By Jimmy Gravitt, former Combat Engineer at US Army.
…In case you were wondering how Afghanistan could have gone differently
What could Biden have done differently in Afghanistan?
Before I answer the question, I want to remind everyone of a VERY brief history of the conflict. In many articles I have read and videos I have watched, people seem to be unclear about why the U.S. was in Afghanistan in the first place, but more importantly, why was it still there after 20 years. Most people are well aware of the 9/11 attacks, but they get foggy when we start talking about certain groups and individuals, so I will clarify things a bit here.
The level of sophistication needed to carry out attacks of the caliber of the attacks of 9/11 cannot be built up under the watchful eye of a concerned government. Therefore, Osama bin Laden needed a country that would allow him to operate his terror network without scrutiny — and, by scrutiny I mean the police breaking in and arresting, imprisoning, or executing him. Bin Laden believed he had found one such country for and his group, nicknamed al-Qaeda by the CIA, in Sudan after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1992; however, by 1996, Sudan had booted him, too. So, he went to the only country that would allow his terror training camps to operate freely: Afghanistan.
Osama and al-Qaeda planned, funded, and executed the 9/11 attacks from within Afghanistan. They used well-funded training camps (similar to Basic training for U.S. soldiers) that operated in the open, with the government’s direct knowledge. The government who was running the country at the time was the Taliban. They had seized power after the Soviet government’s puppet regime in Kabul was toppled in 92, with the Taliban emerging MOSTLY victorious by the time they took Kabul in 1996. Now, it is doubtful the Taliban had direct knowledge of 9/11, specifically, but they were well aware of Osama’s intent to murder innocent westerners. The Taliban knew where Osama was at the time. When the U.S. demanded they turn over Osama, the Taliban equivocated. This started Operation Enduring Freedom.
The goal of Operation Enduring Freedom was, and always has been, to stabilize an Afghan government that is capable of resisting Taliban rule, who would then allow for terror groups to again use Afghan soil to orchestrate future terror attacks against the U.S. and its allies. It has never changed. All other goals were in service of that one goal. Politicians over the years may have given extra answers and said we’re doing one thing then we’re doing another, but the entire time, the military and all the civil servants and contractors that served in Afghanistan were trying to establish an Afghan government that was stable enough to stand against the Taliban and prevent terrorist forces from using Afghanistan as a staging ground for future terror attacks. Now, to be sure, just how to do that was oftentimes unclear, but that’s one of the many failings of the war that I am not getting into here.
Now, some politicians, such as Biden, have said both that we are and that we are not nation-building. In fact, U.S. military planners initially did not conceive of Afghanistan as a nation-building exercise. This boggles my mind. How they thought they would establish a government capable of resisting Taliban rule WITHOUT nation-building is incomprehensible to me. But it was eventually realized that we were doing just that. Now, there were A LOT of mistakes made during the planning and execution phases of the operation. Going into those would take another post entirely, so I will skip to the drawdown turned frantic evacuation.
What could Biden have done differently? The first thing that comes to mind is: not pullout. I know so many people are against this. They point to all the blood and treasure we have lost, but 2,400 troops over 20 years is not a lot. This may be shocking to some people, but SOLDIERS DIE IN WAR. You don’t want to lose pawns, don’t play chess; and we were dragged into this game of chess against our will. But, 2,400 soldiers is less than the number of civilians killed on 9/11. And I would rather lose soldiers over civilians any day. So, if we stopped 1 attack, it was worth it, it’s likely we stopped many.
So, what seems to be the risk of al-Qaeda setting up shop in Afghanistan again? This well-researched article by Steven Erlanger makes it pretty clear that the experts simply disagree on how long before Afghanistan is again used as a base of operation for future terror attacks. According to the article:
“Nathan Sales, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, argues that ‘the terrorism risk to the United States is going to get dramatically worse.’ With the Taliban back in power, he said, ‘it is virtually certain that Al Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot terrorism against the United States and others.’”
