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Afghanistan: A Major Challenge

(Editor’s Note: Communications Team member Steve Buck has 39 years of Foreign Service experience, mostly in the Middle East, which he reminds us does not include Afghanistan. The following is his take on the current uncertain situation in Afghanistan. Al Chambers contributed to the development and reporting for this news analysis. This was posted a few hours before President Biden’s August 20th news conference. We think classmates would be particularly interested in each other’s comments on this topic.)

By Steve Buck

Three men falling from USAF plane after losing their hold as it left Kabul airport August 16

President Biden called the photos of Afghans hanging on to the wheels of a U.S. military aircraft as it taxied towards take off at Kabul aircraft “gut-wrenching.”

That was in his first news conference. A day later, he was back, realizing more how threatening the entire situation was to his Presidency, but at the same time defiant in re-emphasizing that the decision to leave Afghanistan was the right one and supported by the majority of Americans. It could change, but polarized Americans, including Congressional leaders and potential voters around the country, seemed in rare agreement in supporting that the evacuation needed to continue until everything possible has been done to rescue Afghans who supported American efforts and believed their tragic nation might have a brighter future. Meanwhile, frantic round-the-clock meetings are underway at the White House and elsewhere and the President is expected and now obligated to continue speaking to the nation and the world.

The sudden collapse of the Afghan government took with it, at least temporarily, President Biden’s belief that America might be resuming its traditional role as a nation that could be trusted. Instead, the debacle in Afghanistan and now drastic actions to find ways to evacuate Americans, loyal Afghans and numerous third country nationals, reminded Americans and people around the world of the Vietnam defeat and other less-than-successful U.S. military ventures in recent decades.

President Biden during ABC interview August 18.

As three of America’s best Army and Marine fighting brigades arrived and secured the airport, the situation looked a bit more promising, but still depended on an apparent fragile agreement with the Taliban leadership. U.S. Defense Department briefings said that there were not sufficient assets in Kabul to both manage the airport evacuation and also venture into Kabul to assist people trying to reach the airport. Taliban spokespeople at the airport said they were trying to keep the operation going but that they had no authority over the Taliban groups reported to be searching for Afghan opponents and also journalists.

It didn’t have to be this way. In July, Foreign Service officers sent a dissent channel cable directly to Secretary of State Blinken reporting that the situation was deteriorating rapidly all over Afghanistan. These warnings did not lead to a faster plan for evacuations of Afghans. The order to evacuate the Embassy and destroy as much as possible came only two days before the Afghan government’s Kabul collapse.

Thinking strategically, we had/have one overriding interest in Afghanistan – making sure it does not become a haven for international terrorism. To do this we could have left the 2,500 non-combatant U.S forces in Afghanistan as advisors, a beefed-up version of the ones we have all over the world. There would have been casualties, but far fewer than trying to re-enter Afghanistan with the Taliban in charge. By indicating that we were leaving, we basically handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban.

We deluded ourselves by thinking that we could bring democracy to Afghanistan, so long as the democracy was linked to the U.S., seen now by most Afghans as yet the latest occupier of their country. This is why Afghans asked Americans to come through the back, rather than the front door of their house. American military analyst Jason Dempsey observed this week “the collapse of the Afghan government showed that the U.S. had fundamentally misunderstood the people of Afghanistan and had tried to impose a military system that simply made no sense for a society based in patronage networks and family relationships.”

Our mistakes were many. One of the biggest was having Americans stay for only one year in country. In the Middle East and South Asia and many other places relationships are built over time. This means having personnel stay for at least two and preferably three years. This makes Americans understand more about the culture and what is really going on.

For now, I fear Biden may pay a heavy price next year when photos of lines of people trying to get on U.S. aircraft in Afghanistan bring up the iconic photo of a long of people stretching from a rooftop up to a helicopter to take them out of Vietnam. When will we learn?

Please add your comments below.

17 comments to Afghanistan


    Well-written, Steve. I agree entirely with your assessment. Biden’s performance this week was an unforced error.

