The 20-year Vietnamization of Afghanistan, a slo-mo epic, ended in a calamitous rush of mistakes that made America look to all the world like a stumble-bumbling superpower that just can’t – or won’t – learn from its mistakes.
There is just one way to fix that. Washington’s elites must do what they do best – start talking about themselves. But they must do it – for once! – when they are asked what went so horribly wrong.
And that’s the story this investigative reporter had started pursuing when I stumbled across a small jackpot overflowing with just that, in a most unlikely place. It was spilling out of my news screen on an officially godawful Wednesday. The secretary of defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had just marked the horrific end of yet another un-won U.S. war with two poignant speeches and a briefest Q&A before a sadly imprecise, seemingly question-lite Pentagon press corps.
The all-news cable shows had assembled their pundit ponds (and I was wondering why I was wasting my time) when suddenly something most unusual started spilling out of my news screen. It was news. MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, whose background was famously the hotline mumble of campaign politics, had tapped into a vein of war-and-peace lessons – just by asking the simplest question of a retired general who had helped run the Afghanistan War.
“What did you get wrong?” Todd asked retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who was a former commander in Afghanistan in 2009-10 and then moved to the Pentagon to advise the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “What did you miscalculate?”
Shockingly, this retired general didn’t recycle the usual they-a-culpa. Hodges answered truthfully. Truth told fully. In-depth.
“I completely bought into the idea that Afghan security forces could be effective … and that eventually Afghanistan could stand on its own,” Hodges replied. “The problem was the model was built on a Western model – the idea that we could make an army that would look like us, or the Brits or the Germans. …The Western model is based on having overwhelming firepower, endless logistics and exquisite intelligence. When that’s removed, then they’re not going to be effective.”
Hodges admitted he should have known better: “The best Afghan unit I saw actually looked a whole lot like the Taliban. And they had a U.S. Army green beret … who was guiding them. … I didn’t believe what I was seeing with my own eyes – that that was the way to go.
“I was very optimistic when I left Afghanistan at the end of 2010. I had seen such quality performance by Afghan units – but that was when they were always with us. So I was part of the problem there.”
When Hodges moved on to the Pentagon, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s expert on Afghanistan and next-door Pakistan, he made more assumptions he also regrets today.
“I believed Pakistan was an ally. I deluded myself. … I should have been much more forceful at shining the light on the fact that Pakistan was not an ally. They were giving safe haven to the Taliban despite the billions of dollars we were spending. And of course Osama bin Laden was killed (by a stealthy U.S. military operation) living in a big house down the street from the military academy in Pakistan. Those were two areas where I misread it.”
Unfortunately, no one in the Pentagon’s mini-press Q&A asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (a former general in Afghanistan) or Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley why they failed to have a worst-case scenario plan when Afghanistan’s military and government suddenly collapsed. What were they thinking when we all saw reports of massive Afghan corruption that made Uncle Sam Afghanistan’s Uncle Pockets? And reports of Taliban paying masses of Afghan troops to desert but leave their weapons behind?
“I do think that in the military there is a culture … that is: ‘I don’t care how bad it is, I’ve been given a mission and we’re going to be successful.’ … But as I look at all of our government … there is a tendency to suppress, bury, kill assessments that are contrary to the prevailing narrative of any administration. The narrative was always going to be: Our way to get out of Afghanistan was to create security forces and governments so they can do it themselves.”
And so a general lesson emerged:
“Dissenting opinions” must get “sunlight and oxygen.” They need to survive and even thrive. Powerful dissent must reach the Influencers and the Deciders in the Pentagon’s E-Ring and the White House’s West Wing – before they blunder into a delusional Afghanistanization of the next place.