Then, Ryan C. Crocker, the former ambassador to Afghanistan under President Obama wrote a great article as well. In it, he makes a great point about the U.S. taking 11 years to get from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, and another 74 years and a bloody civil war to figure out this whole governing thing. He makes the argument that America has no strategic patience. He quotes a Taliban fighter saying, “You Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” He was correct, our lack of strategic patience may cost us innocent lives. And, as the article argues, it’s not like we were talking about large-scale combat operations, here. He notes:
“When I left Afghanistan as ambassador in 2012, we had about 85,000 troops in the country. The Taliban controlled none of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. When President Barack Obama left office there were fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops. And when Mr. Trump departed there were fewer than 5,000. The Taliban still did not hold any major urban area. Now, they hold the entire country. What changed so swiftly and completely? We did. Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.”
Another well-argued piece is by someone I find to be a very unlikely ally, Condoleezza Rice in the Washington Post. She rejects Biden’s implications that the Afghans chose the Taliban. In it she harangues:
“No — they didn’t choose the Taliban. They fought and died alongside us, helping us degrade al-Qaeda. Working with the Afghans and our allies, we gained time to build a counterterrorism presence around the world and a counterterrorism apparatus at home that has kept us safe. In the end, the Afghans couldn’t hold the country without our airpower and our support. It is not surprising that Afghan security forces lost the will to fight, when the Taliban warned that the United States was deserting them and that those who resisted would see their families killed.
No — they didn’t choose the Taliban. They seized the chance to create a modern society where girls could attend school, women could enter professions and human rights would be respected.
No — they didn’t choose the Taliban. They built a fledgling democracy with elected leaders who often failed but didn’t brutalize their people as so many regimes in the region do. It was a government that never managed to tame corruption and the drug trade. In this, Afghanistan had plenty of company across the globe.”
She makes the obvious connection that 20 years is not enough to take a country from the “7th-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government.” I agree. So, the first thing Biden could have done was NOT LEAVE. But, okay, you win we are leaving, how could we have left differently?
The first, most important thing he could have done was not set a date for withdrawal but, rather, conditions on the ground. He should have let the conditions on the ground dictate our actions. What he could have done was quietly start issuing all the documents that all of the tens or hundreds of thousands of Afghans who helped us needed in order to get out of the country, and start shipping them to America, WHILE the U.S.’s full force was in place. In fact, I would have GREATLY bolstered the U.S.’s force before the withdrawal began.
I would have greatly increased the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) presence among the various Afghan National Army (ANA) strongholds throughout the country to ensure the whole country can stand during the withdrawal. The reason this is the case is because the bravery of one “advisor”, which is a special operations soldier, can embolden 200 indigenous defense personnel, ANA regulars, to fight to the death, and in doing so, live. Next, I would have the Rangers secure Bagram Airfield, Kandahar Airfield and the Kabul Airport. I would have a Brigade of of 101st Airborne each operate out of Bagram and Kandahar as a Quick Reaction Force augmented by some SOF (Why not make them Marines while you’re at it).
I would then have the 82nd Airborne Division send brigades to Kabul, Kandahar, and Kunduz, each supported by a rotary-wing air attachment. Only then, once all the Afghans that were coming to America had their documents, and security was in place, I would start to fly people out of Kandahar, Bagram, and Kabul, while maintaining security of each airport AND the surrounding city (or area for Bagram). While this was ongoing, I would increase the number of combat aircraft flying overhead, substantially. I would have an ENORMOUS amount of aerial firepower all across the country, VIGOROUSLY attacking any groups of Taliban that decided to come out of hiding. I would also leverage naval support by using the SOF embedded among the ANA to direct missile strikes if necessary, and carrier-launched aircraft.
