The Troops Deserve Better

How political calculations led to the Kabul Bombing

How do we judge the US leadership whose bad decisions led to the deaths of 13 US Troops this week? Harshly.

We start with the initial failure: a lack of perception.

Leadership refused to anticipate, and plan for, the quick fall of the Afghan government (without even a fight!) to the Taliban. They couldn’t see what was in front of them thus couldn’t recognize what lie ahead – the disaster of withdrawing from Afghanistan without securing American arms and without first evacuating Americans and those Afghan interpreters to whom we promised refuge.

Political Narratives

This led to a political crisis for the Biden Administration. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Observers abroad see the culmination of decades of American incompetence.” The Brookings Institute said that “recent events in Afghanistan have done nothing to arrest Mr. Biden’s decline and have probably intensified it.” European allies, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called the Afghanistan situation “bitter, dramatic, and terrifying.”

With poll numbers imploding and criticism coming from all fronts – even allies in the media – the Biden Administration needed to change the conversation. And so they focused on mass evacuations (namely of Afghan nationals). They went for big numbers.

By August 24, the Biden White House began “aggressively touting the success of their evacuation efforts in the war-torn country.” They bragged about evacuating over 70,000 people and amplified the success of “the president and the military’s evacuation efforts.” According to Politico:

On August 26, two days after the Biden Administration’s evacuation victory lap, “Two explosions killed dozens of people, including at least 13 U.S. troops, ripping through the crowds outside Afghanistan’s main airport.”

Why did this happen?

The problem with the mass evacuation – the Biden Administration’s strategy to turn Afghanistan into a political victory - was that US troops had a small footprint in Kabul. They held the airport, but they didn’t run the checkpoints outside the airport. The Taliban did.

Look closely at the admission of General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the Commander of US Central Command when asked about how the suicide bombers made it to US troops:

“Well clearly, if they were able to get up to the Marines, at the screening, at the entry point of the base, there’s a failure somewhere. It was a failure by… the Taliban operate with varying degrees of competence. Some of those guys are very scrupulously good, some of them are not. I just don’t know the answer to that question. Um... but we will, you can be assured we’re gonna continue to take a look at it and try to make all our practices better as we go forward.”

General McKenzie can distribute blame all he wants, but the failure was that of US leadership to make a Taliban checkpoint their last line of defense. Who would be surprised that the Taliban (whether intentionally or not) would let a suicide bomber through a checkpoint?

Let us recognize an important premise: it’s not a sacrifice if it isn’t voluntary. We distinguish between the sacrifice and the sacrificed to condemn those who sacrifice our troops.

At some point, there was a political calculation within US leadership accept security risks in favor of mass evacuations. Political considerations that could not be sacrificed for security. Those making the decisions, the civilian and military leadership, would benefit from the optics of mass evacuations and bear none of the costs.

Those costs were put on the US troops at the front lines. They signed up to protect their country and their country’s leadership betrayed them. Their leadership instructed them to follow a plan that made them vulnerable. And did they ever pay the price.