Appoint an ‘Afghanistan commission’ now
The failure of U.S. support to the Afghanistan government and the collapse of that ally are now matters of historical record. The 20-year U.S. campaign to punish the Taliban for supporting terrorism and to prevent them from regaining control of Kabul has ended in defeat. Renewed Taliban control may or may not prompt massive new suffering such as human rights abuses, economic collapse, revenge killings and forced migration. It may or may not seriously undermine U.S. credibility, alliances and international influence. It may or may not have been the likeliest outcome in the long run. It is too soon to know how these propositions will play out with any degree of certainty.
What is unambiguously clear in the immediate aftermath is the systemic policy failure the defeat represents. Tens of billions of dollars in equipment seized by an adversary. Americans stranded in a foreign capital at the mercy of that adversary. Friends and employees of the U.S. government hunted, killed, trapped. U.S. military members and diplomats conducting an urgent evacuation within a tiny, dangerous perimeter. A hasty withdrawal to “protect” our forces leads to the highest U.S. casualty count in a decade. NATO’s primary alliance political-military operation ended with confusion and acrimony. Two decades of American blood and treasure spent with none of the gains preserved.
This was a multifaceted failure, and the American people deserve a detailed, expert investigation of the causes and decisions that led to it. After the hostage rescue Operation Eagle Claw ended disastrously at Desert One in Iran in 1980, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked a group of retired senior officers (the Holloway Review Group) to analyze the operation and causes of failure in detail. The report led to significant reforms — albeit after seven years of delay and forceful congressional intervention — referred to as Goldwater-Nichols, which greatly improved joint capabilities and helped restore U.S. credibility.
Unlike the Holloway Review Group, which focused on military technical and operational issues while avoiding policy drivers such as the interagency process, intelligence assessments and presidential decision-making, a macro-level assessment is now needed. This would be akin to the 9/11 Commission, formed in 2002 and concluding in 2004, or the Winograd Commission conducted by the Israeli government following manifest failures in the 2006 Lebanon War.
These commissions delved into policy formulation, interaction of civilian leaders with military and intelligence officials, analytic and decision-making processes. After the reports, specific steps were taken to hold those in positions of leadership and command accountable, and to avoid repetition. Washington needs a thorough and brutally honest examination along these lines today, and the American people deserve one; without it, the chances for repeated strategic error remain high. With it, the confidence of the public and our allies can be placed on firmer footing.
As national security practitioners for three decades each, we assess that the fall of Kabul and the Afghan government was not simply an unfortunate series of events on the ground, nor was it inevitable. Errors and dysfunctions of policy, strategy and organizational culture turned a stalemate into a rout, put American citizens and service members in an untenable situation, and damaged national interests. In a world replete with state actors and terrorists seeking to attack American interests and allies, we cannot shrug our shoulders and say “it is what it is.” Nor should the post-mortem be left entirely to politicians for partisan theater.
We call on Congress to appoint a serious, qualified, bipartisan commission of objective national security professionals to investigate the proximate and underlying causes of the present disaster, and to recommend appropriate personnel, organizational and procedural remedies at the level of national security and foreign policymaking analogous to those proposed for military and intelligence organizations by the 9/11 and Holloway reviews.
Rich Outzen is a retired U.S. Army colonel, nonresident senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and former senior adviser at the Department of State. He now works as a private-sector consultant.
J. Darren Duke is a senior research fellow with the Philos Project and a retired Marine Corps colonel in intelligence and special operations.
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