Once all of the civilians that were leaving Afghanistan left, I would consolidate my military forces at Bagram Airfield (BAF). Bagram makes way more sense than Kabul Airport, because there is nothing surrounding BAF for miles. So, anyone wanting to attack would be out in the open, easily attacked by aircraft. Further, Kabul Airport is in a city of more than 4 million, flanked by two busy roads, and lacks an outer wall. BAF is surrounded by a population of about no one and only has rural, unimproved roads all around it. BAF also has a MASSIVE wall all the way around the FOB. Calling it a wall is really an understatement. The walls are made Hesco bastions. These are basically enormous sandbags. They are about 6 feet tall wire baskets that can be hooked together to make miles of “wall”. The way baskets turn into wall is by filling them with earth. At Bagram, in most places, the perimeter is two of these Hesco baskets stacked deep with another row of them stacked on top of that row, then a a third row made up of 4 feet baskets stacked on that one. These barriers will easily stop an RPG, and all forms of small arms, as well as well indirect fire. Then, there are guard towers, ground sensors, and cameras that protect the perimeter.
My final load to leave Afghanistan would be two C-17 aircraft, taking off, one after the other on BAF’s dual runway, full of the remaining Rangers that secured the airport. This way would have ensured that we left on our own terms, at least with our dignity in tact. Oh, another important change I would make from Biden is I would have never publicly declared that we were leaving Afghanistan, until AFTER it was complete.
That’s what upsets me so much about all of this, he picked this time limit to score political points. There was no tactical reason for this date; if he were thinking tactically, he would have made the date in January-February, the coldest time of the year in Afghanistan. There is a “fighting season” in Afghanistan that lasts from April to October. The end of August to the beginning of September is the height of the fighting season. In fact, we have lost more soldiers to combat in August than any other month. Further, if you count from 2015 on, after major combat operations had finished in Afghanistan, August is still the deadliest month, and that’s even if you exclude the 13 servicemembers who died this August. After all, the weather is beautiful there this time of year. Not too hot, not too cold, it hardly ever rains this time of year, what a perfect time of year to spend some time walking through the wilderness, hunting for human? Why would we want to withdraw, which is a military maneuver that makes us vulnerable, during the time of year when the enemy was most active? This makes no sense. It is unlikely the insurgent forces in Afghanistan would be able to mount a major offensive in the winter.
And having such a small footprint to withdraw makes no sense either. You would want to establish a secondary perimeter, further away where you can ensure safety, and a primary perimeter where you can manage the orderly flow of personnel. This entire pullout has been an absolute disgrace. It sickens me that, during such a crucial military maneuver, Biden was off at Camp David, apparently thinking he’s earned some R&R thanks to all the sweet maneuvering he’s done in Afghanistan. But, it’s time to wake up Sleepy Joe. You have real issues to deal with.
Further, his callousness, and a lot of callousness by a lot of Republicans regarding the refugees from Afghanistan disgusts me. These people risked their life as much, if not more, than most U.S. soldiers in order to defend against a resurgence of terrorism based out of Afghanistan directed at the U.S. and its allies. They have been risking their lives to defend ours, we MUST honor our agreements with these people and see that they gain access to this country. I would gladly welcome them to my neighborhood.
Sadly, a situation is unfolding in the Panjshir Valley in the province of Panjshir. The last holdouts who seek to resist the Taliban have gathered there in hopes of resisting the Taliban rule. They are outnumbered, outgunned, and surrounded. They are receiving no assistance from anyone. They are all alone. Many of them come from the elite Special Operations branch of the ANA. This group of soldiers, which make up less than 10% of the ANA were responsible for about 90% of the total fighting being done in Afghanistan. Most regular ANA units guarded outposts and bases. The bulk of the fighting was done by these commandos. This means they fought more than basically every U.S. military personnel in order to keep Afghanistan terrorism-free, and not for themselves, because these terrorists did not attack them, and now they are abandoned. Further, they cannot surrender and try to assume life as normal, because as has been reported on earlier, the Taliban are killing the commandos who surrender (Taliban fighters execute 22 Afghan commandos as they try to surrender).
So, if I had to rate Biden on a scale of 1 to 10 on this withdrawal, I would rate him about where you would rate Edward Scissorshands as an abortionist. I mean, now that ISIS attacked the Airport, killing troops as we tuck tail and run, we leave absolutely disgraced. And no one wants to be the LAST servicemembers killed in a war. My heart goes out to their family.
