Strategic Incompetence in the Fall of Afghanistan

Like many Afghan war veterans, I have watched the rapid Taliban seizure of Afghanistan with much deep emotion. During my 15-month combat mobilization as an infantry officer adviser to Afghan National Security forces fighting the Taliban, I left behind a wife and three small children. I was fully prepared to give my life, as were the other veterans who served there. Some did not return, and many returned with wounds seen and unseen. During my time there, primarily as the senior U.S. military adviser to Helmand Province, many of our Afghan allies were killed or wounded. To now see the Taliban sweep into the places I served, and seize the capital so easily, I cannot remain silent. 

I do not believe this had to happen, and the Biden Administration made some catastrophic mistakes. Let me explain.

First, the Taliban followed a seasonal pattern of fighting throughout the war in Afghanistan. They primarily fought from late April with what we called the “Taliban Spring/Summer Offensive,” to peak fighting by August and tapering until around late October. They don’t completely stop fighting, but during the late fall and winter, the Taliban pull back to Pakistan or go quiet in remote locations. 

In a criminal lack of judgment, Joe Biden announced and began the unilateral American withdrawal at the start of the fighting season in April. Even worse, Biden planned for the complete pullout to take place during the height of the Taliban offensive in August. This meant that the most substantial change of the war, the removal of critical U.S. support, was made at the height of the Taliban surge.

What should have happened was a conditions-based plan to withdraw U.S. forces during the winter. The withdrawal should have been complete by the start of the Taliban Spring offense (Trump set a date of May 1). Additionally, the Afghan National Security Forces should have been set up for success to fight without the support they relied upon for two decades. We should have kept a few thousand Americans in place and on standby during the first fighting season, with those to be withdrawn the next non-fighting season. Those Americans would allow the Afghans to completely and solely execute the fight, though with access to air support. Those Americans also would have been able to ensure American equipment did not fall into the hands of the Taliban.

We should not have withdrawn from Bagram Air Base until the absolute end of American presence. Why? The Kabul airport is unique in being in the middle of the capital, and therefore vulnerable to being overrun by refugees when the Taliban approached the city. It is also in a vulnerable position due to the terrain, allowing it to come under indirect artillery and direct fire from high ground. It has limited runway capability, which could easily be put out of commission. 

Bagram was only 40 miles away and in a secure location with multiple runways. Bagram would have allowed support to the Kabul Airport, including ferrying people by helicopters back to Bagram. Instead, the Kabul airport appears to be overwhelmed with refugees and our troops and embassy staff in a vulnerable position near the Taliban. Additionally, we kept thousands of terrorist prisoners at Bagram, which were released when we left. Those fighters have helped take Kabul and pose a threat to the United States.

Another mistake was in not developing a conditions-based plan that relied on the threat of punishing the Taliban if they violated conditions set. Such punishment would have included massive airstrikes against Taliban formations and the targeting of Taliban leadership. Instead, the Taliban are creating havoc in their advance, murdering surrendering commando troops, murdering pilots, murdering civilians associated with Americans. 

We should not be tolerating this travesty. It will only get worse, and we will be forced to watch and suffer humiliation. We knew the Taliban was a criminal organization, and should have been ready to prevent this catastrophe.

As a result of these mistakes, we all face a heightened terrorist threat. A reason I volunteered for Operation Enduring Freedom was due to the terror emanating from Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. That’s why most of us sacrificed in Afghanistan, with many giving their lives. The Taliban will likely allow terror groups to again operate and plan attacks against America. Only now, they will have China as an ally to help fend off American resistance.

This catastrophe demands accountability, starting with the Biden Administration. After Americans withdrew from Vietnam, South Vietnam held out for over two years before falling. Afghanistan has fallen within weeks, due to incompetence. Interestingly, then-Senator Joe Biden voted against providing South Vietnam promised support before Saigon fell. He has learned nothing, and created a much worse situation with this lack of judgment. America and her allies deserve much better.

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About Bill Connor

Colonel William M. (Bill) Connor V is a 1990 Citadel graduate who retired from the U.S. Army after over 30 years of service. He is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army War College with a master of strategic studies, and earned his juris doctor from the University of South Carolina. Connor is the founder and owner of his law firm, Bill Connor Law Firm, LLC, and earned the top peer review rating as an attorney, “AV Preeminent” after only six years of practice. He was the former senior U.S. military advisor to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, and was recently elected by alumni to the Citadel’s Board of Visitors. Connor also serves as the chairman of South Carolina’s National Security Task Force of the Floodwater Commission. He lives in Mt. Pleasant with his wife of 30 years, Dr. Susan Connor. They have three children and two grandsons.

Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images