    If they follow the news they know the vast majority of the US public supports complete withdrawal, and the heat is only political gamesmanship seeking to cast Biden as incompetent. They just wanted to get the last hit in so they could claim responsibility for the victory, which currently rests with the Taliban.

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  38. steve says:

    Every plan I have seen suggested that would “work” to get us out of Afghanistan without any kind of catastrophe seems to assume a competent government leadership that would be willing and able to put their careers and maybe even their own lives at risk at some point in order to get us out safely. IOW, making the assumption that all of our attempts to turn the Afghan government into a competent entity would have worked if we had just stayed longer, spent more money or tried harder. I am just not seeing that.

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  39. Andy says:

    I think things have become much clearer as to how we got here.

    All our withdrawal plans rested on the assumption that the Afghan government and military would hold, which rested on the assumption that the Afghan military would fight for its “nation,” which rested on the assumption that the ANA was, in fact, an Afghan National Army that served the Afghan people and government. All those assumptions were wrong, particularly the last.

    Any military force has a will – a political will to be the instrument of organized violence in service of a political community and government. An army with no will collapses. I discussed this and the Clauswitz trinity in a previous comment here that goes into more detail.

    I’m now fairly convinced that the ANA was, from a Clausewitzian perspective, an American army and not an Afghan army. It was, in effect, the functional equivalent of a colonial army that was cosplaying as a national Afghan army. The ANA’s will flowed not from the people and government of Afghanistan, but from America. And when we abandoned that army, it lost its political will and collapse was inevitable.

    You can see it in this NYT Op-ed from an Afghan general. Note how he describes how he and his army lost the will to fight:

    It’s true that the Afghan Army lost its will to fight. But that’s because of the growing sense of abandonment by our American partners and the disrespect and disloyalty reflected in Mr. Biden’s tone and words over the past few months. The Afghan Army is not without blame. It had its problems — cronyism, bureaucracy — but we ultimately stopped fighting because our partners already had.

    It’s clear that the US was the master of the ANA and not the Afghan government. This explains why the ANA, for all its defects, fought and fought hard in recent years and then immediately collapsed after we left. They were our army and they fought for us. We were their mother and when their mother abandoned them, they lost all hope.

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  40. gVOR08 says:

    @Andy: I’ve seen no reporting on what commitments we had to continuing aid to Afghanistan. The Afghan Army may have lost their “mother”. Did they also, and more to the point, lose their paymaster?

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  41. dazedandconfused says:

    @Andy:

    Here’s an alternate way to describe it: The Afghan government never took ownership of that army, instead they lined their own pockets with the money we gave them for it, and pretty much for everything, including failing to issue paychecks. The Afghan Army naturally viewed the US as the only reliable partner.

    One of the precepts of COIN is there must be a government worth supporting.

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  42. Ken_L says:

    I remain nonplussed that there are people who think a million Afghans, many in key government posts, could calmly have boarded flights out of Afghanistan in June and July, along with all American civilians, many providing support to the Afghan military, while the country continued to have a functioning government and army. But that is apparently what many Trump Republicans would have us believe.

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  43. Ken_L says:

    @Andy: I think it’s more a case that any plan for an orderly withdrawal necessarily depended on the the Afghan government and military holding. Absent that, a chaotic crisis was unavoidable. And whether they did was entirely out of America’s hands.

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  44. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    If you’re going to die in the military, dying to help rescue people is a better, and more meaningful death than dying to prop up a failing client government for one more day. But it’s not more heroic.

    There are various levels of heroism in the armed forces. You don’t get valor medals for simply going out on patrol and risking being killed by enemy gunfire, landmines, IEDs, etc. Taking on generalized risk is the job. This was a more discrete: they knew the airport and, in particular the security checkpoints, were a near-term terrorist target with a very narrow deadline.

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  45. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    The Afghan Army may have lost their “mother”. Did they also, and more to the point, lose their paymaster?

    I don’t think we have any way of knowing what percentage of the ANA were believers in a democratic-ish Afghanistan free from Taliban rule versus simply in it for the paycheck. Hell, that’s true of our own armed forces. But they were dying in rather steep numbers compared to us, especially in recent years. And we built the force around American airpower and sustainment. It simply wasn’t built to survive long term without us so long as the Taliban were as powerful as they are.

