BOYKIN: Reflections on the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan
“One year ago, the fall of Kabul to the Taliban stunned the world. Afghans fled to the airport in droves. A suicide bombing killed nearly 200 people. The departure of U.S. forces just days later brought an eerie quiet as the country grappled with its new reality.” So reported The Washington Post on August 10, 2022.
Since then, ever-increasing questions continue to circulate about the shocking downfall of Afghanistan and the subsequent bloodshed. President Biden’s abrupt pullout of U.S. troops in August 2021 led to innumerable Afghan lives lost to relentless violence, severe hunger, subjugation of women, desperate refugee evacuations and ongoing Islamist attacks on minority religious groups.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin served in the U.S. Army for 36 years as one of the original members of the Delta Force and was also commander of the Green Berets; he later served as deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence. Today he is executive vice president of Family Research Council. His responses to interviewers’ recent questions provide a perspective of his views on Afghanistan after a year’s consideration. And his thoughts no doubt mirror those of countless veterans who watched the debacle that brought the conflict to such a chaotic end. Here are his reflections.
How do I feel a year after our withdrawal? As an American, I’m embarrassed. Secondly, I’m very upset about what we did as a nation because it violated so many standing American values. I believe that this is going to go on record as the greatest foreign policy failure in the history of this country.
So, what went wrong? First of all, the “plans.” There was some minor planning done in the spring of 2021. But the Biden administration didn’t get back to it until less than a week before the withdrawal actually began in Afghanistan.
Second, the president ignored the advice of the people that were there to counsel him. He rejected the counsel of his intelligence community, for example, as well as the military and the State Department. He wanted to do it his way. And that was absolutely wrong from the beginning. He and his team ignored what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan, even though the military and the intelligence community were telling him, “The picture is not the way you see it. Here’s what’s really happening. And by the way, the Taliban will take over sooner rather than later.” Those were their exact words, “Sooner rather than later.” Biden ignored all of that.
This cost us our reputation as a nation. It cost us our relationships with our allies. And it cost us what I think is the worst of all of this — it caused us as a nation to violate our own standing values, the ethos upon which this nation was founded. When we left Americans and those who had worked with us behind, we left people to whom we had made a pledge: “Work with us. And we’ll bring you out when we go home.”
How did this all this happen? When I was the deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence, I learned a lot about what happens when you politicize intelligence: it’s only a matter of time until you’re going to pay a tremendous price for it. If you don’t like the answer from the intelligence community, that’s tough. You can’t require the intelligence community to say what you want them to say or to tell you what you want to hear. Instead, you want them to warn you: “No, that won’t work.” Lyndon Johnson politicized intelligence in Vietnam, because he wanted these professionals to tell him that we were winning the war at a time that their actual assessment was the opposite. He also paid a significant price for doing so.
In the many discussions regarding whether to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Europeans wanted us to stay. But the president had a false narrative about what was at stake. It was either, “We withdraw right now in this hurried fashion without proper planning, without the logistics, and we’ll leave them $83 billion worth of material.” Or it was, “I’ll have to put thousands and thousands of American lives at risk in there.”
Well, that wasn’t the truth. The recommendation from allies as well as the U.S. military senior leaders was to leave 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan along with 6,000 European allies. Again, the Europeans wanted us to stay. And look at what we did to them. We left some of them high and dry as well as put them in a really bad situation. At the same time, I don’t think the president was truthful with the American public about what his options were.
For one thing, you don’t have to be a military or diplomatic expert to know that you don’t turn over a secure airfield like Bagram to the Taliban and then go to an airfield — Kabul — that you can’t secure. And that was proven by the fact that we lost 13 Americans there. And you don’t evacuate all the military and then think about the civilians. No, the civilians go out first. There were a number of those kinds of decisions. So not only did it destroy President Biden’s credibility as commander-in-chief , but I also believe that it was one of the stimulants for Vladimir Putin’s decision — and probably [Chinese President] Xi’s as well — to do what they’re doing right now: Russia going into Ukraine and China harassing Taiwan again. I think that Biden’s performance in Afghanistan lies behind those actions.
So why were we in Afghanistan in the first place? We were there to prevent Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from having a safe haven from which they could execute another 9/11. And we kept that from happening for 20 years. For 20 years. Unfortunately, since we know Zawahiri was in Kabul when we hit him with the drone strike, we also know that we’ve reversed all our gains. And we did so in less than a month.
Those who served in Afghanistan during these past 20 years have been devastated by our withdrawal. Their sentiments were focused on those friends of theirs who died in combat. Their view is, “We lost our buddies, and now it’s just going right back to what it was in 2001.” In fact, there have been a number of suicides that can be attributed to the withdrawal and how it took place. It couldn’t have been handled worse than it was. But, again, we violated a long-standing American ethos, like not leaving Americans behind. And we just have to be ashamed.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) William G. Boykin serves as Executive Vice President of Family Research Council.