April 18, 2024

We let down Afghanistan

Just like countless other veterans who have served in the Global War on Terror I haven’t been OK these past few weeks. With the attack on the 26th and the full withdrawal of American military forces on the 31st, the ante has been upped. It’s been hard for me to focus on anything but Afghanistan, even with so much else going on in the world. It dominates my thoughts and I’m left with one overarching premise: that none of this makes sense.

I served in the Army and I’ve also worked as a defense contractor. Between those two positions, I’ve spent nearly 4 years of my life between Iraq and Afghanistan. I led a department as a contractor and worked on a base that has been shut down completely. I was on the ground in Iraq in January 2020 when Iran fired ballistic missiles at us. I don’t bring these things up to say that I’m the foremost expert in military actions or strategy but to show that I’m not speaking from a place of complete ignorance. I’m not “armchair quarterbacking” without ever having skin in the game. You see, in my position I’ve been involved with transition meetings for base closures with senior military leadership. I’ve seen just how quickly we can change the battlespace if we want or need to. It took less than 48 hours for the number of boots on the ground to increase exponentially after that January attack. We can have a massive increase of troops on the ground if need be in very, very short order, anywhere in the world.

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Not two full months ago President Biden assured the world that the Taliban would not be able to seize power in Afghanistan. All told, it took them 11 days to do so. It was hard watching the government fall so epically, but if we’re being honest, most people who work in this world expected it. You see, despite the feigned surprise of this Administration it was widely known in military and contractor circles that this government was corrupt and that the Afghan National Army (ANA) wasn’t a true standing military force. It’s been revealed that the likely quick collapse of the government had been briefed at the highest levels, but Biden still assured the world that this wouldn’t happen. I know hindsight is 20/20, but there were many glaring mistakes that it doesn’t take a brilliant military strategist to point out leading up to and through these 11 days until the Taliban took Kabul and to the deadliest attack in Afghanistan in a decade.

Bases were left “unsanitized,” meaning they still held equipment and information that could be used against us. CNN showcased a video of the Taliban walking through an abandoned base and there, painted on a wall, was the unit information along with names and ranks of persons in that unit that had been stationed on the base. I, for one, would be concerned with the Taliban holding that kind of information about me. Now, this isn’t something that falls directly at the feet of the president, but it is another thing that just doesn’t make sense to me. How did no one in the local command structure not know this information should be destroyed before leaving? Were they forced to concede that base more quickly than they had intended and just didn’t make that a priority? How much other information was left in our hasty abandonment of bases the country over while we consolidated at the Hamid Karzai International Airport? Why did we give up these military bases in favor of utilizing just the commercial airport to get people in and out? I’m hardly the first to openly wonder why Bagram was given up so early as it was a major strategic location. It was a hardened military base with a full airfield. What if there was more than one way for people to get out of the country?

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It has also been reported that the Taliban offered to let us secure Kabul pending our full withdrawal. Securing a city is harder than securing the perimeter of an airport, no doubt, but I can’t understand how or why we opted instead to leave that to the Taliban. Sure, we may have had to briefly bring more troops in, but again, I know that can be done on short notice. I’ve witnessed it happen. Of course, there’s the optics, and I get it that the president didn’t want to be seen putting more troops on the ground, but what’s honestly worse for his image in the long run? A brief influx of soldiers to secure the city streets of Kabul pending a full evacuation or doing what he did, and leaving hundreds of American citizens and thousands of Afghan allies behind? Especially after he stood in front of the world and promised that we would get every American out that wanted out. I keep seeing that these people should’ve left before but remember, President Biden, assured them and everyone else that this wouldn’t happen. That the Taliban would not gain control of the entire country and before they knew it that’s what had happened. This isn’t simply a problem of these Americans failing to plan to leave on time, it’s a case of a country being overrun and the situation going from an expected stable country where people could come and go as they please to an evacuation level event in only a matter of days.

Imagine how much easier it would’ve been for these people to navigate city checkpoints with Americans operating them instead of the Taliban. Further, the events of August 26th would not have happened, at least not in the manner that they did. Sure, there’s absolutely no way of knowing that an attack wouldn’t have still happened, but if we’d had multiple American run checkpoints in the city, instead of a singular one at the airport, then the likelihood of so many people being crowded into an unsecure spot would’ve been much, much lower. Because let’s face it, an area secured by the Taliban is not somehow all of a sudden a friendly environment for Americans or American sympathizers. Imagine if we’d set up an external perimeter further out into the city with multiple paths in and we ran the security at those points, followed by an additional perimeter inside that and finally a final check at the gate. With multiple ways to get into the initial perimeter so many people wouldn’t have been congregated at one point, and it would’ve been much, much harder to sneak that bomb in through an American run checkpoint. And this isn’t even some wild “after it happened” plan that I’ve hatched. This is standard security. We have varying levels of security and checks to get onto military bases or into military zones in these areas with high threat levels. It’s standard to have multiple checks.

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Instead, we let the Taliban run it and they made it harder for Americans and American allies to make it to the airport and they failed at providing external security. We lost 13 Americans, nearly 200 Afghans, and we abandoned thousands more allies and Americans, and for what? To avoid increasing our military presence in Kabul for a week or two? The world would’ve forgotten a temporary increase before the final withdrawal. The world would likely have reeled if we’d gone a different route and other American service members died as a result, but I honestly believe that if we’d set a proper perimeter ourselves to complete the evacuation that the numbers wouldn’t have been as staggering as what happened on August 26th. Instead of likely forgetting a 2-week surge in numbers on the ground to facilitate a safe evacuation we’ll all remember instead the deadliest day in Afghanistan in a decade and the complete abandonment of people we promised we’d get out.

Those Marines, that Sailor, and that Soldier all deserved better. Those Afghans deserved better. Despite what many say and the knee-jerk reaction to defend President Biden because he’s simply not Trump, this could’ve gone differently. We gave up all hard structures before we’d evacuated all civilians. We left those bases in a manner that would suggest we weren’t truly prepared to hand them over yet. We entrusted the Taliban, our enemy of the last 20 years, to provide us security. None of it makes sense and I’m not OK.

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As the story goes, a broken clock can be right twice a day, and Trump had his time just right in his response to this debacle when he said, “… military has to be last out the door. Civilians and equipment go first and then, when everyone and everything is out, the military goes.” When it was clear the Taliban was going to overrun the country the mission should’ve been to evacuate ALL Americans and Afghan allies that had bet their lives on us. I’m not advocating that we should’ve stayed indefinitely. I, like many, agree that it was long past time to leave. I just wholeheartedly believe that how a thing is done matters, and I believe that abandoning people as we’ve done is shameful.

Moreover, I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the military or a veteran that wouldn’t accept that mission, most of which would still take it if they knew beforehand that it would mean they wouldn’t make it home. We can pontificate from both ends of the spectrum on whether or not the first 20 years of this war was fought “for American freedom” all day long. In the end that’s irrelevant, because the last 11 days of it was absolutely a fight for American’s freedom, and we failed them. Our government failed them. Our politicians failed them. Our leaders failed them. For the first time in decades, we had a fight on our hands for the literal freedom of American citizens and the option chosen was to deflect, to obscure, and finally to leave them on the ground surrounded by warring factions who all hate Americans. None of the ends of our longest war makes sense, and I’m not OK.

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Craig Spencer 7 Articles
Former Staff Writer

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