The Afghan Evacuation Horror Show Continues

We're not getting Afghans---or even American citizens trapped there---out fast enough.

Defense One’s Tara Copp and Marcus Weisgerber reportIt Really Was 800+ Afghans on That Plane. They Forgot to Count the Kids.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 crew that made headlines around the world for its quick decision to pack in as many panicked men, women, and children fleeing the Taliban into their cargo hold as possible flew more than 800 Afghans to safety after all. The original number did not include children.

The total count? Eight hundred and twenty-three, which is the largest evacuation flight a C-17 has ever flown. The original count released by the Air Force was 640 Afghans. 

“This is a record for this aircraft,” Air Mobility Command tweeted Friday. “The initial count of 640 inadvertently included only adults. 183 children were also aboard.” 

Reach 871, a C-17 out of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, was swarmed by Afghans late Sunday night. The plane was empty and the back gate was halfway down when those evacuees began pulling themselves into the plane and then pulling others up behind them. 

That crew faced a choice in that moment: try to force the Afghans off the plane and get them officially manifested and queued up, or allow as many as they can to get on the plane and go. 

They chose to go. 

This is one of a handful of feel-good stories, with news organizations and even private citizens making heroic efforts to get vulnerable people out. And, after getting caught flat-footed, the US military has significantly stepped up the pace of evacuations.

Still, a humanitarian crisis is underway. a running stream from the NYT website:

As the United States tries to ramp up its troubled evacuation in Afghanistan, President Biden is expected on Friday to address the furor over the sluggish process, stymied by mayhem in Kabul and delays in Washington, that threatens to strand thousands of Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban takeover.

[…]

The United States has rushed troops and diplomatic reinforcements to the Kabul airport in recent days to speed up visa processing for Afghans. American commanders are negotiating daily with their Taliban counterparts — the former insurgents they battled for nearly two decades — to ensure that evacuees can reach the airport.

But the reassurances from Washington belie the fear and futility on the ground.

Thousands are waiting fearfully outside the airport gates, where Taliban soldiers have attacked people with sticks and rifle butts. As Afghans clutching travel documents camped outside amid Taliban checkpoints and tangles of concertina wire, anxious crowds were pressed up against blast walls, with women and children being hoisted into the arms of U.S. soldiers on the other side.

Since sweeping into Kabul last weekend, the Taliban have moved swiftly to cement their control over Afghanistan, dispersing protests with force and hunting down opponents despite pledges of amnesty, according to witnesses and a security assessment prepared for the United Nations.

[…]

About 5,200 U.S. troops are securing the airport under the command of Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, a former Navy SEAL who speaks to a Taliban counterpart outside the airport several times a day, said a Pentagon spokesman Troops are also deployed at entrances to the airport, where they assist consular officers in reviewing documents, he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. military had evacuated 7,000 Americans, Afghans and others since Saturday. The effort is well short of the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers a day that the military will be able to fly out once the evacuation is at full throttle, officials said.

“There are tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans literally at the gate,” said Sunil Varghese, the policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project. “This could have been completely avoided if evacuation was part of the military withdrawal.”

A WaPo report (“Chaos persists at Kabul airport, imperiling Afghanistan evacuation effort“) adds:

A chaotic and dangerous dynamic at Kabul’s airport showed few signs of relenting Thursday as thousands of people attempting to board flights faced beatings by Taliban guards, the crush of heaving crowds and interminable spells in the dust and heatwhile waiting to escape Afghanistan.

The daily mayhem at the airport — a fixture since the Taliban takeover Sunday — has stoked criticism that the Biden administration was slow to try to get Americans and their allies out, while underscoring fears about how the militants will rule the country.

Several people said Thursday they had received confusing signals from the United States about how exactly they were supposed to leave, citing emails from the State Department urging them to go the airport, only to find there was no one to receive them or to answer their questions on how to board flights.

The rush to the exits is not unfounded:

Taliban militants are going house to house, setting up checkpoints and threatening to arrest or kill relatives of “collaborators” in major cities, the assessment said.

