President Biden is right. No matter when we left Afghanistan, it was going to be a mess. A big one.
But in the last two weeks, we’ve witnessed a failure by the United States that extends far beyond the normal chaos and calamity that defines Afghanistan and one that could have been avoided by a more precise execution of long-laid plans.
The White House narrative blaming Afghans, the collapse of Afghan National Forces, and the traitorous, cowardly flight of President Ghani is diversionary, not too unlike the chaff being shot from our departing C-17s as a countermeasure to potential ground fire.
The simple fact is that the Departments of State and Defense have planned and trained for this exact moment for years in a complex set of plans and bureaucratic agreements bundled up in what is called a “Noncombatant Evacuation Order.” A NEO takes all manner of contingencies into consideration, including departure points, perimeter security, and whether we are operating in a permissive or hostile environment.
A NEO is the plan to get American citizens the hell out of Dodge when the proverbial crap hits the fan in any country where we operate. Delicately balanced and extensively developed, the objective of a NEO is to achieve what the classical military strategist Carl von Clausewitz says is to manage an operation by “doing neither too much nor too little.”
In my four years in Afghanistan, including as spokesperson to U.S. Embassy Kabul, I had a chance to weigh in on parts of a draft Emergency Action Plan that detailed the embassy’s response to a set of operational challenges, including a mass evacuation. A classified document, the plan integrated into the overall NEO structure and acted as the embassy’s blueprint, providing the safety, security, and eventual “repatriation” of Americans and evacuation of Afghan allies from the country, if needed.
In fairness to the Biden administration, the retrograde of American forces and citizens began before the Taliban sauntered into Kabul on Aug. 15. At that point, the United States found itself in the unenviable position of conducting a NEO not in a permissive environment, but in a hostile one.
Herein lies the point where the Clausewitz dictum of “doing too little” led to multiple mistakes that defy the easy explanation that the Taliban magically appeared in Kabul.
The first was a result of the yet-explained decision by the Pentagon to abandon Bagram Air Base on July 5th. Insane in its short-sightedness, the decision left Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) as our only exit.
Imagine if RDU Airport was smack-dab in the middle of the Crabtree Mall area in Raleigh. That’s HKIA. Only yards from its front door, you are literally in a dense, crowded city street. In fact, in my many times leaving the airport in an armored convoy for the 6.7 mile trek to the embassy, it wasn’t potential IEDs that scared me to death, but the prospect of mowing down pedestrians, poor Afghans simply trying to sell fruits in their rickety stalls.
By abandoning Bagram and putting all pressure on HKIA, the United States created an uncontrollable, unsecurable pressure point that tragically resulted in the very predictable attack that left 13 U.S. soldiers dead and many innocent Afghans killed and wounded.
In addition, and out of desperation — which is the exact state you should not be in during an NEO — the Biden administration literally made a deal with the devil. In an unconscionable move, it turned the safe passage of American citizens and others on the streets leading to HKIA over to the Taliban.
The immorality of such a decision cannot be overstated. The United States military with all of its might refused to muster Special Operations Forces to patrol, safeguard, and yes, possibly invoke rules of engagement in the solemn duty to conduct a NEO in a hostile environment. The Biden administration literally negotiated to put Americans behind enemy lines.
If that wasn’t insane enough, the Pentagon publicly acknowledged that in so doing, it handed over a list of American citizens and Afghans, including their passport numbers and other identifiable information, to the Taliban. Let that sink in for a moment.
In the weeks and months to come, we will be told by the Biden administration that the operation was so successful that it rescued 100,000 American citizens and deserving Afghans. But this too is a sham.
The truth is, in desperation, the gates at HKIA were open and closed haphazardly, and authorities issued parole to thousands of Afghans, many of whom had no documentation, no record of working for the United States, and nothing more than luck at being near an open gate. Meanwhile, thousands who could document close ties, including Afghans whom I know and worked with, have been abandoned.
In our after-action review of this operation, we as a nation must not accept the Benghazi-like retort: “What difference at this point does it make!”
Our journalists, lawmakers of both parties, and the American people should demand to know why this administration shrugged its shoulders in handing over any security of our citizens to the Taliban and how any NEO operation planned and practiced for so long, ended up so tragically a mess.
David Snepp is a native of Charlotte and served in Kabul from 2010-2014 including a stint as spokesperson for U.S. Embassy Kabul.