Streetwise Professor

August 18, 2021

Kabul on the Potomac

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:25 pm

Early this afternoon I tweeted that if I could do Photoshop I’d do a have-you-seen-me? milk carton with Lloyd Austin’s picture on it. Shortly thereafter, lo and behold, he and his sidekick General Mark Milley emerged for a press conference. Punxsutawney Lloyd should have stayed in his den.

His deer-in-the-headlights performance hardly inspired confidence. To paraphrase: “the Taliban have us by the balls and my plan is to hope they don’t squeeze too hard.” He flatly admitted that the US does not have the ability to bring Americans to the airport from Kabul and environs: their ability to get there is dependent on the goodwill of the Taliban. (“Goodwill of the Taliban.” That’s a phrase I never imagined writing non-ironically.) The State Department is advising said civilians to “make their way to Kabul Airport.” Great! Thanks! Well unless they’re in a convoy led by Mad Max good luck with that.

If anything, Milley was worse. He was mainly interested in defending himself, but every explanation/excuse only condemned him all the more. There were several appalling moments, but this was probably the worst:

Napoleon said that “In war, the moral is to the physical as ten to one.” Will and leadership ARE capability/capacity. Evaluating those should have been Milley’s primary focus. The best equipped force is worthless if morale is low and leadership is poor and lacks the will to fight (cf. the collapse of the Iraqi Army before ISIS–so it’s not as if this should not have been in Milley’s mind). To think that counting noses and rifles and vehicles is the key to evaluating combat capability is beyond amateurish. And it is not as if the morale and leadership problems are news. The Afghanistan Papers make it crystal clear that the problems are of longstanding, and were well known.

This is a confession of utter incompetence. He made other confessions, but this was the worst.

The saddest thing is that he clearly doesn’t realize that he confessed to all the world his abject incapacity for command. The fact that this man has not resigned staggers the imagination. Same goes for Austin. Same goes for Biden.

Honor is dead.

The immediate problem is that the US perimeter is, well, the perimeter of the airport. Which is in an urban area making it impossible to protect with airstrikes. Further, all of the Americans looking to get out of Afghanistan are outside the perimeter, and the Taliban controls every inch of ground they need to cover to get to the airport.

Any attempt to expand the perimeter would lead to a fight in which the enemy has all the advantages. Numbers. Fighting the US in urban terrain where the US cannot rely on armor and airpower as it did in say Fallujah or Mosul. A perimeter so small that relatively modest weapons (e.g., mortars) can reach everything within it–which would basically put a stop to air operations while the fight is ongoing.

Not to mention that the Taliban have thousands of potential hostages. So even if we dared the odds the objective of saving Americans would be compromised, not advanced.

Today questions were raised to the pathetic duo regarding the evacuation of the Bagram Airbase. It is more defensible, not being in urban terrain. So a much larger perimeter could be defended by fires, mainly from over-the-horizon via B52/B2/B1/AC130 airstrikes (and even carrier air a la 2001/2002), but also from Apaches at Bagram itself. It has two runways, not one.

Could Bagram be retaken, Milley was asked. “Great question!” he said. Then he weaseled and replied that he was not going to comment on “branches and sequels off our current operation.” That kind of argle bargle is exactly why the American military was ridiculed and disrespected in Vietnam.

Bagram is in Taliban hands (having been gifted to them some weeks ago). It could not be retaken without a major fight . . . and again, the Taliban have thousands of potential hostages.

It’s worth noting that the airbase was abandoned at the recommendation of CENTCOM commander Kenneth McKenzie, and Milley approved the decision. The “logic” was that Kabul International and Bagram were equally vulnerable (probably not true, but whatever), but that only one had to be chosen because the troops committed were limited to 600-700:

In other words, the mission was sized to fit the (pitiful) force allotted, rather than sizing the force to meet the mission.

(I also suspect this explanation is a lie: no doubt choosing KIA was done in deference to Afghan political sensitivities.)

But even the question of Bagram vs. KIA doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. The US should have been gathering its citizens and moving them out or at least staging them to a place they could be defended before moving them out. Like I said yesterday: move the soft stuff out first. It didn’t happen.

And this is where we are as a result.

I predict that the Taliban will magnanimously allow a large fraction of the Americans, other foreigners, and even some Afghans to leave, thereby achieving propaganda victories. But they will retain many, many hostages. Hell, the US doesn’t even know–within +/- 5000–how many Americans are in Afghanistan. So how would we even know if the Taliban have hostages, or how many?

So the current situation is like Mogadishu plus Benghazi multiplied many times over, plus Iran 1979, also likely multiplied many times over. With hostage takers that make the mullahs and their henchmen look placid and sane by comparison.

In other words, Kabul 2021 is a concatenation of America’s biggest military disasters of the past 42 years, times a large number.

So what is this going to be called? Operation Shitshow? Operation Anklegrab? Operation Clusterfuck?

Whatever it’s called, it is a debacle. And one that could have been prevented by better leadership. No, not in Afghanistan–in DC (or should I call it Kabul on the Potomac?).

