Veterans, experts detangle the unraveling of Afghanistan
What went wrong with the withdrawal and what it means for the future of counterterrorism
Christopher Meyer served 33 months in three combat zones as a National Guardsman, supporting special operations and earning a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan. Meyer worked on a “train-advise-assist” mission that put Afghan troops in charge with U.S. oversight. He said his efforts were undermined by the message that U.S. forces would not stick around for very long, “like police trying to root out drug dealers and then announcing they’ll leave the building in 24 hours.”
Meyer said he and his colleagues consistently tried to tell their superiors that terrorist threats would “flare up to a full-spectrum capability the second we leave.” Yet at a Sept. 28 Senate committee hearing about the U.S. withdrawal from the country, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified that top military leaders were surprised by how quickly the Afghan government and military “melted away” in only 11 days as American troops flew out.
In congressional testimony, Pentagon officials highlighted the merits of a quick withdrawal and the impossibility of establishing peace in the volatile region. But counterterrorism experts and veterans say military missteps and policy failures have left Afghanistan a breeding ground for terrorists who will ultimately threaten the United States.
In congressional hearings since the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said multiple presidential administrations made mistakes in Afghanistan or did not have a clear vision for how to conclude the war. Some Democrats pointed to the so-called Doha agreement as a particular weakening moment when President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in 2020. If the Taliban met certain conditions, the U.S. would pull troops out. The Taliban did not uphold its end of the deal, which included a commitment to denounce al-Qaeda. Since leaving office in January, President Donald Trump has said he would not have honored the agreement if he remained in office. President Joe Biden extended the deadline for U.S. withdrawal from the end of May to the end of August, when American troops departed Afghanistan as the Taliban swiftly took over the country. In the chaos of the exit, American citizens, residents, and people who helped the U.S. military were left behind.
In 2017, Col. Chris Costa, now the executive director at the International Spy Museum, was advising the Trump administration as a special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council. Before this appointment, Costa served for more than 25 years as an army counterintelligence specialist on deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Costa maintained then, as he does now, that a small number of special ops forces would effectively support the Afghan government, keep an eye on the Taliban, and mitigate terrorist threats. With a total lack of U.S. presence, Afghanistan would become a remote desert where violent leaders could revitalize attack plans, Costa said. Milley testified that al-Qaeda could regroup under Taliban rule and pose a threat to the U.S. within a year.
“The Taliban are not going to directly be caught with their hands in the cookie jar and saddling up for a close public relationship with al-Qaeda,” Costa said. “The Taliban have learned that they have to be more public relations savvy. They’re going to be far more discreet in their approaches to diplomacy.”
That discretion concerns Katherine Zimmerman, who studies foreign defense policy and advises the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. The Taliban now enjoys better internet access and information capabilities, she noted, allowing it to spread propaganda and interact with other authoritarian governments such as China.
Although Zimmerman is not convinced that continued military presence would build a stable Afghan nation, she agreed that Taliban rule will attract extremists: “It’s going to have a magnetic pull on somewhat bad actors into one petri dish where they get to know each other and build relationships. Ultimately, some of them will leave Afghanistan, and that’s when it becomes a problem for us.”
Milley said drone strikes and surveillance on Afghanistan from other countries—commonly called over-the-horizon capabilities—remain possible, but Zimmerman noted the U.S. no longer has bases in countries bordering Afghanistan and has to ask neighboring Pakistan for permission to use its airspace. She pointed to a mistaken drone strike on Sept. 10 as a potential danger in over-the-horizon missions. Military intelligence located what it thought was an Islamic State extremists’ truck full of bombs and launched a drone strike against it. Later, the Pentagon confirmed the strike killed an Afghan civilian who had previously helped the U.S. and worked for a humanitarian organization. It also killed several of his children.
“Those types of mistakes are only going to happen more frequently if we’re not on the ground and have other sources of communication to triangulate the truth of what is happening,” Zimmerman said.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., proposed a commission to investigate the 20-year Afghanistan war and create recommendations for how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Duckworth, an Army National Guard veteran who lost both legs while deployed in Iraq, wants to fill the commission with experts disconnected from Congress and past presidential administrations. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also submitted a bill to create a bipartisan panel of House and Senate leaders to investigate the withdrawal, but no Democrats have signed on yet.
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