  • Steve did an excellent job in his essay. I have spent decades defending the legal rights and interests of America’s veterans. Many of them feel betrayed. I do not want, at this point, to discuss the question of whether we stayed too long or not long enough. If the White House had just listened to those who knew what they were talking about the withdrawal could have been carefully planned, our allies kept informed, the Afghan experts who worked with the US Army and USMC given a safe exit from Afghanistan, and military equipment destroyed or evacuated. I do hope that our embassy staff, at least, set off thermite grenades on all our computers, and did not rely on single shredings of documents the way they did in Iran.

    Charles Mills


    Today, my gym trainer, uneducated but served in the military, asked me my thoughts. I had not formulated a response, but the word that came to mind for President Biden, I said to him, is “feckless.” I said that if he would say, “I erred, but we’re going to fix this; get out every American and take care of those translators and their families,” then history won’t remember his initial error, but will remember his courage in fixing. It will take courage. The Marine nodded agreement. I have no basis for informed judgment the way Steve does.

  • Stephen Buck

    Thank you for your positive comments. Please note that Al Chambers contributed to this piece.

  • burgert roberts

    Biden made the right decision.

    America should have been out of there long ago. No “occupier” or “invader” could ever hope to win or contain a religious war on the home ground of that religion.

  • Charles G. Mills

    Yes, Biden’s fundamental decision was right, but its details and execution were atrocious. There are good arguments that it should have been made 15 or 17 years ago, but its execution was inexcusable. It should be noted, by the way, that we maintain adequate intelligence and embassy security forces in every country with which we have relations and Afghanistan is no exception. Charles Mills

  • Chip Neville

    Great essay Steve. I personally hope we fire our feckless Secretary of State. All he had to do was listen to the Foreign Service Officers on the Dissent Channel, and pound on the table until Biden realized what the stakes were. But he didn’t. For Shame!

  • Norm Jackson

    Well balanced and well-informed article, Steve (and Al). As someone who has been looking at the U.S. from the outside for the last 35 years, I really appreciate your ability to see it from a global perspective. Thanks.

  • Bob Breault

    This is your classmate Bob Breault, Vietnam fighter pilot, military officer the one thing that hasn’t been covered well at all is the fact that the military goes through Command War College, and they go through in real time on their own campus. You know such an evacuation takes route planning, and fuel, people, timing defense, the coordination in the information from friends through or commanders in charge They failed to put this into perspective or in spite of the fact that maybe decisions were wrong. The planning could well have been much, much better from a military strategic withdrawal POV we don’t seem to have mastered that yet just my thoughts/
    Thru my networks.
    McKenzie is responsible for the withdrawal. Where was the covering force, supporting firepower? Where is the propositioned transportation, medical support, traffic control??? When was the withdrawal rehearsed?
    We teach these things at the Staff College and the Command and Staff College, and they practice them in the field!
    Bob Breault again.
    I have a personal friend that worked in the embassy in Uganda under the regime of Idi Amin. One night he was actually chased by Idi Amin’s men and shot at. He narrowly escaped by diverting into a police station. The army and the police we’re not compatible with each other so he survived. The same gentleman, in the next two weeks later, planned for a one-night total evacuation of the embassy and its staff and family members. It was a total success and it had F16 fighter jets overhead. Not quite as good as Israelis but right up there so we know how to do it

    I am holding onto my cordiality as best I can, but Bob Breault is angry at the planning staff. Biden’s people notwithstanding, the on-site commanders knew they had to be prepared in spite of Washington.
    I have all sorts of stories but on a personal once in 1969 I received an oral discipline from a general and five bird colonels for doing something I knew and they knew and Washington knew, the world knew that it was against national law. But it was the right thing to do because up until that time nobody had a picture of an SR71 and we had one on base taking off at 5:30 in the morning and photographers were waiting to photograph it. They had been waiting for 3 days They were not on base. I ordered that their cameras be seized. I did not have the authority, but the commander of the police followed my orders, and the photographers didn’t get anything worthwhile so yes there is a time to break the law and take the consequences. The general and the colonels took me to dinner that night. And note it was an only oral discipline and never entered into my records. Washington was happy.
    My real feelings #$%^&*()
    Bob Breault

  • Larry Price

    I rarely agree with Steve Buck, but on this one, I think that he is entirely correct. Biden’s fundamental decision was NOT correct. Over the last ten years, we considerably reduced our footprint in Afghanistan. We had 3,500 troops in-country, our last combat casualty was a year and a half ago, and the financial cost was minimal. Yet that presence was enough to stabilize the situation and satisfy our paramount strategic objective: deny Afghanistan as a haven for international terrorism. Pandering to impatient people was not a good policy.