The document, produced by the Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, a U.N.-linked intelligence support center, and dated Wednesday, describes an empowered Taliban eager to seek out and interrogate or punish those affiliated with the U.S.-backed government.

At particular risk are people who were in central positions in military, police and investigative units, according to the analysis, despite a Taliban pledge this week to grant amnesty to former officials.

The fighters are using the West’s focus on evacuating foreign nationals to “search unrestrained for Afghan targets inside the cities,” the document said. The group is also screening for individuals outside the Kabul airport, the report said.

And, despite heroic efforts to meet the challenge, we’re falling well short:

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. military could be evacuating 5,000 to 9,000 people per day from Afghanistan — as soon as it has that many people approved each day for departure. But in the last 24-hour period, only slightly more than 2,000 people — including almost 300 Americans — made it out of Kabul safely, flying out on 12 C-17 aircraft.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday the department has processed a group of 6,000 people who will soon board planes.

Asked about people being prevented from reaching the airport, he said, “Every report of someone unable for whatever reason to reach the airport is something we take very seriously.”

The logistics of trying to evacuate thousands of people in the midst of violence are daunting enough but they’re being compounded by bureaucratic rigidity. Not only are we just starting to loosen the visa processing rules—and we have nothing like the capacity to process them in a speedy fashion—we were actually adhering to requirements to have refugees sign documents promising to pay the $2000 or so that the evacuation costs. Much of this is, of course, required by law but we’ve been very slow, indeed, in issuing emergency waivers for all of this nonsense.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, National Security, World Politics
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. Stormy Dragon says:

    Much of this is, of course, required by law but we’ve been very slow, indeed, in issuing emergency waivers for all of this nonsense.

    It’s not required by law:

    https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/humanitarian-or-significant-public-benefit-parole-for-individuals-outside-the-united-states

    Biden has the power to end this whenever he feels like it. Blaming the law is just an excuse to avoid criticism for an intentional policy.

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  2. Cheryl Rofer says:

    It’s hard to evaluate something like this as it’s happening. Incurious journos are mostly quoting their friends, otherwise referred to as anonymous sources, so we have no way of evaluating the source’s biases, all of which are coming out now. There’s a lot that we don’t see behind the scenes, and those incurious journos don’t even seem to be aware of that possibility. I see numbers that are increasing fast – like doubling in a few days – but I don’t know that they’re any more reliable, except for the clue that they’re not all over the coverage.

    And what were the expectations? That withdrawal from a messy war, with the Taliban poised to advance, could be like international entry at Dulles?

    So I’ll wait a few days or a month to declare this a success or not.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: If we have to wait for all of the information to come in, we essentially can’t have conversations about current events—which is the purpose of this forum. Hell, historians are still debating the causes of World War I.

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  4. @James Joyner:

    Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration, James? There’s plenty of space between reserving judgment for a few days and arguing for Friedman units.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    I’m trying to mentally list withdrawals of defeated armies from friendly territory:
    – the US from Saigon – of course
    – Stillwell from China
    – The Japanese from Saipan and Okinawa
    – the Wehrmacht from East Prussia
    – the British and remnants of the French army from Dunkirk
    – the Russians caught up in Barbarossa
    – anybody???
    As bad as this is, in comparison this is going well.

    Why is it no worse than it is? Credit where due, the TFG and Pompeo, who wrote the Doha Agreement. The Great Negotiator gave the Taliban everything they wanted. I think they got his lunch money. They don’t have much incentive to not let us leave. And Biden has the good sense to let the deal stand.

    There’s a story the Taliban have been asking where the National Bank’s assets are. Surprised to find, instead of pallets-o-cash, the reserve is 9 billion dollars in 1s and 0s in the possession of the US Fed. Good hostage.

    For Kathy, 800 people, many women and children, with minimal luggage would probably be less than 160,000 lb. The c-17 is rated for 170,900 per WIKI. Modern cargo planes can lift pretty much anything realistic you can stuff into them. Hence the Guppy and Super Guppy to make them roomier. I’m not sure where they went, I’d guess the Emirates, which is a thousand miles, so they may have had a light fuel load.