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  46. Lounsbury says:

    @Andy: @dazedandconfused: To pose observations from the point of departure of an Afghan national goverment – with an understanding of National Government rooted in developed nation-states – is of course a point of error. The American’s Potemkin village regime was not a nation-state government, it was a colonial collabo government, whose set-up and framing was to please the US and to some extent NATO, not something organic to Afghanistan or a non-existant Afghan nation in the sense developed countries populations understand their national identity (identities themselves which are recent creations of the 19th century).

    The formulation of Andy, a colonial army, is really spot on. A colonial government and a colonial army, not a Afghan-nation-state and army, colonial appendages built but without the clarity of mind on the part of the Americans/NATO that this is in fact what they had built.

    And collossally and irretrievably flawed for a national space whose sole unifying nation reference has been since the 19th century opposition to the foreigners…

    @JohnSF:
    No it is not “besides the point” – we are in the real world not the world of academic abstractions and in the real cold world of facts, twenty years has gone by and the wrong foundations were poured. Another plan to gain time, another set of Friedman Units to turn the corner are mere self-deception to avoid the pain of the inevitable.

    Banging on about ‘plans’ for Afghan air force and other science fiction nonsense is an engagement in self-deception.

    The Doha accords really only brutally made apparent that the building foundation of the Potemkin village façade that was the Afghan government was done with inappropriate concrete. No etra Friedman Units, no hand-waiving plans to gain more time change that. Of course the Doha agreement damned the entire affaire to a messy end but that’s just a modest acceleration of the denouement.

    @Ken_L: Well of course and if one is pulling out all the Collabos of the very Collabo regime that is supposed to hold the line, you’re engaging in pure fantasy to imagine that it does not collapse and any such effort merely advances the timeframe. (so indeed, indeed…@Ken_L🙂

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  47. liberal capitalist says:

    @JohnSF:

    (Were I American, I’d still vote for him every day and twice on a Sunday)

    Many of the GOP would say that you and other non-Americans have done exactly that. Sadly, they can’t accept the fact that their fuhrer lost.

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  48. liberal capitalist says:

    @Michael Cain:

    In short, Afghanistan is not sovereign territory and we will conduct military operations there whenever we see fit?

    With our firepower, apparently the answer is: yes.

    Afghanistan: US says drone strike killed IS-K planner

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  49. Andy says:

    @gVOR08:

    I don’t know about that except that at a few points over the last 20 years, foreign aid, including military aid, was almost half of Afghanistan’s GDP. I have no idea what happened with our aid this summer, but it is certain that Afghanistan could not financially support the ANA without significant US assistance.

    @dazedandconfused:

    That’s a pretty succinct way to put it.

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  50. JohnSF says:

    @Lounsbury:

    “that’s just a modest acceleration of the denouement. “

    In your opinion.
    Inevitability is a judgement often made after the fact.
    Contingency is more often the reality.
    The patient dies, the patient lives; the car crash is fatal, the crash is survived : inevitable, or contingent?

    “non-existant Afghan nation” and ” whose sole unifying nation reference”

    Make up your mind.

    Collabos

    Why do you use this term, I wonder.

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  51. Andy says:

    @Ken_L:

    I remain nonplussed that there are people who think a million Afghans, many in key government posts, could calmly have boarded flights out of Afghanistan in June and July, along with all American civilians, many providing support to the Afghan military, while the country continued to have a functioning government and army. But that is apparently what many Trump Republicans would have us believe.

    I categorically reject that this is a partisan issue or a partisan view. The SIV program from its inception in 2009 until this summer resulted in the immigration of a grand total of about 15,000 Afghans over that 12-year span. Contrast that with the 20k we flew out in a single day earlier this week.

    It’s been well known for many years among those who follow these things, which occasionally makes it into press reporting, that the SIV program was hampered by bureaucratic and political neglect, incompetence, and cowardice that spanned the last three administrations. The argument that we couldn’t have done more to get Afghans out of the country before mid-August 2021 is completely without merit.

    I think it’s more a case that any plan for an orderly withdrawal necessarily depended on the the Afghan government and military holding. Absent that, a chaotic crisis was unavoidable. And whether they did was entirely out of America’s hands.

