The Painful Lessons of Afghanistan

General Joseph L. Votel (Ret.) joined BENS as CEO & President in January 2020 following a 39-year military career where he commanded special operations and conventional forces at every level; last serving as the Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) where he was responsible for U.S. and coalition military operations in the Middle East, Levant, and Central and South Asia. General Votel’s career included combat in Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq and he led the 79-member coalition that successfully liberated Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State Caliphate. General Votel preceded his assignment at CENTCOM with service as the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and the Joint Special Operations Command.

The Cipher Brief:  Did you ever envision that the U.S. would pull out so quickly or completely leaving the Afghan military on its own without U.S. air support?  

General Votel: I did not anticipate this during my time – but once the President sets a hard departure date – then a fast withdrawal is inevitable.  No Commander wants to accept unnecessary risk with troops on the ground when you are up against a clearly articulated departure date.

The Cipher Brief: Intelligence assessments wildly missed the mark on how fast Kabul would fall, what factors contributed most directly to this? 

General Votel: Certainly, the departure of our own capabilities is a big part of this; the lack of direct contact with Afghan leaders is another important factor; and, of course, once it was clear that we were departing (and took our Commander out) — we lost priority and access with our normal and reliable Afghan intelligence sources.

The Cipher Brief: U.S. personnel are facing a deteriorating security situation at the Kabul airport while U.S. forces are still deploying for the contingency operation, another sign that the administration underestimated how fast the Taliban would reach Kabul. The U.S. could have chosen to slow the Taliban advance using airpower, why didn’t it happen, do you think? 


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General Votel: I think it is very clear that this was no longer a priority for our Government.  The mission right now, at least articulated over the weekend, is about supporting evacuation of the diplomats and helping with the departure of those Afghans who assisted the US and meet the criteria for evacuation.  While I don’t know this for certain — I believe what we were trying to do with over the horizon air support in a rapidly developing situation, was not optimal or overly effective.  It doesn’t seem to have done much – if anything.

The Cipher Brief: The U.S. has allowed U.S. supplied military hardware, weapons and technology to fall into the hands of the Taliban, a group responsible for the deaths of U.S. personnel and thousands of innocent Afghans.  The U.S. government holds private citizens and corporations accountable for far lesser violations of export violations involving dual-use technology or military equipment, etc.  How should Americans think about this situation now, where the Taliban will use equipment, paid for the by the U.S. taxpayer, to potentially perpetrate acts of violence against U.S. interests, and erode democratic values that the U.S. tried to introduce to Afghanistan?  

General Votel: Not sure on this.  Unfortunately, it is not the first time we have seen this — remember ISIS in 2014, in Mosul?  I suspect these will be more trophy pieces than they will be hard military capability – with the exception of small arms, mortars, and artillery.  Most of this will be difficult for the Taliban to sustain – and they probably prefer their own gear, anyway.

The Cipher Brief:  There is a lot of anger among the national security community right now.  What would you say to individuals who have suffered because of the U.S. role in Afghanistan, who may be feeling anger and rage?  

General Votel: I can’t really comment on anger in the national security community — I am sure that exists, but the sentiment that seems more strong to me, is disappointment.  No one wants what we are seeing now.  I think most security professionals can accept a decision to depart by the Commander in Chief — that is well within his authority, and everyone understands this; what is harder to accept is the manner in which this happened, and how it has played out.  It was hard for me to watch Taliban sitting at a conference table that I once sat at with the Afghan President.  In a number of public engagements, I have participated in lately – people have asked me if this whole effort was a waste.  My response has been consistent.  American military personnel, members of the IC and the diplomatic corps conducted themselves honorably throughout this war.  They responded when the Nation called and did their best for our Country, each other, and the Afghan people.  There will be plenty of time to place the blame – but the vast, vast majority of Americans who participated in some aspect of the Afghan War did so nobly and to the best of their ability.  We should not lose sight of this.  That this did not turn out the way we all hoped — is not their fault … and I would not want anyone (especially families of our wounded and killed) to think these efforts were in vain.  That is not how I thought about them at the time, and it is not how I think about them now.  They answered when the Nation called.

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2 Replies to “The Painful Lessons of Afghanistan”
  1. Afghanistan, who catches the embers?
    Samir Altaqi

    For many years, U.S. adversaries have—with great mockery— enjoying the specter of the world’s greatest democracy struggling to contain its own war on terror, “like an elephant chasing a mosquito”. Strategically, however, terrorism is nothing but a mere means of combat and can never be an enemy in and of itself as evidenced by Iran’s instrumentation of terrorism in the region.

    Over time, of course, the strategic absurdity has come to an end—and in the face of increasingly powerful real-life opponents—the American strategic mindset has shifted toward greater humility. As a result of such errant approaches, the position of terrorism in America’s global strategy declined to the bottom of long list of growing priorities of priorities as more severe challenges were knocking at the door of the Pentagon.

    Just as Afghanistan was a symbol of this delinquency, it has also become a symbol of a resurgence in adaptability. What is America trying to say by withdrawing from Afghanistan? What does this reflect? America has always suffered from a schizophrenic divide between its deeply engrained democratic assumption regarding its factual position as a dominant power. Unlike the historic French or Russian continental hegemonic attitudes, the United States is, in fact, a naval force of hegemony with little to no interest in land domination. This U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan reminds us of what the British naval forces encountered once they repelled the Napoleonic continental dominance at sea to protect their maritime trade lines, which led to their being pushed deep into the tumults of perpetual European conflict. Likewise, in the 20th century, the United States rebuffed the Soviet Union by sinking it with its wild continental ambitions.