    Meanwhile, the supposedly liberal MSM are following their usual rules: if it bleeds, it leads, and take every opportunity to criticize a D so people won’t accuse them of being biased against Rs. And on top of the Big Lie we can already see a Dolchstosslegende being built about how Trump had the Taliban in the palm of his hand but Old Sleepy Joe let them off.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    What’s a better example of evacuating people after losing a war? This is a shit show, sure, but it’s better than Vietnam.

    Did the Russians do a better job when they were leaving Afghanistan?

    What’s the metric we are using here? I don’t want to set a preposterously low bar, but… I can’t think of a good withdrawal and evacuation anywhere by anyone.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    @Gustopher: and @gVOR08 Made the point better than me while I was distracted by my cat. But, I got to pet a cat, so I win anyway.

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  8. Kathy says:

    @gVOR08:

    I wasn’t going to bring that up. It’s still short of the record set by El Al taking refugees from Ethiopia, at 1,088 in a single cargo 747.

    It’s not a matter of weight when transporting people, as it is of safety. Things like injuries in turbulence because there aren’t enough seats with seatbelts, or deaths if an evacuation after landing, or ditching at sea, becomes necessary. Weighed against staying at a hostile area, these concerns take second place.

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    People who decide that a given event is the worst ever are generally ignorant of history. People who think a given event is the worst possible outcome lack imagination.

    This is a fuck up. But as terrible as it is for some of the individuals it’s a sideshow and will be forgotten six weeks from now.

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  10. Mikey says:

    Here is an excellent piece on the long history that has led us to this point. The author is Sarah Hayes, who reported from Afghanistan in 2001, then lived in Kandahar for a decade–she speaks Pashtu–and subsequently advised senior military commanders and the CJCS.

    The Ides of August

    I and too many other people to count spent years of our lives trying to convince U.S. decision-makers that Afghans could not be expected to take risks on behalf of a government that was as hostile to their interests as the Taliban were. Note: it took me a while, and plenty of my own mistakes, to come to that realization. But I did.

    For two decades, American leadership on the ground and in Washington proved unable to take in this simple message. I finally stopped trying to get it across when, in 2011, an interagency process reached the decision that the U.S. would not address corruption in Afghanistan. It was now explicit policy to ignore one of the two factors that would determine the fate of all our efforts. That’s when I knew today was inevitable.

    There is a lot more at the link.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @David Schuler: Oh, that’s fair. There’s good reason to believe that advice to prepare for this evacuation was roundly ignored for political reasons. But it’s also true that we seem to have stepped up the game in relatively short order. A fair assessment is surely easier to make in a few weeks’ time but, again, that’s not current events discussion.

    @Michael Reynolds: I definitely agree that this won’t be a factor in 2022, much less 2024.

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  12. scott says:

    @Mikey: I read that yesterday. Combined with other reports that are not American focused navel gazing, you realize that, in many ways, the Taliban are the legitimate governing agency in the eyes of many Afghans. The government we were propping up was so corrupt, so inept, that no one was going to defend it, not even its Army. Like Vietnam, we never attempted to understand the country and projected our views and values of what a proper country should look like. And made the wrong decision all along the way.

    Just listening to the American media, it is all about how to prevent the Taliban from doing bad things. Whether it is treatment of women and children, how to run the economy, terrorist possibilities, etc., anything we say or do (other than to just leave) will not have a positive impact on the country.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    Unless you’re drafting kids Americans never give a damn about international issues. Possibly because most Americans can’t find the USA on a map of the USA, let alone such exotic places as France, Japan or China. I’m willing to bet that not one American in twenty can find Afghanistan on a map.

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  14. Mikey says:

    @scott:

    Combined with other reports that are not American focused navel gazing, you realize that, in many ways, the Taliban are the legitimate governing agency in the eyes of many Afghans. The government we were propping up was so corrupt, so inept, that no one was going to defend it, not even its Army.

