Although candid at times during the congressional hearings on the Afghan war held on September 28 and 29, the three four-star generals (Lloyd Austin now Secretary of Defense; Mark Milley as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Frank McKenzie, Jr. as Commander of Central Command) – with the complicity of the mainstream media – continued to obfuscate and deflect the Pentagon’s institutional incompetence and the Washington establishment’s responsibility for its embarrassing Vietnam war-redux in its just ended 20-year debacle in Afghanistan. (Kudos to Senator Manchin for making this apropos comparison during the Senate hearing.)
In reporting on these hearings, the mainstream media had a choice to make: Who to blame for the failure and adverse consequences of our country’s long-running Götterdämmerung opera in Afghanistan in which the history of the Graveyard of Empires became the Evil that inevitably triumphed over the Pentagon Warrior Gods’ hubris and their financiers in Congress backed by their defense industry patrons. (Picking up on this theme, Representative Gaetz noted in the hearings General Austin’s employment by Raytheon prior to him becoming the Secretary of Defense.)
Having to choose between the forever-war establishment in Washington or throwing Presidents Trump and Biden under the bus for ending the Afghan war as both had vowed do if elected; the mainstream media sided with the Pentagon and its financers in their 20-year Afghan Wagnerian opera. The key takeaway: It is okay for the MSM to take sides in disagreements between the political parties on domestic issues (like the highly debated 10-year $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill now under consideration); but the primacy of the $1.3 trillion per year that Congress spends on Washington’s omnipotent "national security state" and its grip on our foreign and military policy cannot be challenged. To wit: Despite the Pentagon’s embarrassing and messy withdrawal from its 20-year, multi-trillion-dollar Afghan debacle (including murdering Afghan children in an errant drone strike and getting 13 U.S. service members killed on the way out), Congress subsequently gave the Pentagon a $35 billion raise in its base budget (from $705 billion in 2021 to $740 billion in 2022) – which was $25 billion more than had been requested!
I could cite and dissect several MSM articles to show the MSM complicity in defending the generals’ self-serving testimony and evading the truth about the facts on the ground that would have made prolonging the US troop presence in the Afghanistan – as the generals all recommended – another imprudent decision in their Afghan Wagnerian opera. Indeed, following the generals’ advice would have done further harm to US national security interests and gotten more US soldiers and Afghan civilians needlessly killed. I can support this assertion from personal knowledge, having lived and worked for six years in Afghan as a field-level civilian advisor for USAID. From my home bases in Kabul and Kandahar, I routinely traveled to, managed projects, and met with governors, mayors, and district officials in nearly every province in the US military’s "battle space" in eastern and southern Afghanistan. I also traveled to most other major cities. (Lots of corroborating pictures of these interactions in my book.)
Having an in-depth understanding the country, its people, and the war, the specific "coverup" article that compelled me to write this piece and set the record straight about the generals’ testimony and the MSM coverage was this one: "Afghanistan and the Haunting Questions of Blame" by Robin Wright published in New Yorker Magazine on September 30, 2021. I chose this article to dissect since the New Yorker is a liberal magazine and the well-sourced Ms. Wright is usually balanced and insightful in her coverage of national security affairs. With her expertise and sources, why then does she have any question of who to blame?
A post-mortem media spin job is going on to deflect blame away from the Pentagon and keep its $740 billion/year base budget intact. Afterall, why does the Army have ten active-duty combat divisions each with 15,000 soldiers plus support units, the Marines have two equivalent size expeditionary forces, and the Air Force have multiple troop-transport and close-air support wings for fighting large-scale air-and-ground wars when the Afghan war – following after the equally disastrous Iraq and Vietnam wars – indisputably demonstrate the inefficacy of regime-change invasions, occupations, and counterinsurgency warfare. Haven’t we learned such wars are unwinnable and counterproductive to US national security interests? We cannot afford a fourth lesson learned – so why is Congress overfunding our military by maintaining this unneeded warfighting capability?
