After World War I, a conspiracy theory was dubbed Stick-in-the-back myth-or “being stabbed in the back” – became popular in Germany to explain its historic military defeat. The myth claimed that the war had in fact been lost by weak civilians who had thrown themselves at the enemy, signed a ceasefire and stabbed a brave German military in the back who would otherwise have won.
“There were echoes of it after the Vietnam War,” Stephen Biddle, a professor at Columbia University and author of “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle,” told me this week when top U.S. military leaders testified. The defeat of the United States in its longest war. “The loss in Vietnam was all President Lyndon Johnson and the cheeky civilians who would not let us do it right.” Donald Trump relied on the same conspiratorial idea to explain almost everything that went wrong during his administration, including his election loss. “Time-in-the-back myths can be toxic in all sorts of ways,” Biddle warned.
One month after the Biden administration completed its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington is struggling to understand how its huge human, military, financial and diplomatic investments, made over two decades, simply collapsed, with the Taliban sweeping back to power and the United States struggling to to come out. The heated debate over guilt threatens to divide the nation further. In two days of difficult and occasionally snide questions, members of the Senate and House challenged the three men overseeing the end of the war to explain it. They were painfully honest. And there were lots of mea culpas.
“We helped build a state,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told a Senate panel Tuesday. “But we could not create a nation.” He questioned whether the United States ever had the right strategy – or over two decades, whether it had “perhaps too many strategies?” The United States now has to acknowledge unpleasant truths, he said. “The fact that the Afghan army, which we and our partners trained, simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – surprised us all. And it would be dishonest to claim otherwise.” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the United States’ most senior military officer, admitted blatant failure at an “incredible” price. “Strategically, the war was lost,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The enemy is in Kabul.”
The testimony revealed a gap between what President Biden claimed came out of a lengthy consultation with his generals and what the Pentagon advised. The military recommended retaining a remaining force of twenty-five hundred U.S. troops in Afghanistan, testified General Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., chief of the Central Command. The goal was to support – psychologically even more than militarily – President Ashraf Ghani’s fragile government and Afghan security forces to give the elected leaders in Kabul more time to negotiate with the Taliban on the composition of a transitional government. Rivals had been talking since September last year, and the Taliban had refused to make major concessions. According to the plan, US-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 US troop withdrawal). The timing of a future withdrawal will then depend on conditions, such as a successful mediation of peace, and not tied to an arbitrary date.
The sworn testimony stood in stark contrast to the version Biden has offered to 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 you – your military advisers did not tell you, ‘No, we should just keep twenty-five hundred soldiers.’ It has been a stable situation for the last many years. We can do it. Can we keep doing that ‘? “Biden replied,” No. No one told me that I can remember. “The White House has struggled to rectify the discrepancies.” These conversations are not in black and white, as if you were in the middle of a movie, “the White House press secretary said. “I was present when the discussion took place, and I am convinced that the President heard all the recommendations and listened very thoughtfully to them,” Jen Psaki told reporters. “McKenzie testified.” That’s all a commander can ask.
Other themes emerged from the testimony, which may prove more important in understanding the extent and consequences of an epic failure from the world’s most powerful nation against a guerrilla insurgency that lacked both armor and air power. The fallout will extend far beyond South Asia. “Our credibility with allies and partners around the world, and with opponents, is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way it will go,” Milley told the Senate committee. “I think ‘injury’ is a word that could be used, yes.”
A deeper assessment of America’s mistakes, which were many, still awaits. “This is a twenty-year war,” Milley told the House committee Wednesday. “It has not been lost in the last twenty days, or even twenty months, for that matter. There is a cumulative effect of a number of strategic decisions that go far back.”
Milley cited many crucial factors and focal points: he noted the problem that Pakistan offers a sanctuary – for decades and continues to this day – to Taliban fighters and leadership. The U.S. military was only a thousand yards from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in the Tora Bora during the first two months of the U.S. intervention in 2001; The al Qaeda leader slipped into Pakistan, where he hid for another decade. The general did not get into politics or diplomacy, but none of the four presidents who waged the war were able to get Pakistan, a nuclear power that sees the Taliban as an ally against its arch-rival, India, to curb the extremist movement. . Pentagon leaders admitted other flaws: poor U.S. intelligence; endemic Afghan corruption worsened as the United States poured billions of dollars into the country; The Doha agreement negotiated between the Trump administration and the Taliban, which 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 explicitly in a stream-of-consciousness list of the mistakes the United States made by simply misunderstanding Afghanistan. “That we did not fully understand the depth of corruption and mismanagement in their senior ranks,” he said, “that we did not understand the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations of President Ghani by his commanders, that we did not foresee that snowball effect caused by the agreements that Taliban leaders made 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 could not quite understand 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, 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 most expensive for Afghans. Somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 members of the Afghan security forces died in the 20-year war, compared to more than 24 hundred U.S. service members. It is estimated that forty-six thousand Afghan civilians also perished. The United States had the technology to track down the Afghan military in its fight with the Taliban, Milley said, but did not understand how its withdrawal would affect Afghan morale. “You can not measure the human heart with a machine,” he said.