    This also fits very well with other reporting indicating the Afghani armed forces and police were easily “flipped” by Taliban money. The national government was funneling money (American money) to corrupt officials and a lot of military and police hadn’t been paid in months. Of course they’re going to take bribes to roll over.

    And then there was the godawful deal Trump struck with the Taliban, which basically amounted to “give me low American casualties for election year and you can have Afghanistan.” We can talk all we want about how poor and backward Afghanistan is, but they’re not stupid, they saw the writing on the wall. They’re going to do what they need to do to survive.

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  15. @Mikey: I read that earlier this week and have been meaning to recommend it to the readership.

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  16. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @gVOR08:
    Correct 171,000 lbs of secured load. Secured as in cleated to the airframe. As Kathy points out turbulence with an unsecured load can be catastrophic. But even standard maneuvering (banking into new headings) are treacherous.
    H/T to the air crews on this campaign.

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  17. Scott F. says:

    @gVOR08:

    Meanwhile, the supposedly liberal MSM are following their usual rules: if it bleeds, it leads, and take every opportunity to criticize a D so people won’t accuse them of being biased against Rs. And on top of the Big Lie we can already see a Dolchstosslegende being built about how Trump had the Taliban in the palm of his hand but Old Sleepy Joe let them off.

    Fully acknowledging that significant mistakes were made in the planning and execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal, I’m finding it hard to understand how anyone could witness this very public flogging the Biden administration has taken in the last several days while simultaneously questioning why the withdrawal was so many years delayed. The price for admitting a mistake and cutting losses is extremely high.

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  18. Andy says:

    I think it’s way too early to be trying to compare this with historical clusterfucks. We can certainly see that it is a pretty substantial clusterfuck and that is enough for now. The coulda, woulda, shoulda’s can come later but of course American political discourse being the stinking burn pit that it is, I see that the biggest effort is trying to ensure their side gets the least amount of blame. Especially on Twitter, which is a shit show. I admit upfront I have a very low opinion of such attempts.

    The fact is that the Taliban are in a position where they have us by the short-and-curlies with a strong tactical and strategic advantage. Unlike Saigon, they already control everything except for the postage stamp of the Kabul airport which they, alone, control access to. There’s a limit to what we can demand because they can start dropping mortars or assault the airport at any time. They don’t want that and we don’t want that, but we’re in the much weaker position, so can’t make many demands. It seems, for example, that we’ve agreed with the Taliban that US forces will not leave Kabul airport, so we are left hoping that Americans and Afghans can get to the airport.

    It’s still not clear about the status of Americans around the country much less Afghans. We’ve got a Berlin-airlift style train of aircraft – a necessity because the limited ramp space and train of aircraft mean they can’t be on the ground for long (Bagram would have been so much better). This means most departing aircraft are not full.

    The parallels to 1841-1842 are too close for comfort, but fortunately we have air mobility and firepower that the Brits didn’t.

    Anyway, it is not a good situation, but I think our military, diplomatic forces, and supporting agencies and partners are doing the best they can given the circumstances. And yes, Washington needs to clear the field and dispense with any bureaucratic nonsense. There is simply no excuse at this point to not act with expediency.

    For those who want to help, I highly recommend donating to a private refugee agency, many of which are assisting refugees in a number of ways. The one I support is the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service (https://www.lirs.org/) as they are highly experienced with refugee and Afghan resettlement, accounting for about 1/5 of all resettlements in recent years.

    Additionally, if you live in the Seattle, Washington DC, Houston or Dallas/Ft Worth area, LIRS is looking for volunteers to directly help with refugees. I’m sure other agencies are as well.

    Also, the government just opened two new inprocessing sites at Ft. Bliss (El Paso Texas) and Ft McCoy (Central Wisconsin), so they will probably be looking for volunteers in those areas soon.

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  19. Andy says:

    @Mikey:

    Sarah Hayes is the real deal. She was required reading in the early years and provided critical perspectives that few had. I consumed everything she wrote when Afghanistan was my focus. And it’s sadly true that few in positions of authority took on her advice.

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  20. Scott F. says:

    @Mikey:
    Thank you for sharing this from Sarah Hayes. She brings a very important perspective.

