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The mess that was the US and NATO departure from Afghanistan is officially over, but pieces of it grind on. One estimate suggests there may be 500 US citizens remaining in Kabul itself, hundreds more (if not thousands) scattered around the rest of the country, and, per one of the several advocacy groups, more than 100,000 Afghans - those with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) and their families - trying to get out.
How that will be resolved remains to be seen, and sadly, there is likely going to be a great many more tragedies before this ends.
But this also raises certain issues. Specifically, there’s the issue of trust. While I would suspect that at an individual level people will continue to trust the average Grunt, the average Sailor, will people still trust the organizations they represent? And is there reason to? The lack of clear thinking on the part of senior leaders, and the inability to convince the President of the need for a cohesive evacuation plan is fairly evident. The US has planned hundreds and hundreds Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations (NEOs) and executed a host of them. It knows how to do this sort of thing. Or it did. But now?
Not that General Milley concedes this point; just the other day the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs suggested that, while there was some initial confusion, the evacuation took place pretty much as had been planned, that there were contingency plans ready to go and we saw one of the contingency plans executed:
But I will say that a lot of planning was done, ROC drills, rehearsals, etc. And what you saw unfold with this noncombatant evacuation operations was one of the contingency plans.
Perhaps, though surely the Chairman remembers they’re called “Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations” (NEOs) not “Combatant Evacuation Operations.” The point is to get out Americans citizens (AmCits as they are called), and those with SIVs. And to avoid the madness the world witnessed over the course of the last two weeks of August. This contingency plan appears to have fallen a bit short in Counter Terror tactics, too, with 13 Americans killed, among nearly 200 KIA.
Yet is there anyone who thinks that the US armed forces are not the most effective and efficient element of the entire US government?
For 40 years the US military has been regarded as the most trusted organization in the nation. Arguably, it is one of the most trusted organizations in the world.
But Afghanistan, and the performance of the US military in Afghanistan, raises disturbing questions about the senior leadership of US military and casts doubt on just how much they - the leaders - should trusted.
There’s a line from the Chinese philosopher of war Sun Tzu that’s often quoted:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
So, how well did we know the enemy in Afghanistan? At the Grunt level there were all sorts of folks who understood what was and was not happening in Afghanistan, and knew it from early on. I recall some truly prescient statements from folks I know that, years later, sound as if they came from the Oracle at Delphi. Unfortunately, no one listened. Instead, the leadership continued with their plans.
Consider this: the leader of the Taliban - Mullah Omar - was dead for two years and we didn’t know. We understood the enemy so poorly that their leader had died and been replaced and we didn’t know - for two years.
Further, we had worked with the Afghans for nearly two decades, we had trained them and equipped them, but somehow we didn’t understand what would happen as things started to deteriorate in the last several months?
Or consider the tens of billions of dollars of gear now in the hands of the Taliban.
If you want a further indictment on the leadership of this most trusted - and competent - element of the federal government, take any major procurement program of the last 40 years. How many came in on budget? How many worked as well as advertised? How many have lived up to all the promises made both by the manufactures and by the service staffs?
Which leads to a simple question: If there is reason to no longer trust the military leadership, how can we possibly trust the leadership anywhere else in the federal bureaucracy? And yet the leadership of Congress, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Schumer, want to give President Biden and the Executive Branch another $5 Trillion to spend. Why should we trust the bureaucracy to spend this well? Why won’t they display a certain lack of competence, at least as much incompetence as the “trusted” leadership in the Pentagon?
Shouldn’t we insist that Congress actually debate what is to be done with the money it authorizes and appropriates? And shouldn’t Congress provide real oversight of the actions of those in the executive who are spending that money?
Further, Congress should become clear on what it expects out of the President; after all, Congress is the “first among equals” of the three branches of government, Congress directs, the President, as head of the Executive branch, “executes.”
Thomas More, Lord Chancellor for Henry VIII, once observed that: “I should only ever tell the king what he ought to do, not what he could do.” Congress would do well to remember that, rather than passing trillions of dollars to the executive and then rarely if ever inquiring as to where the money went.
And we citizens would do well to remember this warning, attributed to George Washington: Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master.
What just transpired in Kabul has shown the lack competence in those who sit at the top our most trusted department of the government. There are any number of things that should now be done. But they should all begin with the citizens making it clear that the “leadership” in Washington is not trusted and demanding that they, those who would lead, first demonstrate they are worthy of our trust.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...