The August 15, 2021 US debacle in Afghanistan was the result of the decades-long confusion in US goals, internal organizational battles and skewed thinking of civilian and military leaders giving primacy to tactical results clouding the war’s strategic progress.
Capturing Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was one of the primary objectives of the US invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11, as he was considered as the chief architect of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, but even that ran into disarray due to military incompetence.
While pursuing Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden,(OBL) the bickering between the CIA, Centcom and the ground commanders, allowed OBL to slip from Tora Bora in 2001. When, the former US Defence Secretary, Gen Jim Mattis, was commander of TF58 (Task Force 58) he learnt that a group of Al-Qaeda elements, including its chief Osama bin Laden, had retreated into Tora Bora with its high peaks and deep valleys, he planned to seal them off, either killing or capturing him.
Quoting Gen Mattis in his ‘The Battle For Pakistan’, Shuja Nawaz writes when Gen Mattis laid out the plan to his superiors at the Centcom Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, that he had the Marine force ready to encircle, capture or kill OBL, he was strangely told “to drop the idea since the CIA and the Northern Alliance commanders had made local arrangements to prevent Laden’s escape to Pakistan or to kill him in the process.”
The frustrated Mattis pleaded with Gen Tommy Franks at the Centcom and also repeated urgent requests for troops with CIA team leader, Garry Bernsten, to encircle and capture bin Laden, but neither the Centcom nor the CIA allowed it. Later, “Garry Bernsten’s own requests for Rangers to be dropped behind OBL hideout to cut off his escape route from Afghanistan was also refused,” and when Bernsten sought CIA/Pentagon’s permission to use the refusal in his book “Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander”, “the CIA redacted the particular segment.”
Bin Laden survived due to the hugger mugger approach of the local tribals the CIA had hired who melted away into the Pakistan borderland. Richard Clarke, a White House Counter-Terrorism adviser, described OBL’s successful escape from “Tora Bora, a case of military incompetence.”
There is a strong narrative in the Western media and on the Capitol Hill that Pakistan was responsible for the US defeat in Afghanistan, but the fact remains that the US continued to prosecute the war on a short-term basis attuned to domestic considerations and changing commanders too quickly. Besides the internal battles, the
US political and military leaders gave supremacy to tactical results, clouding the war’s strategic progress. Shuja Nawaz termed the Afghan theatre of war as the ‘graveyard of commanders’: From Lieut Gen John C McColl, who commanded ISAF from Jan 10, 2002 to June 20 to 2002 to Gen Austin Scot Miller, from Sept 2, 2018 to July 12, 2021, there were 18 commanders, showcasing a classic humour in uniform. The 17 ISAF commanders with an average 13-month tenure served the Afghan theatre undermining coordinated and long term strategic approach.
One of the US commanders in Afghanistan, who got sacked by President Obama, Gen McChrystal, NATO commander and SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) and NSA Gen Jim Jones, Lieut Gen Doug Lute, assistant to US President and the Deputy National Security Adviser at the White House, all complained that every time a new allied commander (ISAF) came, he would kick up a lot of confusion, throwing the whole Afghan campaign into a tail spin of sorts, with his own orientation, experiences, and world view. He would craft his rules of engagement, a 100 day plan, executed by his own team, which created a nightmare for the allies.
Shuja Nawaz quotes Gen McChrystal, who as ISAF commander described the War On Terror in Afghanistan as incoherent at several levels. McChrystal found the coalition of 46 nations, adding to the confusion rather than cooperation. “Many commanders came to perform peacekeeping and found the situation far more violent which led to stirring a debate on the primary nature of the mission and how it should be prosecuted.”
Besides, “there were five division equivalent areas, regional commands, all fighting a different battle independentlywith a different strategy, and a very little connection. As a consequence, there was a very little confidence on anybody’s part of direction.” Many commanders were playing with a cautious wait and see attitude, and that led to uncertainty that just pervaded everything,” Gen McChrystal told Nawaz.
This was not all, even the different American forces, the US Army, CIA, the White and Black Special Operations Forces, the Afghan Army and Afghan Police independently fought a dozen wars without much coordination and often without any tangible results.
The military confusion was met with changing goalposts by the White House. With eyes set at the political horizons, the White House offered ever changing, conflicting approach. At Pentagon’s insistence, while the sophomorist President Obama announced a surge of 30,000 troops, but soon afterwards announced their withdrawal, compromising the hard work done and throwing it into disarray.
In fact, at Khost, several Afghan tribal chiefs who had agreed to work and support the US military, after serious hard persuasion by the latter, withdrew their support on the very next day of Obama’s withdrawal announcement. “They said to us: You are leaving! No amount of explanations could persuade them to remain on our side,” Shuja quoted a US Special Forces Major complaining to him.
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