    The prosperity of the American economy is linked mainly to its genuine interest in preserving the global dollar’s status and subsequently on preserving its role as a guarantor of the free flow of international trade. Now, rather unfortunately, the United States does not seem to prioritize spreading just such a liberal model as was the case during the Cold War. Still, it did lift the lid on many regimes it supported against ascending domestic power. The purpose of such a policy was to confront the communist enemy, which no longer exists.

    On the other hand, the United States is no longer interested in enforcing the broken, leftover postcolonial nation-state order given that it had drastically failed to solve the ethno-sectarian and tribal conflicts, let alone the Ameriican disinterest in nation-building. It became evident that trying to force a broken national unity onto people by demanding that they live together under whatever model of totalitarian regimes only paved the way for eventual state failure.

    Afghanistan is a stark example of just such a country. What brought the United States to it is not the involvement of the Russians, but, rather, the fact that it had become the epicentre of military terrorist action against U.S. territory. Still, historically, as global naval power, what the United States has achieved was exceptional. It succeeded in penetrating deep into hostile Eurasian territory that has never been tamed even by continental dominions of antiquity. Nevertheless, soon, the U.S. sank, again, into the insurmountable task of nation-building, a cause that everyone has long failed since failed to achieve.

    The Afghani people will have on the longer term to decide whether to allow the ugly Taliban leaders to resume power. The simple American presence was distorting the Afghani socio-economic dynamics in favor of more stagnation in those dynamics. Now, and despite the apparent tragedy rapidly swarming all over the country, the American withdrawal has left unsettled scores of scenarios regarding the country’s future. The economy and future generations will rule over the shape of the Afghani state if the Afghans decide to continue living together.

    This tragic scenario reflects new facts. As Central Asia is doomed to become a battleground for a new competition over natural resources between major Asian countries, the United States may find itself squeezed into a regional conflict it has no interest in being dragged into.

    So many clashing clouds are rapidly converging over the gloomy skies of Afghanistan and—as a result—the country is becoming an epicenter for regional crisis.

    As this regional crisis looms large over much territory, clashes of interests are increasingly tense and complex. Just to mention the most prominent ones, we can cite China versus Russia competing over the immense Central Asian natural resources. In addition, Pakistan is grappling with Iran over the deeply rooted Shiites and Sunni ideological belligerences while India is finding itself encircled by rival nuclear powers. In these tumults, it is challenging to envisage tangible American goals. As a result, Central Asia, made up of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, could potentially be doomed to become the most unstable, vulnerable, and dangerous region.

    After Mr. Biden declared his intent to withdraw the American forces from Afghanistan, it was interesting to watch diplomats, military officials, and intelligence personnel scramble to investigate interests and reveal intentions from Shanghai to ASEAN, to Tehran and beyond.

    In this arena, China’s interests never intersected with Russia, which already has its forces stretched from Ukraine, Syria, Armenia to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the latter “hosts” several Russian military bases.

    Russia even went so far as to welcome a U.S. military base in Central Asia, despite China’s blatant opposition to any U.S. military or security expansion near the restive Xinjiang province.

    The Russian newspaper “Kommersant” reported on July 17, 2021, that Putin had offered Biden the use of its military bases in Central Asia to gather information from Afghanistan. This Russian proposal is commensurate—ideally—with Russia’s self-perception of its role as an international player .

    Considering this somewhat abstruse scene, many doubts resonate in Beijing that an American exit could be a ploy, while, it is being said, and in return, China’s broader involvement in Afghanistan may prove to be nothing more than a trap. China’s latest move with Pakistan to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan seems to be a far riskier geopolitical move.

    History shows that no power has ever been able to control this strategic space stretching from China to the Mediterranean. There is no indication that China will be able to succeed where others have failed. Although China has more resources than any other power in Eurasia, it will continue to face countless problems, from terrorism to national-ethnic conflicts as well as competition from other powers.

    While China views Afghanistan as its gateway to the West, there is much concern in China about the Taliban’s support of Xinjiang-based separatist and extremist groups. This factor adds additional complexity to Chinese policy in the region. Although Russian and Chinese diplomats are looking to build a minimum understandings around their mutual attitude, their observed behavior is far from reflecting such diplomatic optimism. At the same time, they walk towards a dangerous escalating tension.

  2. I am a physician and attorney who worked as a GS physician for the military for 12 years. I am no expert on foreign policy or military policy, but I graduated from college in the middle of the Vietnam war, followed it closely and read about it afterwards as information came out.

    The war in Afghanistan has unfortunate parallels with Vietnam. We supported a deeply corrupt ‘elected’ government with little popular support. We understood the war was unwinnable long before we left.

    Most important, however, our arrangements to rescue Vietnamese who had helped or worked for us were inadequate and left many, who had been promised rescue behind: they paid the price.

    The US may have had less time than it needed to evacuate Americans, but it had YEARS to rescue those who helped us, at great risk to themselves and their families. The US even had a program to do so, SIV. But obtaining this visa took an unconscionably long time, six years or more of unnecessary, repetitious red tape (I was a Federal bureaucrat, I know). The Muslim ban certainly didn’t help. Many Afghans were found and killed while they waited.

    There is absolutely NO EXCUSE for this.