As the generals had to do to have any credibility during the hearings, Secretary Austin and General Milley acknowledged at various times that the US military’s intervention in Afghanistan – which peaked in 2010 with over 150,000 US and other NATO country and Australian soldiers in country – had been a "strategic failure". (The same was true of the $150 billion nation-building project in which I was involved.) After noting their mea culpa, Ms. Wright cites in her article General Milley’s lamenting about Pakistan’s war-long support of the Taliban. She also gives General Austin credit for acknowledging: the supposed poor U.S. intelligence; the endemic government corruption (topped by President Ghani skipping out of the country with $169 million in cash); the Trump Administration’s exclusion of the so-called "elected" Ghani government in the Doha negotiations with the Taliban; and the military’s fundamental misreading of the Afghan military’s lack of leadership, morale, and will (which all were reported by the field-level soldiers and the contractors doing the training – but ignored by senior officers as General McKenzie obliquely admitted in the hearings).
By uncritically repeating these excuses for the Pentagon’s failed 20-year military campaign and saying it was the "Biden Administration" (rather than egregious tactical decisions by the careerist generals at Central Command and the Pentagon as Lt. Colonel Scheller has courageously proclaimed) that botched the pullout, Wright (among others notable commentators) is providing blame-shifting cover for the Pentagon in the mainstream media. Only the last factor – the ineptitude and waste of $83 billion on building up the Afghan military – was nominally the responsibility of the Pentagon. But not mentioned in the hearings nor in the MSM coverage (including Ms. Wright’s article) is that it was the Pentagon brass who advocated for the ineffectual troop surges in 2009 and 2017; defeated President Obama’s withdrawal plan to end the war in 2014 as he pledged to do as president; and vehemently opposed and undercut both Presidents Trump’s and Biden’s decisions to finally close the curtain on the Afghan Wagnerian opera that has bedeviled our country for 20 years as both men had pledged to do as president. (A CNN/ORC poll at the time of President Obama’s exit plan in December 2013 showed 82% of Americans wanted our country out of Afghanistan.)
After I switched from being a contractor to a direct-hire USAID official in mid-2011 and obtained a security clearance, I attended a "new arrival" CIA briefing at the embassy in Kabul. We were bluntly told the CIA had determined the war was "an unwinnable stalemate" – but the briefing officer informed us the Pentagon disagreed with this assessment. Thus, there was no bad intel – Congress and the Pentagon just ignored the reality that the war was not winnable and prolonged it for 10 more years for no national security reason. While the corrupt Ghani government was nominally "elected," Ghani was a longtime US resident who was put in office in 2014 by US officials after a disputed election (and whose 2019 reelection was also credibly disputed) to prolong the war so the US military could permanently retain Bagram Airbase as a regional geopolitical asset. This well-known intention was an affront for all Afghans who are inherently opposed to having foreign soldiers on their soil. I recently asked my prior Afghan understudies (for whom I have provided several Special Immigration Visa recommendations) why the Taliban so easily took over the provincial capitals and the Afghan army collapsed once the US started withdrawing its troops. They told me the Ghani government was seen as a "collaborator" with a foreign invader and had no legitimacy outside of Kabul. If I could easily find out this perception of the U.S.-backed government, why couldn’t the Pentagon and then planned accordingly a more orderly exit?
Furthermore, Pakistan’s support and collaboration with the Taliban as ethnic and religious compatriots predates the US military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. This significance of their transnational relationship in tribal societies should have been recognized as fatal flaw in Pentagon’s counterinsurgency strategy – especially after the Pentagon encountered this same problem in the Iraq war with the Shi’a Iran making common cause with its majority co-religionist Shiite Arabs in Iraq. On all accounts, the Pentagon does not appear to have a learning curve.