And, it’s not like any of this should be a surprise. Biden was warned by the State Department that Kabul could collapse shortly after we withdrew as reported by the Wall Street Journal. There were several reports of the imminence of an ISIS attack at the airport yesterday. So that we knew it was coming and still lost 12 lives to it says we have ZERO control on the ground. And this is what happens. Biden WANTED a spectacle. He didn’t expect this, but he wanted a lot of fanfare being the president that FINALLY pulled us out of Afghanistan. He just didn’t think about the consequences. Well, he will definitely be remembered for this.
The last thing I want to point out is how the U.S. just handed Afghanistan over to the Taliban. First, the Trump administration COMPLETELY delegitimized the government of Afghanistan by conducting negotiations AND signing a deal with the Taliban without including the Afghan government. But the Trump Administration was even more direct about their stance on the Afghan government’s legitimacy. In the deal with the Taliban that excluded the Afghan government, it said that a NEW government would be formed. As the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation remarked at the Aspen Security Forum,
“The U.S.-Taliban agreement said there has to be, based on negotiations, a new Islamic government and a comprehensive ceasefire.
The government has had some concerns in that regard, believing that it itself is an Islamic government, why a new Islamic government? And two, that the negotiations should be on bringing the Taliban into the current government rather than the establishment of a new one.”
Imagine how the Afghans felt when they learned that their government would be abolished in a treaty to which they were never a part of. Then, imagine being the Afghans and you hear Biden set a hard date for a withdrawal. You know what the Taliban did when they heard Biden’s announcement? Biden made his announcement on the 13th or 14th of April. The following week the Taliban and the Afghan government were scheduled to meet in Turkey and discuss peace solutions. The Taliban no-showed. And of course they did. They knew to bide their time until the U.S. left and all that aerial, tactical, and materiel support dried up. Mission accomplished for the Taliban.
Now, about my biases: I am usually pretty liberal. Like, I think that corporations’ profits should be paid back into services for the community that allowed such a large corporation to exist in the first place, and I am for worker ownership of their companies. But, on certain issues, such as this, I lean right. I see the value of a presence in Afghanistan, as do most Afghans. Also, I am a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have lost friends in Afghanistan, and I have lost friends to suicide and accidental overdose because of trauma suffered during these conflicts. I also suffer from PTSD myself. Lastly, it may be helpful to know that growing up, I always wanted to join the Army and help the disenfranchised and suffering peoples of the world by killing their oppressors. I remember 9/11 vividly and I have always known that I would serve in Afghanistan. I loved my time spent deployed, and most vets I talk to feel the same way. Many of us, are eager to defend the Afghans and to defend the weak is one of the reasons why we joined.
If the U.S. and its allies could have remedied their grievous mistakes with the benefit of hindsight, 20 years would have been enough. The problem is we had to also learn lessons along the way.
In closing, I’ll just say that my heart is in pieces over the situation in Afghanistan. The Afghans deserve better.
***Update (9/4/2021 2000MST): I just wanted to address some things I have read in other answers to this question, as well as some newspaper articles, YouTube channels, etc.
First, I want to address the equipment that was left behind. Many people are saying this a big failing on Biden because we left behind “tens of millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft, armored vehicles and sophisticated defensive systems”.What happened to US military equipment left behind in Afghanistan?The U.S. military likely abandoned tens of millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft, armored vehicles and high-tech defensive systems in Afghanistan.https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2021/08/30/what-military-equipment-left-behind-afghanistan-us/5658895001/#:~:text=tens%20of%20millions%20of%20dollars%E2%80%99%20worth%20of%20aircraft%2C%20armored%20vehicles%20and%20sophisticated%20defensive%20systems
While I believe there are many valid criticisms of Biden, his nonchalantness about a huge military maneuver and his contribution over a few decades to the problem of mass incarceration due to the war on drugs (look it up; Biden has jumped at every opportunity to collude with Republicans to pass ever harsher sentencing laws, as well as his legislation contributing to the militarization of police forces nationwide), for example, but I do not believe this is one of them.