    Unmentioned in all this are our NATO allies. They were steadfast supporters, contributing thousands of troops, billions of dollars, and taking 1,100 combat deaths. They were not consulted on the decision to pull out, and many of the thousands stranded around the country are their people. No wonder most of the leaders of Europe are outraged at their treatment.

    Also unmentioned is why the Taliban are being so cooperative. This evacuation is only taking place with their acquiescence. Maybe it is because they have decided to be good guys. More likely, in the negotiations, we made them an offer that they could not refuse. In due course, the quid pro quo will become public, and it may be ugly.

  • Bill Weber

    Bob Breault hit it! The lack of an executed plan, the premature removal of contractors, the “deal” made with the Taliban absent the Afghan gov’t, the failure to work with our Nato allies, and the not appreciated strength of the Taliban fighters and organization led to this unmitigated disaster which will haunt us for years to come. One wonders what the scope/shape of the future American involvement in the Middle East will become?

  • Abel A. Mestre

    Public opinion in the USA, and probably in most western nations, was in favor of getting out of Afghanistan which had turned out to be a 20 year intervention and was extremely costly. Let us not forget that the principal purpose for our partners, and us, to be there, was to prevent another terrorist attack such as Sept 11, 2001.
    The objective was very clear, however, the execution or strategy followed by Biden and his team has been, in my view, one of the greatest political and economical disasters ever experienced anywhere, much worse than our withdrawal from Saigon and will have a very negative impact on our country, our leadership team, military capabilities and our influence over all countries in the world for many years to come. Furthermore, it has clearly shown to the nation and the entire world that our President, either because of cognitive impairment or simply just not telling the truth, said important things that almost instantly had to be corrected by members of his team. His interview with George Stephanopoulos was a total disaster partticularly when he said more or less that our exit couldnt have been done better and that everything had been priced in. If we add his wavering approach to getting US citizens and
    locals that have helped us for many years out of Afghanistan to all this, we have a very inexcusable and cowardly attitude fully displayed by our Commander in Chief seen by the whole world. This will have consequences. Also note, that with the Taliban now in complete charge, our principoal objective for our 20 years there, that is to prevent another Sept 11, has not been achieved. Erros of this magnitude require a complete review of qualifications and maybe replacement of members our leadership team, including our Commander in Chief.

  • Lee V Bakunin

    Guys, you’re all spot on. Seems like our generation, the silent generation between the depression of the 1930’s and the baby boomers post-1945 understood the freedoms we enjoyed earned by blood, sweat and tears and the responsibilities for maintaining it.
    There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

  • Ken Merkey

    So, what can we learn from this abomination?

    Let’s not put unqualified, career politicians in the seat of power.
    Let’s not fight wars when our homeland is not threatened.
    Let’s focus on a strong military without worrying about wokeness and diversity.
    Let’s rebuild our relationships with our strategic partners.
    Let’s not impose our values and system of government on others.
    Let’s secure our borders and develop a sane and fair immigration system.
    Let’s not spend trillions in another country trying to develop their military.

    Hopefully, this event will be a wake-up call to all those who simply voted along party lines.

  • Ken Merkey

    It has just been reported that the Yale Law School is involved with a group based in Qatar to retrieve 212 Afghan women who were judges and are now being hunted down by the freed prisoners whom they convicted.

    Talk about unintended consequences!

  • Ken Luke

    Right on, Steve. It didn’t have to be this way. I want to particularly respond to Chip Neville’s comment on “pounding on the table”. There was a revolving door to Trump’s cabinet and key advisors. This was obviously due to many of them disagreeing with him to the point of being fired or feeling compelled to resign. With Biden’s key advisors, either they agree with his judgements – however poorly thought out they may be – or are too afraid of losing their jobs to dissent much. Either way, it does not portend well for the country for the remainder of his administration.