Winston Churchill observed: “In all great business very large errors are excused or even unperceived, but in definite and local matters small mistakes are punished out of all proportion.” Churchill was more right than he knew.
If a soldier or Marine loses a weapon or equipment on a field exercise, regardless of size or cost, he or she is subject to legal action and the most severe ridicule. However, if a commanding general allows thousands of enemy to escape destruction or weapons and equipment to fall into the hands of the enemy, far too often the general miraculously evades accountability. When the fiasco in Kabul ends, this must not happen.
From the moment American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines arrived at Kabul Airport, they behaved with extraordinary self-control and gallantry in the face of thousands of refugees desperate to reach safety. Because the human and material cost of America’s intervention in Afghanistan is finally coming to a close, this makes the loss of American service members at the Kabul airport particularly heartbreaking. It should not have happened.
For some reason, the senior military leaders responsible for planning and conducting the withdrawal were surprised by the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and police. After listening to General Kenneth McKenzie’s press conference, it seems obvious that he and the planners under his command failed to identify, assess, and develop a plan to control risks involving enemy pressure, interdiction, and penetration of the airport security perimeter. Timing and preparation demanded that senior military leaders plan for the worst case scenario, not the rosy one.
Disengaging American and Allied military power from Afghanistan was always going to be a colossal task for planners at every level. It meant discarding at the outset any assumptions about cooperation with the Taliban. After all, the Taliban are Sunni Islamists who regard non-Muslims with contempt or indifference.
Timing also involved selecting conditions that favored American and Allied disengagement, not Taliban interests. President Joe Biden’s decision to disengage from Afghanistan at the height of the fighting season—May to October—was a serious mistake. Winters are bitter and cold. The Taliban as well as other Islamist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) are, frankly, disinclined to fight in the winter because they cannot sustain themselves.
Promises of Taliban cooperation notwithstanding, preparation also meant establishing a powerful covering force with the mobile armored firepower and air power to annihilate any forces that dared to interfere with the disengagement of American troops. Knowing that the active force contains only 157 C-17s, planners must plan to disengage U.S. and Allied forces in ways that avoid aircraft losses and crew exhaustion. Equipment sets that cannot be driven or flown out of the region within the timespan for the withdrawal should be identified and scheduled for methodical demolition.
In modern warfare, senior military leaders often sit in front of television screens watching icons and video feeds while soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines slog it out with the enemy at close range. Because of this distance, senior military leaders must insist on thorough and systematic planning for the worst case. Then, senior leaders must also go forward to the scene of the action to ensure the operation is conducted effectively.
This is not the first time a new president was not well served by his senior military and intelligence leaders. Only a few weeks into his presidency, JFK approved a plan to land 1,400 Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs to initiate the overthrow of Fidel Castro’s regime. The invasion was an infamous disaster: The Cubans defended with a force of more than 20,000; 1,202 of the exiles were captured and 114 killed in action.
Five days after the humiliating failure in the Bay of Pigs, JFK asked former President Dwight Eisenhower to meet secretly with him at Camp David. Ike immediately asked JFK if he had open debates with everyone on the pros and cons, and whether JFK had explored the plan for the amphibious assault with the National Security Council. JFK replied that he had “a meeting of the people involved,” meaning JFK probably met with the secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the CIA director, and the national security advisor.
JFK finally admitted that he’d followed the advice of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that “everybody . . . had approved” of the invasion. It was obvious that JFK had not been well served, but having not thoroughly questioned the senior leaders about the risks involved and the potential for failure, the American public held JFK, not his senior military and intelligence leaders accountable.
Armed forces, like the nations they defend, are made of flesh and blood. Anyone who has had the privilege of leading American soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines in a direct fire battle knows that courage is the driving force that makes all American military operations a success. They have nothing to prove to the American people, but their senior leaders do.
Clemenceau’s dictum, “War is too important to be left to the generals,” applies today as much today as it did in 1918. In time of peace or war, under American law, the president and his secretary of Defense actually command America’s armed forces. President Biden shares the blame, but he must hold General McKenzie, who is the U.S. CENTCOM Commander, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin accountable for the disastrous and unnecessary loss of American life in Kabul.
Douglas Macgregor, Col. (ret.) is a senior fellow with The American Conservative, the former advisor to the secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, a decorated combat veteran, and the author of five books.