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Sam Gardiner is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a Vietnam veteran. He served at NATO headquarters and taught strategy at the National War College, Air War College and Naval War College.
“The situation in Afghanistan is serious but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy and increased unity of effort …” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in late August 2009.
“But it is just at this point that we feel that we do have the organizations that we learned in Iraq and from history are necessary for the conduct of this kind of campaign. We got the leaders in place, the big ideas and so forth with our Afghan partners. And now very much the resources,” Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan on the ninth anniversary of the war, told ABC News in September 2010.
“We are only 90 days into this new policy, but with the U.S. forces that will be arriving, with the new authority that we have been given, put the pressure on external enablers, with the fact that we are condition based and not time based, we’ve set all the conditions to win,” Gen. John Nicholson, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told NBC News in November 2017.
With the military assessment he repeated, President Joe Biden was asked if take over by the Taliban was inevitable. He said on July 8: “Because … the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force, against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.”
The history of fighting in Afghanistan is a history of military commanders giving us optimistic assessments of the war. Maybe there needed to be some adjustments in the number of troops or how aggressive we should be against the Taliban, but the generals kept telling us we were on track to win. For 20 years, we were on the track to win.
Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, displays eight rows of decorations on his retro uniform, more decorations than Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Gen. George Patton had on the same uniform. Not only were the assessments wrong, but the generals were decorated for giving them.
In recent days, we are seeing the debate of whether it was a Donald Trump or a Biden failure. What about the military role in the failure? The troops performed splendidly, but the generals failed us.
Afghanistan has more parallel to Vietnam than the images of the embassy evacuation in Saigon and the situation at the Kabul airport. The U.S. military leadership excused itself from the failure in Vietnam. It was the politicians who lost that war.
The image protected the generals from Vietnam. It was President Lyndon Johnson at the White House selecting targets for bombing. The generals left that conflict of 10 years without taking responsibility. It was easy to say that if only the politicians had followed our recommendations, we would have won in Vietnam.
The politicians did follow the generals’ recommendations, and we did not win in Afghanistan. Their judgments can’t be ignored. It’s time for a serious assessment of our generals. They don’t seem to have what it takes.