The Biden administration’s rhetoric and approach to the crisis in Afghanistan betrays two fundamental problems: gradualism, and an attempt to “define down” the problem. A crisis of this magnitude demands immediate mobilization of all resources that might be required rather than the piecemeal mobilization and deployment as the situation evolves. And it also requires remaining fixed on the original task and requirements, rather than allowing the objectives to slip to those that seem achievable within our own self-imposed constraints.
President BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE needs to give orders — right now — to extend the deadline, to deploy the military and non-military assets needed for a longer-term operation, and to keep the objective of the operation as the evacuation of all Americans and all eligible Afghans.
Getting military assets mobilized and into a conflict zone is difficult and can be time-consuming. There is a tendency in a fast-moving, time-delimited crisis to focus on the immediate requirements and to put off decisions on assets that might be needed if the crisis protracts. That tendency is visible here.
After an initial surge of forces needed to secure the airport and manage the evacuation for the roughly two-week period from Aug. 14 to Aug. 31, the U.S. military does not appear to have sent forward all the additional resources that have since become clearly necessary. Crowd control, including the crowds inside the airport compound, is a function best performed by military police rather than infantry or Marines. Handling the hygienic requirements of many thousands of people is a significant task that U.S. military logistics units can address — but getting those units and resources to Kabul seems to have taken too long, and even now it is not clear that they are present in adequate strength. Helping Americans get through a city riddled with Taliban checkpoints and the general mayhem that a government collapse and insurgent takeover almost always cause clearly requires U.S. military teams ready and able to go out into the city and find and bring to the airport Americans and Afghans at risk. Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinBiden remarks on Taiwan leave administration scrambling Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan GOP lawmakers worry vaccine mandate will impact defense supply chain MORE and other officials are only starting to suggest that they are thinking about options along those lines, the one airlift of a few hundred people from within 650 feet of the airport notwithstanding.
If the president holds to this deadline, it is already too late for many of these decisions if actions to execute them are not already underway. By the time forces can be mobilized and sent to Kabul, they will have only days to function before they have to begin packing up again. That fact is surely driving further hesitance about ordering them to go. People in crisis tend to underestimate the likelihood that they really will want even a couple of days of help from such forces, let alone the possibility that the mission will be extended. That is why the president and the defense secretary should have ordered everything that might be needed to mobilize and deploy either to forward bases or to Kabul itself at once, as soon as they got to the reported “Oh, shit” moment last weekend. And it is why they must do it now.
It also is why the president must give the order to extend the mission right now. Further delays in issuing the order to extend the mission will continue to dampen enthusiasm for getting more resources into theater. Gradualism in military affairs is usually problematic; President Johnson’s famously gradualist approach was one of the causes of the debacle in Vietnam. It has even less place in a crisis the president has decided will be over two weeks from when it started.
Taliban public rejection of an extension should not prevent the president from making this call. The Taliban have themselves violated their commitments to allow anyone who wants to leave to go, as well as their announced amnesty. Those violations should give the president and his team ample leverage with the Taliban to gain an extension — if the threat of U.S. retaliation for Taliban attacks after Aug. 31 is not enough.
Minimalism is another commonly fatal flaw in military operations. One might consider how White House determination to minimize the footprint of military forces used in the failed hostage-rescue attempt in Tehran in 1980 led Operation Eagle Claw to become the calamitous “Desert One.” President Biden could well note that he has already committed thousands more troops to this mission than President Carter did to Eagle Claw. But, then, this mission is vastly larger and more complex than that one, and the apparent determination to keep the in-country U.S. footprint minimal rhymes too closely for comfort.
Confronted with a problem that self-imposed constraints have made unsolvable, many resort to defining down the problem itself. Continued administration comments that, on the one hand, they do not know how many Americans are still in Afghanistan and, on the other, that they will evacuate all Americans who want to leave are worrisome. By what criteria will the administration determine which Americans who have not contacted them wanted to stay? There should be only one such criterion — positive statements, demonstratively uncoerced by the Taliban, of Americans in Afghanistan that they do not want to leave. All Americans from whom the State Department has not received such a clear, positive statement should be presumptively taken to want to leave. The same is true for Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) or other valid grounds for evacuation by the U.S.
This standard is very difficult to meet, as the U.S. does not know exactly who is in country in which category. But America’s leaders, from the president on down, must make clear that they will not take silence for an affirmative decision to stay but will continue the evacuation mission until they are certain they have made all possible attempts to contact those who should be evacuated, and no further attempts are possible. And Congress should require an accounting of those attempts.
This is not the time to levy criticism, evaluate the war as a whole, or score political points on either side. The emergency in Kabul and Afghanistan generally is dire. It is certainly not getting better fast enough to meet the president’s timeline, and it may be getting worse with the news that Islamic State militants are actively seeking to attack U.S. forces and the crowds.
The president must stop hesitating. He must order the mission extended — and order all additional resources that such an extended mission might require into the region and into Afghanistan right now. There is no other sound choice to make.
Frederick Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He is the author of “Choosing Victory” and an architect of the surge military strategy in Iraq.