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Afghanistan and the Haunting Questions of Blame

Afghanistan and the Haunting Questions of Blame

After the First World War, a conspiracy theory dubbed Dolchstosslegende—or “being stabbed in the back”— was popularized in Germany to explain its historic military defeat. The myth claimed that the war had actually been lost by weak civilians who had caved to the enemy, signed an armistice, and stabbed in the back a brave German military that would otherwise have won.

“There were echoes of that after the war in Vietnam,” Stephen Biddle, a Columbia University professor and the author of “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle,” told me this week, as top U.S. military leaders testified about America’s defeat in its longest war. “The loss in Vietnam was all President Lyndon Johnson and the feckless civilians who wouldn’t let us do it right.” Donald Trump invoked the same conspiratorial idea to explain just about everything that went wrong during his Administration, including his election loss. “Stab-in-the-back myths can be poisonous in all sorts of ways,” Biddle warned.

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A month after the Biden Administration completed the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington is struggling to understand how its vast human, military, financial, and diplomatic investment, made over two decades, simply collapsed, with the Taliban sweeping back into power and the United States scrambling to get out. The rancorous debate over blame threatens to further divide the nation. In two days of testy and occasionally snarky questions, members of the Senate and House challenged the three men who oversaw the war’s end to explain it. They were painfully candid. And there were plenty of mea culpas.

“We helped build a state,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a Senate panel on Tuesday. “But we could not forge a nation.” He questioned whether the United States ever even had the right strategy—or, over two decades, whether it had “perhaps too many strategies?” The United States now has to acknowledge uncomfortable truths, he said. “The fact that the Afghan Army that we and our partners trained simply melted away—in many cases without firing a shot—took us all by surprise. And it would be dishonest to claim otherwise.” General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s most senior military officer, bluntly conceded failure at an “incredible” cost. “Strategically the war was lost,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The enemy is in Kabul.”

The testimony revealed a chasm between what President Biden claimed came out of a lengthy consultation with his generals and what the Pentagon advised. The military recommended keeping a residual force of twenty-five hundred U.S. troops in Afghanistan, General Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., the head of Central Command, testified. The goal was to prop up—psychologically even more than militarily—President Ashraf Ghani’s fragile government and Afghan security forces to allow more time for elected leaders in Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban on the makeup of a transitional government. The rivals had been talking since last September, and the Taliban had refused to make major concessions. Under the plan, U.S.-led NATO forces would have been able to hold Bagram (a strategic air base that provided air support to Afghan forces; it was abandoned during the U.S troop drawdown). The timing of a future withdrawal would then depend on conditions, such as a successfully brokered peace, and not tied to an arbitrary date.

The sworn testimony was in stark contrast to the version Biden has offered the American public. Last month, the President claimed that the military never advised him to stay. In an interview, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked him, “So no one told—your military advisers did not tell you, ‘No, we should just keep twenty-five hundred troops. It’s been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that’?” Biden replied, “No. No one said that to me that I can recall.” The White House has been scrambling to rectify the discrepancies. “These conversations don’t happen in black-and-white, like you’re in the middle of a movie,” the White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. Pressed by Republicans about their conversations with Biden, the Pentagon leaders declined to criticize him. “I was present when that discussion occurred and I am confident that the President heard all the recommendations and listened to them very thoughtfully,” McKenzie testified. “That’s all any commander can ask.”

Other themes emerged from the testimony that may prove more important in understanding the scope and consequences of an epic failure by the world’s most powerful nation against a guerrilla insurgency that lacked both armor and air power. The fallout will extend well beyond South Asia. “Our credibility with allies and partners around the world, and with adversaries, is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go,” Milley told the Senate committee. “I think that ‘damage’ is one word that could be used, yes.”

A deeper assessment of America’s mistakes, which were many, is still to come. “This is a twenty-year war,” Milley told the House committee on Wednesday. “It wasn’t lost in the last twenty days, or even twenty months, for that matter. There is a cumulative effect to a series of strategic decisions that go way back.”

Milley cited many decisive factors and pivots: he noted the problem of Pakistan offering sanctuary—for decades, and continuing to this day—to the Taliban’s fighters and leadership. The U.S. military was just a thousand metres from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Tora Bora in the first two months of the U.S. intervention in 2001; the Al Qaeda leader slipped away into Pakistan, where he hid for another decade.The general didn’t get into politics or diplomacy, but none of the four Presidents who waged the war was able to get Pakistan, a nuclear power which sees the Taliban as an ally against its archrival, India, to contain the extremist movement. The Pentagon leaders admitted to other mistakes: poor U.S. intelligence; endemic Afghan corruption exacerbated as the U.S. poured billions of dollars into the country; the Doha agreement negotiated between the Trump Administration and the Taliban that excluded the elected Afghan government; and especially the U.S. military’s fundamental misreading of the Afghan military’s lack of leadership, morale, and will.

Austin, a former four-star general who served in Afghanistan, was explicit in a stream-of-consciousness list of the mistakes the U.S. made in simply misunderstanding Afghanistan. “That we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks,” he said, “that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement, that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which—and for whom—many of the Afghan forces would fight.” A fatal flaw in U.S. strategy, the Pentagon officials said, was trying to create a military that was a “mirror image” of the sophisticated U.S. military in a poor South Asian nation with limited literacy. It was costliest for Afghans. Somewhere between sixty thousand and seventy thousand members of the Afghan security forces died in the twenty-year war, compared to more than twenty-four hundred U.S. service members. An estimated forty-six thousand Afghan civilians perished, too. The United States had the technology to track the Afghan military in its fight with the Taliban, Milley said, but failed to grasp how its pullout would affect Afghan morale. “You can’t measure the human heart with a machine,” he said.

Afghanistan and the Haunting Questions of Blame