The painful lessons of Afghanistan


General Joseph L. Votel (retired) He joined BENS as CEO and President in January 2020 after a 39-year military career where he led Special Operations and Conventional Forces at every level; He last served as Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) where he was responsible for US and coalition military operations in the Middle East, Levant, Central and South Asia. General Votel’s career included fighting in Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq and he led the 79-member coalition that succeeded in liberating Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State caliphate. General Votel preceded his assignment in Central Command to serve as the commander of US Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command.

Code brief: Have you ever imagined that the United States would withdraw so quickly or leave the Afghan army alone without American air support?

General Votel: I did not anticipate this during my time – but once the President sets a hard date for departure – a quick withdrawal is inevitable. No commander wants to accept unnecessary risks with troops on the ground when faced with a clearly defined departure date.

Code brief: Intelligence assessments have largely missed the mark on how quickly Kabul fell. What factors directly contributed to this?

General Votel: Certainly, the departure of our abilities is a big part of this; The lack of direct contact with Afghan leaders is another important factor; And, of course, as soon as it became clear that we were leaving (and took our commander out) – we lost priority and access to our regular, reliable Afghan intelligence sources.

Code brief: US personnel face a deteriorating security situation at Kabul airport while US forces are still deployed on the emergency operation, another sign that the administration has underestimated how quickly the Taliban can reach Kabul. The United States could have chosen to slow the Taliban’s advance using air power, so why didn’t that happen, in your opinion?

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General Votel: I think it’s very clear that this is no longer a priority for our government. The mission now, at least articulated over the weekend, is to support the evacuation of diplomats and help leave those Afghans who helped the United States and met the criteria for evacuation. Although I don’t know this for sure – I think what we were trying to do with cross-horizon air support in a rapidly evolving situation, wasn’t perfect or overly effective. It doesn’t seem to have done much – if any.

Code brief: The United States has allowed the supply of military equipment, weapons, and technology to fall into the hands of the Taliban, a group responsible for the deaths of American personnel and thousands of innocent Afghans. The US government holds citizens and private companies responsible for far fewer export violations involving dual-use technology, military equipment, etc. How should Americans think about this situation now, where the Taliban will use equipment, paid for by the American taxpayer, to perpetrate potential acts of violence against American interests, and to undermine the democratic values ​​that the United States has tried to bring into Afghanistan?

General Votel: I’m not sure about this. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this – remember ISIS in 2014, in Mosul? I suspect these will be more souvenirs than they will be of hard military capacity – except for small arms, mortars, and artillery. It would be difficult for the Taliban to maintain most of this – and they would probably prefer their own equipment, anyway.

Code brief: There is a lot of anger among the national security community right now. What do you say to individuals who have suffered because of the US role in Afghanistan, and who might feel angry and angry?

General Votel: I can’t really comment on the outrage in the national security community – I’m sure there is, but the feeling that seems stronger to me is disappointment. Nobody wants what we see now. I think that most security professionals can accept the decision to leave by the commander in chief – this is within his power, and everyone understands this; What’s hard to accept is the way it happened, and how it was done. It was hard for me to watch the Taliban sitting at a conference table where I once sat with the Afghan president. In a number of public posts, I recently shared – people asked me if this whole effort was a waste. My response was consistent. The US military, members of the ICRC and the diplomatic corps have acted with honor during this war. They responded when the nation called and did their best for our country, each other, and the Afghan people. There will be plenty of time to assign blame – but the vast majority of Americans who took part in some aspect of the Afghan war did so nobly and to the best of their ability. We must not lose sight of this. That it didn’t happen the way we all hoped – not their fault…and I don’t want anyone (especially the families of the wounded and dead) to think that these efforts were in vain. This wasn’t what I was thinking at the time, and it’s not what I’m thinking now. They answered when the nation called.

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