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  21. Andy says:

    @gVOR08:

    I have friends in the C-17 community, and they are already exploring ways, such as adding a second deck in the cargo area, to increase the number of people they can safely carry in instances like this.

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  22. gVOR08 says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: Yeah, looking at that picture I was hoping the C-17 crew did a gentle climb out, not the SOP climb to avoid shoulder fired heat seekers. Having 800 Afghans piled six deep at the back of the plane would be, as they say, a bad thing.

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  23. JohnSF says:

    @Gustopher:

    Did the Russians do a better job when they were leaving Afghanistan?

    Yes, they did.

    Rusian final evacuation of forces 15 Feb 1989.
    Kabul falls to mujaheddin 1992.

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  24. Andy says:

    @gVOR08:

    It’s not pretty, but what the aircraft loadmasters do is string cargo straps across the body of the aircraft a foot or two off the deck. This gives people something to hang onto. It’s not clear if they were able to do that for this particular flight though.

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  25. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:
    International Rescue Committee is our go-to. My wife a couple months back wanted to buy property and basically lease it to the IRC for a dollar a month, but then lawyers happened. So we’re sticking with cash.

    Kudos to the pilot (I assume) of that desperate C-17 who must have known all the ways that flight could have gone wrong and nevertheless decided, fuck it, we’re getting these people out of here.

    The Pentagon briefing just gave the story on the ‘children’ being handed up to Marines. Turns out it was child, singular. It was sick, the Marine took it to a Norwegian hospital (?) at the airport and later reunited child and father.

    The quote about lions led by donkeys comes to mind. These men and women in uniform deserve better that they’re getting. Thus always back to the first war ever, I imagine, but still can we stop sending our people out to risk life, and take life, in conflicts that leave us all wondering WTF we were doing?

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  26. JohnSF says:

    My god!
    Guards at Kabul embassy told they are ineligible for UK protection

    A GardaWorld HR manager said he was asked to prepare termination letters for many of the Kabul embassy guards last week but the process was disrupted by the arrival of the Taliban.

    Well, yes, it would, wouldn’t it.
    Dominic Raab, may you rot, you miserable excuse for a human being.

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  27. dazedandconfused says:

    @Kathy: \
    The pilot’s main concern is actually the loose nature of the cargo. Should for some reason the plane go high nose up and it all slides to the back…there’s no getting the nose down again.

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  28. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher: I like cats. Envy you. But I’m allergic to them. Had three cats for awhile, loved them, but I breathe a lot better now. Yes, I missed the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan on my list, duh. Thanks.

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  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Lawrence O’Donnell On Those ‘Left Behind’ In Afghanistan And Vietnam

    We have really short memories. Maybe that’s why we don’t seem capable of learning that war is chaotic and that includes the ending of it.

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  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Journalists Getting Suckered by Ass-Covering Sources on Afghanistan

    Rather than explaining why the government didn’t know that Ashraf Ghani was going to flee the country, allegedly with bags of cash, national security sources are busy suckering journalists to report that they warned of the quick demise of the Afghan military.

    A positively egregious example is this piece from WSJ’s Vivian Salama. What it reports is that 23 people in the State Department concerned about the rapid collapse of the Afghan government warned that the collapse would happen after August 31 — that is, still eleven days in the future from today. It also reports that the Biden Administration was already hastening efforts to get allies out of Afghanistan the day after those 23 people warned Tony Blinken (meaning, State was already aware of and working on the urgency).
    ………………………
    I get that such stories — suggesting that Biden ignored warnings and so owns this collapse — will drive a lot of traffic. Biden does own this collapse, along with Trump, Obama, and (especially) George Bush. But he owns it because of stupid decisions made 18 months and 18 years ago, not the efforts he made in July to mitigate the aftermath of those earlier decisions.

    The more I read the more I realize it was always going to be a clusterf*ck. What’s that old saying? SNAFU. Situation Normal All F*cked Up. Could it have been done better? Sure. Name one thing that couldn’t have been done better. But it still would have been SNAFU.