    Our withdrawal planning and execution would have been fundamentally different with different (ie. more realistic) planning assumptions. So no, it is not the case that “any” plan for an orderly withdrawal depended on the Afghan government and military holding. We certainly would not have done what we did had our political and military leaders understood the actual situation.

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  52. JohnSF says:

    @Andy:
    This is a really puzzling aspect.
    Even reports in the public domain (House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence; Royal United Services Institute)
    From 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.

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

    And I have spoken to several persons in a position to know who state that it was known at least in Land Command HQ and Army Air Corps that very urgent warnings about the situation were being passed up the line.
    It seems though, that both in the UK and the US, such reports were either not being bluntly delivered at the most senior levels, or being set aside for some reason.
    Something went seriously amiss here: that, I think, accounts for the furious response to this debacle of MP’s with military connections .

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  53. Andy says:

    @JohnSF:

    I agree it’s very puzzling, to put it mildly.

    I haven’t followed the tactical events in Afghanistan for many years, but after going back and looking at the open-source reporting since April, it was pretty obvious the ANA and government weren’t holding at all. This could not have gone unnoticed by our government. How and why that never affected plans or policy is something that will be determined by formal investigations.

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  54. dazedandconfused says:

    @Lounsbury:
    I don’t agree with the analysis that our involvement in Afghanistan is colonial ambition. When describing the history of the conflict one must weave 9/11 in there somewhere, and in building a case for colonialism there should be some sort if profit demonstrated to fill out the motive aspect.

    We were there because we are terrified of terrorism and have imagined the act which sprung from a guest in that place as a collective act of all Muslims. This was primary in the effort to get the US public to support the invasion of Iraq, and sadly, it worked very well.

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  55. Andy says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    I don’t agree with the analysis that our involvement in Afghanistan is colonial ambition.

    I think there was a disconnect between what we thought and said we were doing vs what we actually did. Yes, we didn’t have colonial ambitions in the sense that we didn’t want or intend for Afghanistan to be a colony. But very many of our actual actions were not different from what a colonial power would do. An Afghan government we exercised veto power over and an Afghan army that was more loyal to the US than its own nation and people are the two biggest examples of this.

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  56. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Andy: Andy, interesting concept that I hadn’t considered—that the Afghan Military psychological COG was the US Military. I would have guessed self preservation.

    Only worked the Afghan problem set for a few years and not even as my primary priority. There is always nuance you miss when not all in on a challenging mission. Thats probably why it ended up as it did. Beyond the people on the ground there…it just wasn’t a priority

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  57. Turgid Jacobian says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    in building a case for colonialism there should be some sort if profit demonstrated to fill out the motive aspect.

    We were there because we are terrified of terrorism

    The resource being exploited was fear, which was refined into votes (for the very serious politicians) and gold (for the same politicians and the MIC).

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  58. dazedandconfused says:

    @Andy:
    I view the situation of their army liking us more than our own government as an unintentional bug, not plan.

    If the word for what GB did in India can be used for what we tried to do in Afghanistan than what does it mean? We colonized Somalia?

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  59. Andy says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    I think it was unintentional as well. And a few years ago I would have (and did) bristle at any suggestion or comparison with colonialism.

    But I haven’t yet been able to come up with a different term for it. But Jim’s use of psychological center of gravity is technically more accurate.

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  60. JohnSF says:

    It’s a matter of the unintended consequences of short-term operational imperatives IMO.

    The Afghan soldiers were not fools: the US was their ultimate paymaster, the US was the main counter to the AA being wrecked by thieves in Kabul or the self-dealing of local politicians/warlords.
    The US was the ultimate guarantor against the return of the Taliban that they well knew that around a third of their countrymen and a neighboring nuclear Power greatly desired.
    Americans provided the fire support and logistic systems they depended on.
    Americans trained them.
    When the US blew up their operational position, and their governments political position, at Doha, and the panicking politicians and generals started looting wholesale, rather than just retail, they naturally decided it was coming to time to SaMOSA (Save My Own Sweet Arse)

    And “colonial” or “imperial” rule often emerges from a chain of contingent events.
    After all, the East India Company never started out by planning on dominating India; they just wanted to make money trading stuff.

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