The above "on the ground" facts – at least partially acknowledged by the generals in their testimony and Ms. Wright in her "informed" article – call into question the sincerity of the three generals’ publicly declared "best professional judgment" recommendations (presumably conveyed in confidence to President Biden) for the ending the Afghan war. In General Milley’s words, their unanimous opinion (along with that of General John Campbell as the last four-star in-country commander) was "to keep a steady state of 2,500 and it could bounce up to 3,500, maybe, something like that" of US troops in country after the August 31 withdrawal date set by the Biden Administration and accepted by the Taliban. This revised August 31 "full troop withdrawal date" already was a four-month gratis extension by the Taliban of the May 1st set out in the Doha Agreement concluded 14 months earlier. Thus, both sides had ample advance time to prepare for an orderly transition of authority, the evacuation of civilians, and then the "retrograde" of all US troops. It was the Pentagon’s and Central Command’s errors in judgment that made this process chaotic and deadly.
According to Ms. Wright, the generals’ institutional group-think advice to President Biden was for his administration to either outright abrogate or renegotiate the Doha agreement and get the Taliban to agree to an open-ended extension of the US withdrawal date. They felt this new "residual force plan" was needed to allow "President Ashraf Ghani’s fragile government and Afghan security forces more time for elected (sic) leaders in Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban on the makeup of a transitional government." Ms. Wright notes, "the rivals had been talking since last September, and the Taliban had refused to make major concessions." Yet, knowing this history and the "strategic failure" of their 20-year war, the generals apparently presumed, according to Ms. Wright, that the battle-hardened Taliban would irrationally agree to "making the timing of a future withdrawal [of US forces] … depend on conditions, such as a successfully brokered peace, and not tied to an arbitrary date." The US military would also keep Bagram Airbase indefinitely under the generals’ proposed "residual force" plan – even though the US had lost the war militarily; the Ghani government was unpopular, corrupt, and ineffectual; and the Taliban had fought relentlessly since 2002 as Afghan patriots to get all foreign soldiers out of their country. When the generals made their "residual force" recommendation to President Biden in March 2021 for continuing the war, the Taliban already controlled most provincial capital cities and two-thirds of the country.
Under the generals’ self-serving new plan, the U.S.-controlled Ghani government would have no incentive to ever reach deal with the Taliban as long as US taxpayers were footing the $45 billion/year bill for keeping Ghani (including his graft cut) in office. As President Biden prudently foresaw, proposing this "dead on arrival" new plan to the Taliban and/or all US troops just not leaving on August 31st as the parties had agreed after years of good faith protracted negotiations would have restarted a full-scale civil war in the country. Note to Pentagon: You were losing this war when you had 150,000 US and NATO soldiers in-country, dozens of forward operating bases, two large operational airbases with F-16 squadrons, and a nominal 350,000 soldier Afghan national army under your control.
Thus, the generals’ 2,500 to 3,500 "residual force" recommendation made to Biden in March for continuing the war can only be seen as a disingenuous ploy by the Pentagon brass to cover for their institutional warfighting incompetence. The Pentagon’s backers in Congress and the MSM were complicit in this deception by pretending the generals’ touted residual force plan was a credible alternative to full withdrawal per the Doha agreement. If pursued, the generals’ plan would have led to the US refighting the 20-year-long Afghan civil war with our local partners being gangster President Ghani and what has now proven to be a corrupt, incompetent, and dispirited Afghan national army. As in the first war, Afghan War II would have been years more of death and destruction with only winner being – once again – the defense contractors.
There was scant commentary on the irrationality and inevitable calamitous consequences of the generals’ specious advice during the hearings (Senator Warren being a notable exception) and in the MSM afterwards – but lots of faux criticism of Biden for seeing through the generals’ self-serving claptrap. Despite being well read, it seems General Milley has not read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, especially the passage that says, "If you know neither the enemy [the Taliban are committed patriots fighting for their national sovereignty with religious passion] nor yourself [the Pentagon never had a viable counterinsurgency strategy], you will succumb in every battle.
Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA , MIT graduate, and US Air Force veteran who has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico with his wife Elena. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?, and has written other articles for Antiwar.com and the Libertarian Institute.