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What country harbored Al Qaeda and the Taliban after they left Afghanistan in 2002?
What country provided substantial, detailed support to Libyan, Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons development programs?
What country provided overflight rights to the US to access Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021, in exchange for more than $1 billion in military aid each year from 2001 through 2017 (when it was suspended by the previous administration), and nearly $10 billion in economic aid?
Before answering, let’s return briefly to Kabul and some thoughts on assessing what happened…
How many times have you heard something along the lines of: “Well, it was a mess, but we figured out a way around it and came up with a solution.” You’ve probably said it a few times yourself. Or more than a few times. One of the conclusions you can draw whenever you hear that line is that somewhere above you, the leadership failed.
Except in rare cases, leaders don’t actually do any work. The supervisor isn’t using a shovel, the Colonel isn’t shooting anybody, the Admiral doesn't steer the flagship. Leaders provide guidance, motivation, and support. If you have good leaders, they actually make the job easier, they give the folks actually “swinging the hammers” the guidance and the materials need to best do their jobs. When leadership is competent, they provide the right guidance and thus provide an opportunity to plan solutions that actually apply to the situation at hand.
In many organizations the leaders simply occupy an office, they neither contribute to success nor get in the way of those who are actually doing something. A close look at most large corporations shows that overwhelmingly, that is the legacy of those in the “C” suites. If they didn’t show up for work, no-one would notice.
But, sadly, too often, the leaders in many organizations - and the US military is no exception - don’t provide adequate leadership and guidance, but instead hope, pray, and bet on the ingenuity of the “regular folks” to pull their backsides out of the fire and come up with a solution. You know: “Don’t worry, the Master Chief will figure it out.”
And so we find the situation in Kabul. The tale now being spun is that the evacuation of Kabul is one of the great evacuations, etc., another Berlin Airlift…
Here’s the thing, this airlift was accomplished by a bunch of folks, most of them enlisted, few of them above the rank of major, and perhaps one or two of them above the rank of colonel (captain). The only thing positive the folks in Washington or Tampa did was sign out the orders (no doubt written by field grade officers).
For the leadership in Tampa or the Pentagon to take any credit for the success of the airlift out of Kabul is akin to setting your building on fire and then congratulating yourself because your firefighters managed to put the fire out.
If every single person in the chain of command wanted to do the right thing, a good heart doesn’t exonerate them. Truly good intentions - a pure heart and pure intentions - may get you into heaven. But, in the military it doesn’t free you from a charge of negligence. What happened in Kabul is a demonstration of negligence and professional incompetence someplace up the chain of command, and a bunch of junior officers and Soldiers and Marines and Airmen and Sailors busting their backsides and coming up with solutions despite - despite - the “leadership” of their senior officers.
Good leadership helps the sailors; mediocre leadership simply doesn’t get in their way; poor leadership causes problems. The crew must then figure out a way around bad guidance, figure out what really needs to be done, and then execute the real plan.
That is what happened in Kabul.
So, to begin, no one wearing a star ought to get a medal for anything associated with what happened in Afghanistan at any time in 2021.
Second, there needs to be a thorough “After Action Review” of the entire situation, starting perhaps 6 months ago, determine who didn’t perform up to par, and they all need to be retired.
And third, the answer to the questions above: Pakistan - for each question. If any good is to come out of this horrific mess that is Kabul 2021, perhaps it will be that we will re-examine our relationship with Pakistan.
The US grew quite close to Pakistan during the 1980s because Pakistan was willing to support US efforts to undermine Soviet operations in Afghanistan. After September 11th we again had need for close relations with Pakistan, as we needed overflight and transit of Pakistan to move aircraft and material into Afghanistan. And for this privilege we paid Pakistan well, in money and in material support to their armed forces, even as Pakistan "played both sides of the field;” after 2002 the Taliban moved into the border region shared between Pakistan and Afghanistan and have been there ever since. Al Qaeda also moved into Pakistan - bin Laden lived just a mile from Pakistan’s Military Academy when he was finally killed - he’d been living there for at least 2 years.
To clarify how the government in Pakistan feels about what is now happening in Afghanistan, one need look no further than what Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, said about Afghanistan on August 16th:
It is more difficult to free your mind from mental slavery, Afghans have broken the shackles of slavery.
It’s time for the US to take a very hard look at its relationship with Pakistan and ask ourselves whether that relationship is really in the US interest. Necessity bade the US cozy up to Pakistan; in the light of Afghanistan, it’s time to reexamine that relationship.
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 ...