This article itemizes everything left behind. So, I’ll address each one:
The first items are “As many as 70 MRAPs”, which are “Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected” vehicles. As the name implies, they are good at taking explosive blasts from the bottom, but are also well protected against small arms fire. These vehicles have saved my life on a couple of occasions. They are actually a large family of vehicles. And, all of the articles I keep seeing say the average one costs a million dollars. This is not accurate. Now, the most expensive one I know of is the Husky Vehicle-Mounted Mine-Detections (VMMD) system w/ the Ground Penetration Radar (GPR). I saw replacement costs on the Husky at about 750,000, and I was told by the guy who trained me on the GPR that the GPR was worth $4 million, but there were only about 12 of these in country while I was there in 2009–2010.
The next most expensive MRAP I know of is the Buffalo A4 (I THINK it is was A-4, I forget), and those were supposed to be about $1.2 million. Both of these were specialized vehicles used in route clearance, so their numbers were limited and you can be absolutely sure we did not leave any of these vehicles behind in tact. Now, I’ll give you a bunch of references to show that this article (along with one in the LA Times) is rounding up to the nearest million.
First in the FY 2005 Amended Budget for OEF and OIF (middle of fourth page, it’s a table). Obviously costs rose after this, and I will show their numbers, but this shows just how “cheap” (how far under $1 million) some MRAPs can be. It says the average cost to each service was $171,000 for the Army, $300,000 for the Navy, $280,000 for the Marine Corps, $297,000 for the Air Force, and $522,000 for US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
Then, this 2007 Wired article says Cat 1 vehicles are $400,000 per truck (these would be like the Rg-31 A-1), Cat 2 trucks are around $600,000 each (these would be like the Cougar), and Cat 3 trucks are around $800,000 (the only Cat3 truck that I know of is the Buffalo). Now, I know I said the Buffalo was about $1.2 million, but keep in mind the price I saw was for 3 generations of truck later). Interestingly, the article goes on to say,
“But the production contracts don’t include all the parts and support and the cost of rushing a truck to Iraq or Afghanistan aboard a chartered Antonov airlifter. Those expenses add around $200,000 to each truck. Toss in various R&D costs and the average price of an average MRAP approaches seven figures. That’s a million clams for what Marine General Mike Brogan, MRAP manager, said are ‘basically just trucks.’”
Having had my life saved by these things, I believe they were worth every penny, so I disagree HEAVILY with the General there. Had I been in a HMMWV (pronounced “hum-vee”), I would could be dead or in a lot worse shape than I am in now. Remember that shipping adds such a hefty price tag. I will come back to that in a minute.
This 2012 National Defense article says that each MRAP averages $535,000–$586,000; however it goes on to say that, with additional electronics and armor, they reach about $1.2 million. This sounds about right, because we had a camera on some of our vehicles that cost $750,000 alone. Just remember that its the additional equipment that raises the price tag.
So, the things that raise the price of the MRAP to these numbers is shipping, and detachable hardware. I am certain the vehicles left behind were stripped of all valuables, leaving them there eliminated the costs of shipping them out, and most were vehicles that were not quite so valuable. What I mean by that is that it is likely that these were vehicles with mechanical and/or structural problems. It is likely most, if not all of these vehicles, were involved in explosions. Every large Forward Operating Base (FOB) I have been to has a huge vehicle graveyard. Walking through there is humbling, sad, and terrifying while you’re in-country. You can see all the blasts that vehicles have taken, and sometimes hear the stories of how many soldiers died in the vehicle.
Not all the vehicles there are from IED blasts, however. Some have incredibly difficult problems to fix. Further, there is this weird paradox where vehicles in-country need critical parts, but they can’t get any shipped to them, because all of the parts for these unique vehicles were being used to build NEW vehicles that were being shipped to theater constantly. This caused a situation where it was easier to get a new vehicle than a part, so many vehicles just sat. There were over 12,000 MRAPs in Afghanistan in 2012. That only 70 were left says that we kept the good ones.