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  1. All you’ve written over the last few days re Afghanistan is true, but I think misses the meta-point you’ve alluded to many times previously – zero competence + zero accountability is a petri-dish reliably producing disaster. This article gets to the nub of it:

    Comment by Huskynut — August 18, 2021 @ 9:52 pm

  2. The question is: where are the GOPukes (c)? Not a peep from them.

    Comment by Tatyana — August 19, 2021 @ 7:00 am

  3. Operation Katrina would be far more apt – America watches a force of nature bearing down on them, no-one predicting in this case that it would change track and deepen at the last minute, it then leaving a group of hapless Yanks in its wake who then have to wait for the US military to gird it loins and mount a scale-appropriate rescue mission. And who was in charge then? Oh yes, that progressive, nation-building dude who got us all into this mess to begin with.

    And Benghazi!! I knew it! Sooo predictable. Alas I sincerely doubt Michael Bay will be rushing to make a film about this, John Krasinski penned in to play the square-jawed C17 pilot who bravely jemmies a frozen dead Afghani unfortunate from its undercarriage. That’s about the sum of US trauma so far, right?

    Comment by David Mercer — August 19, 2021 @ 10:37 am

  4. Shit happens! Almost always when Joe Biden is involved. Just ask President Obama and Sec. of Defense Robert Gates!!

    Comment by Kim s Peyser — August 19, 2021 @ 1:47 pm

  5. @DM, yup, when that weak-kneed Bush didn’t turn the whole damned country into glass, he lost me.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 19, 2021 @ 2:33 pm

  6. @DM. I might point out the foundation of modern UK was founded on the destruction of the English Civil War, as was America’s present polity based on the destruction of the South in 1865, and our world was founded on the utter and total destruction of Germany and Japan in 1945. We have failed so often to learn that lesson.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 19, 2021 @ 2:39 pm

  7. @Huskynut. Absolutely. It all comes down to incentives.

    I was telling a friend last night that my only takeaway from my leadership course at USNA was the leadership triangle: authority, responsibility, and accountability. Take away any one of them, and failure is inevitable.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 19, 2021 @ 2:39 pm

  8. @Tatyana. Don’t get me started.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 19, 2021 @ 2:40 pm

  9. 1 Tatyana the question is why no comments? Is it cowardice or complicity, the fear of putting the head above the parapet and getting shot down.

    2 cpirrong your comment on removing one or more legs of the leadership triangle is as true for politics, corporates, education et al as they are for the military

    History may not repeat but it does rhyme – from Johnson to Biden. Surely we can find better.

    Comment by Sandy K — August 19, 2021 @ 6:03 pm

  10. In other words, Kabul 2021 is a concatenation of America’s biggest military disasters of the past 42 years, times a large number.

    Riiight, except for the troubling fact (for you) that still no Americans have died. You can but hope, eh? Which leads me to:

    But they will retain many, many hostages. Hell, the US doesn’t even know–within +/- 5000–how many Americans are in Afghanistan. So how would we even know if the Taliban have hostages, or how many?

    Honestly, I’d refrain from recounting your most lurid fantasies here: “Yes, yes, there’ll be thousands of American hostages, and then Biden will mount a botched rescue mission like Desert One redux, and it’ll be Jimmy Carter all over again!! O.M.G.!!!”

    @Tatyana: It’s not just GOPher High Command which have been uncharacteristically mute on the subject, but many of the regular contributors here too. One would have thought they’d have been all over this like a rash. I have a theory – perhaps Joe public has cottoned on to the fact that the situation for America and Americans on the ground isn’t anywhere near as bad as the likes of Craig have been desperately trying to paint? Even the right wing press here are in two minds about it, one minute praising Biden’s actions and speech, the next claiming it to be an unmitigated disaster.

    Comment by David Mercer — August 20, 2021 @ 5:57 am

  11. We hadn’t had a KIA in 18 months and holding the Taliban in some precarious check with 2500 troops. A competent command would have put troops into Afghanistan over the past few months to seize enough space to do an orderly evacuation—troops holding key points, several airports, instructions sent out. Then collapsed our presence. Instead, we got a rout. A month ago Biden repeatedly lied about the situation, about the ANA, about our plans. He didn’t even consult with the UK ministers. A pretty good analogy would be Suez

    Comment by The Pilot — August 20, 2021 @ 7:52 am

  12. @The Pilot. Exactly. It’s not rocket science. It’s not razzle-dazzle. It’s basic military blocking and tackling.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 20, 2021 @ 11:43 am

  13. Sec of Defense is exhibit A for the worst of affirmative action

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — August 21, 2021 @ 8:34 am

  14. Of the Americans trapped in Afghanistan, do we even want any of them back? Save for the common soldiers, the rest are just Deep State functionaries and NGO elites — all rather expendable. In fact, the Taliban would do us a favor by taking them out.

    Just bring back the soldiers. They’re actually useful.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — August 21, 2021 @ 4:18 pm

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