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  31. JohnSF says:

    @scott:

    legitimate governing agency in the eyes of many Afghans

    In the eyes of a very large minority they are.
    In the eyes of a lot of others, probably the majority, they are not.

    They are definitely accepted by most Ghilzai Puhstun (total whole group 20% pop), and quite a few other Pushtun groups (Pushtun total c40%).

    But the rest of the population?
    Hazara Taliban (c.20% pop) are unheard of.
    And Nuristanis, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kirgiz are damn rare among the Taliban.

    It seems to be a widely held belief that that {group x} could to conquer and rule {country z} without being somehow accepted as a some sort of legitimate national movement.

    It overlooks a very frequent occurrence in human history: minorities, whether ethnic, aristocratic, religious or ideological can and have and do do impose their rule on majorities by force, by terror, by the exploiting the wish of ordinary people – and yes, that includes soldiers – go on living.

    Do these people look like they accept the legitimacy of the Taliban?
    Or maybe they’re just “American focused navel gazing”, eh?

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  32. JohnSF says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    But he owns it because of stupid decisions made 18 months and 18 years ago, not the efforts he made in July to mitigate the aftermath of those earlier decisions.

    He also owns the decision to shut down Bagram; unless he can claim someone else determined that?
    That was, by any standard, a monumentally stupid decision.

    The root of this is Trump, and particularly Pompeo, seeing as Trump is too stupid to understand almost anything: “blow up the forts”. FFS.

    But President Biden also screwed this up, and did not have to, even if aiming at total withdrawal this year, and this needs to be faced up to.
    Deflection from this is little better than the endless “whatabouttery” of the Trump partisans.

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  33. Gustopher says:

    Obviously, West Point needs to start having classes on losing wars, so our military is better prepared for these situations.

    They might not want to call it “How To Lose A War” though, as that raises too many questions, but I’m sure they can figure something out.

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  34. sam says:

    @gVOR08:

    The Japanese from Saipan and Okinawa

    I think you mean Guadalcanal and Kiska.

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  35. Andy says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    That reporting is really strange. Because if you look at a timeline of district control in Afghanistan, they started reverting to Taliban control right after the beginning of the pull-out in early May and then snowballed from there. Two weeks before Kabul fell (end of July), the Taliban controlled or were actively contesting 85% of districts in Afghanistan. Even the simplest trend-line analysis would show that lasting until August 31st was questionable at best.

    https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/08/14/world/asia/afghanistan-maps-taliban.html

    It’s perplexing. It’s as if our government was operating under a collective delusion.

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  36. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:

    And Biden has the good sense to let the deal stand.

    Depends a great deal on whether you think that was good sense or not.

    Seeing as the Taliban honoured it often in the breach, and repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Afghanistan government, why was the US obliged to adhere to it in all particulars?

    Argument seems to be, “if we hadn’t Taliban would have attacked us!”
    So, the Taliban had been holding fire since 2014 out of the goodness of their hearts?
    If they could have mounted an offensive in the period 2014-2020, they would not have done so?

    And that omits the potential for US asymmetric counter-escalation.
    Yes, it can cut both ways.

    And BTW, someone needs to take a good long look at the role of that weaselly SOB Zalmay Khalilzad in all this.

    And all that aside; even if the Trump Deal was absolutely wonderful, nothing in it required the Bagram bug-out.

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  37. Matt Bernius says:

    @Andy:

    It’s as if our government was operating under a collective delusion.

    To be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time. Groupthink can be a hell of a drug.

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  38. dazedandconfused says:

    @Andy:
    Kabul falling without a shot came as a surprise. It appears to have even surprised the Taliban. I wonder if this is what is moved them towards mercy in this initial occupation.

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  39. gVOR08 says:

    @sam: No. I meant Saipan and Okinawa. I was trying to identify defeated armies withdrawing from nominally friendly territory. Places where they had not only military assets and personnel but friendly civil assets and personnel to protect. If your point is that these are odd cases in which the military had no interest in getting themselves out, much less civilians, I agree.

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