Again, shipping vehicles costs money. These vehicles would have to be flown out, because driving on the roads is extremely hazardous to health. You can fit 3 of these in a C-17. A C-5 can carry more but, due to maintenance it may be more of a burden than anything. This means 24 flights would be needed to get these pieces of crap out. For what? It’s not like we are low on MRAPS, we ordered more than 27,000 of them. Further, what good are gas guzzling machines in a nation starved of fuel? The Taliban will get no use of them. They will be decorations that never move.
The second item listed is 27 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV). I take exception to the article saying that HMMWVs are a third the price of an MRAP, when they claim that an MRAP is $1 million. This means HMMWVs cost $333,333 each. This is again a gross overestimations. Now, $333 K may be how much the special operations version, decked out with TOW Missile Launcher, and armor upgrades, with other electronic warfare goods, optics, and sensors suits, then MAYBE they are 1/3 a million dollars, but some nonarmored HMMWVs can be as cheap as $50,000. And we do use nonarmored HMMWVs overseas.
While I am sure the MRAPs left behind were garbage, it is possible that we left some good HMMWVs behind. The reason for this is because these vehicles were used to protect the perimeter, meaning we needed them until the very last. It is possible we gifted those items to the ANA, or we threw thermite grenades in there to melt the engine block. Either way it was inevitable that we leave SOME equipment behind.
Then, 73 aircraft were left behind. All of those aircraft will have been rendered inoperable. And, you can be sure the aircraft left behind were U.S. throwaways. Other than an Apache that may have been left behind, most of these aircrafts were older, much less advanced aircraft than what the U.S. uses. For example, I doubt any C-130s, C-17s, C-5s, B-1s, B-2s, B-52s, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, F-22s, F-35s, A-10s, CV-22s, or AWACS were left behind. I am sure many of the aircraft were old cargo helicopters, with a few newer UH-60 Blackhawks. Either way, there is no fuel or mechanics for these systems. They too will become decorations used in propaganda videos.
The last thing mentioned is counter-rocket artillery and mortar systems, that come in at $10 million a piece. It was inevitable we would leave this behind, though again I am sure we rendered it inoperable before leaving. We needed this protection up until the final aircraft left harms way, but I’m sure we settled for destroying it right before we left, leaving the last flight at threat of indirect fire (mortars, artillery, etc.). Either way, there was no choice but to leave this.
So, all in all, America took MOST of its equipment. What it left behind is of no consequence, or its being left was inevitable. I do not think we can fault Biden for the equipment left behind. The small arms and ammunition we left, was given to the ANA to use. But even these stockpiles will degrade. Ammunition, especially explosive ammunition, has to be rigorously maintained. Just letting it sit somewhere for years on end leads to corrosion, and weapons failures. These mistakes can even be deadly. The rifles left behind will deteriorate without proper care and become unreliable at best, unusable most likely.
Another thing I have heard was Trump say that he would have bombed all the bases, as if this hurts the Taliban somehow. They have no need for these enormous, well-fortified bases, because they live among the people. They take houses and walled compounds in the city. And, if we ever invaded again, ALL of these bases would be easily stamped out with airpower, because these bases were not made with defense from air attack being a factor. There are no real bunkers, and the Taliban would be better off hiding in the mountains like last time. This makes it possible for the US or other nations to occupy the bases in case something happens, necessitating another invasion (such as terrorists have set up shop and started planning attacks against us, or more likely, completed an attack against us). After all, the U.S.’s biggest base in Afghanistan (Bagram Airfield) was actually a base built by the Soviets during the 80s during their occupation of Afghanistan.
So, in conclusion, the bases and equipment left behind were inevitable, or good financial moves (the resale value on an MRAP that has blown up is not too good). Biden did not err, here. He did make a lot of errors, but this is not one of them
Culled from Quora