On August 31st of last year, I watched beside my husband and many other veterans as the last evacuation flight took off from Kabul International Airport, or as myself and others in uniform called it, HKIA. I was still in uniform at the time of the withdrawal, and in the weeks leading up to that day, I probably shed more tears than I had in my entire 20-year career.
The Afghanistan withdrawal, which was probably meant to be the first crowning achievement of the Biden administration, set the tone for one disappointing statistic and news event after another. While the Biden-Harris team might hope that we have forgotten what transpired a year ago, those who bled, sweated, and shed tears in Afghanistan haven’t and won’t forget.
So the question is, how will Team Biden-Harris mark the occasion? Undoubtedly a tricky subject at the moment within the halls of the White House and Pentagon.
Biden administration recently began discussing how to handle next month's anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to avoid missteps that could add to President Biden’s political woes, administration officials say.
1 year later, Biden administration braces for spotl… pic.twitter.com/qvZjQTzVZe
— Maurice Bowers (@MauriceBowers11) July 23, 2022
Time to Plan
Former Pentagon front man, now senior communications official at the National Security Council, John Kirby, has held two conference calls since July 1st with officials from the Department of State, the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, and leaders from the intelligence community to discuss the incoming anniversary. So it would appear more planning is going into the anniversary than the actual withdrawal.
Two officials described the National Security Council’s overall goal succinctly as making sure nobody does anything “stupid.” I hope they’ve invited the Vice President and her communications team to these meetings.
As someone who has had to mark special moments within the government, I imagine there are a lot of calendar reviews, memos being drafted, and talking points being fielded for testing. This past week National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan appeared to take one such talking point out for a spin at the Aspen Security Forum.
Mr. Sullivan stated that the war “had to come to an end,” and that the decision to withdraw when we did was strategically sound.
A Job Well Done?
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While I certainly don’t speak for all veterans, my issue wasn’t with the fact that we left Afghanistan but how we left. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin so poignantly put it, the withdrawal was “not perfect.”
Besides the Americans we left behind, the Association of Wartime Allies estimates that only 3,000 of the 81,000 Afghans who had applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) were evacuated.
Perhaps the most scarring event for many of us was when 13 service members were murdered in a bombing attack on HKIA on August 26th. Thirteen men and women who were not mentioned in President Biden’s State of the Union. In addition to the 13, 45 men and women were wounded, and some now suffer from brain injuries.
Then there was the shameful drone strike we executed that killed ten civilians and seven children on August 29th. To say that our intelligence was less than perfect on that move would be an understatement.
Did We at Least Learn Anything?
Almost a year later, reviews of the withdrawal are still not complete. The only one that is close to being done is the one from the intelligence community, which will no doubt be classified.
The Pentagon and State Department reviews are “ongoing,” and I would bet they won’t be ending anytime soon. Besides, the White House hasn’t decided what will be public or given to Congress.
So much for full disclosure. We might know more about UFOs by the end of this year than we do about the withdrawal.
However, there have been indications that some in the military think they know where the blame should be placed. For example, naval Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, who was the Commander on the ground during the withdrawal, told Army investigators that “Military personnel would have been much better prepared to conduct a more orderly evacuation if policy-makers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”
Isn’t that always the case, boss? However, Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, put it a bit more diplomatically when he said there “might have been other plans that we would have preferred, but when the President makes a decision, it’s time for us to execute the President’s decision.”
So, generally speaking, the buck stops at the top? If only that’s how it worked.
A Lasting Legacy
When asked if the withdrawal from Afghanistan was going to have similar images to that of the Vietnam withdrawal, President Biden said at the time it would not harken back memories of that painful period, going as far as to say “There’s going to be no circumstances where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
Instead, we saw Afghans falling from C-17s to death in desperation. The crew of the C-17 that had human remains in the wheel well was recently cleared of any wrongdoing. And while nobody with any sense would ever think they had done anything wrong, that moment will be etched into their souls forever.
— Aurora Intel (@AuroraIntel) August 16, 2021
When the last plane took off, we had evacuated about 124,000 people. According to the State Department however, there are 74,000 SIV applicants still waiting to come to the U.S.
In addition to those we left behind, we also left $7 billion worth of military equipment that, while allegedly left inoperable, was used by the Taliban as propaganda once we left.
Let’s also not forget about the women who will be suffering under strict Islamist rule once again. The Taliban immediately reversed their right to attend secondary schools and work in government jobs for women.
A Time to Remember
“We know next month will give us an appropriate opportunity to honor the service and sacrifice of those we lost, as well as recognize the many people we saved,” said a spokesperson for the National Security Council said of the upcoming anniversary.
I served from 2001 until 2021 and spent some time in Afghanistan. While I am not proud of how we left, I am proud of my service and that of my fellow brothers and sisters in arms.
We must never forget those we left behind, and we must never forget those we lost over the years, let alone the thirteen casualties last August. They served their country well, and men and women like them make our country great.
I, for one, will not forget, and I’ll do everything I can to ensure President Biden and company never forget.
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