Dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021

We can divide what went wrong in Afghanistan into three decision-making failures, John Robb says, each owing to an inability to update operating assumptions:

First, a failure to accept that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and adapt to the situation once it was apparent. Second, a failure to adapt to the speed of the Taliban’s offensive by building contingencies to protect the U.S. evacuation effort. Finally, a failure to appreciate the dangers of being besieged in Kabul and to take steps to protect U.S. troops and civilians.


The leadership’s unshakable attachment to the viability of the Afghan government and the success of nation-building wasn’t based on evidence. It was a belief based on a political and institutional need that it be true. It was necessary to maintain the illusion that the U.S. was there to modernize and globally integrate Afghanistan at the political level. Institutionally, it was needed to justify the losses (thousands of U.S. lives) and vast expense (trillions of dollars) already consumed by the venture and protect the careers of those involved with it. As a result of these imperatives, dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy and by political factions committed to the social-reform effort there.


Guerrilla wars are slow-moving conflicts fought in the moral sphere. You can picture a guerrilla war as opposing planets competing through gravitational attraction. The way you fight it is to create the highest gravity possible (a moral pull that attracts: incorruptibility, moral integrity, altruism) while causing the competing planet to break apart (moral repulsion: corruption, unpopular social changes, selfish abuses). Because of the dynamics of this type of warfare, when victory arrives, it often does so suddenly, with the complete disintegration of the opponent. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, and we should have quickly accepted this fact.


When it became clear in July that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and were conducting a maneuver-based offensive to take the country, the U.S. should have responded by deploying contingencies. Chief among them should have been retaking the abandoned and defensible (not surrounded by a heavily populated city) Bagram airbase north of Kabul to ensure air support and evacuation missions were always available, particularly if the single runway at Kabul’s airport was damaged or denied. With Bagram swiftly reopened, stepped up air-support missions for the Afghan army could have been provided, slowing the Taliban’s advance. Additionally, special operations units could have been employed to evacuate civilian personnel stranded by the rapidity of the Taliban’s advance. And the leadership should have radically sped up the evacuation of U.S. civilians and accelerated the awarding of visas to Afghan nationals who might be at risk. It didn’t: the State Department was still forcing citizens to pay a $2,000 repatriation fee—more for non-citizens—and sign promissory notes if they didn’t have the cash, up until August 20, five days after the fall of Kabul.

Instead of adapting, the U.S. leadership froze — overloaded by a fast-moving ground campaign that constantly shifted priorities and disoriented by deceptive Taliban diplomacy that promised a return to the status quo. While the U.S. talked, the Taliban acted. The result: textbook maneuver warfare. It was so effective that when the Taliban began to take major cities in early August, all American leaders could do was plead with the Taliban for mercy.


As the evacuation dragged on, it became increasingly evident, even to a U.S. leadership unwilling to admit it, that the Taliban could turn the U.S. mission into a hostage crisis within hours. To prevent this outcome, the U.S. was undoubtedly forced to make concessions to the Taliban. On the surface, this took the form of government public messaging that increasingly depicted the Taliban as reformed and reasonable rulers of a new Afghanistan — trustworthy partners who would help protect the U.S. mission from harm and assist in evacuations. Behind the scenes, there may also have been concessions on removing the Taliban from terrorist watch lists, removing trade restrictions, and providing access to Afghan government funds. Announcements on such concessions, if they occurred, would obviously be delayed due to the political costs of revealing them now; by the end of 2021, we’ll probably know the extent of the capitulation.


Despite this failure, it’s likely that nothing will be done to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future. Politicized analysis of the retreat will depict it as a victory for diplomacy. Few U.S. soldiers were killed, and over 100,000 people were evacuated. Further, claims will be made that any analysis that doesn’t support this narrative is the equivalent of delusional disinformation. The institutional failures that prevented successful adaptation, from recognizing the failure of nation-building to the danger of relying on a single point of failure during a military evacuation, will be glossed over and forgotten. From the start of the effort decades ago to its ignoble end, nobody responsible for the venture will accept any accountability for it. No one will suffer damage to his career or incur reputational damage, except those brave souls who tried to stop it.


  1. Altitude Zero says:

    If there is one lesson that we can take from both World wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the GWOT, it’s this: the side whose ideology is most in touch with reality wins. Right now, that’s not the U.S. As odd as it may seem, the ideology of a bunch of goatherds with a seventh-century religion and a tribal organization are significantly more in touch with reality than the “elites” of the “Hyper-power”. Interesting times ahead…

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    There is an interesting parallel.

    Reportedly, there are not that many Taliban — maybe 70-80,000 in a country of around 40 Million. About 0.2%. (Coincidentally, around the same asserted mortality rate from the dreaded Covid). And yet that small group has taken over the country — at least temporarily.

    Compare that with the 300+ Million people in the US. The percentage of people who get credentialed by Ivy League schools and orbit around the DC Swamp is probably of that same order of magnitude. And yet that small group of evil self-serving incompetents has taken over the US and is running it into the ground.

    It makes one think!

  3. A Wild Goose says:


    An excellent point. Catherine Austin Fitts has made a similar point when it comes to resisting the current madness. We don’t need everyone to push back, just a tiny, determined core with a larger support group should do it.

  4. VXXC says:

    On another related note: do peer into the future for the next disaster, and much warning was given.

    Results of Exercise involving Drones: the Drones did so much damage against the 25th ID they became the Division Priority target. Let it not be said the warnings were not given.

    “Current Army capabilities and doctrine, especially that found in Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 3-01.81, Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System Techniques, are insufficient to meet the demands of the present and future battlefields.”

    Our doctrine: HIDE. If they detect you, RUN.


  5. VXXC says:

    “Dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy.”

    Probably from Battalion up. 800 men commanded by LTC.

    “No one will suffer damage to his career or incur reputational damage, except those brave souls who tried to stop it.”


  6. VXXC says:

    How do we build anything? We clear away the poison ivy.

  7. Wang Wei Lin says:

    All major nations have suffered defeat in asymmetric warfare over the last century. WTF! Do generals not learn from history?

  8. Altitude Zero says:

    Well, there have been some successes by major powers in asymmetric warfare; the US against Aguinaldo in the Philippines, the Brits in Malaya, the Philippine Govt against the Huks, the Brits in Kenya against the MauMau, Salvadorean Army vs the FMLN. Even in Vietnam, the US/ARVN destroyed the VC, only to lose the political war on the home front. Asymmetric warfare isn’t magic, but a lot of the ways to defeat it aren’t very politically correct, and they don’t make good powerpoint presentations or flow charts, so don’t hold your breath.

  9. Szopen says:

    To your list I’d add Soviets and Polish Commies against AK, Soviets against UPA.

    “a lot of the ways to defeat it aren’t very politically correct”

    I thought USA pretty much won against guerillas in Vietnam militarily?

  10. Harry Jones says:

    The first problem with dissenting voices is they’re talk that makes those in power feel bad. The second problem with dissenting voices is that they’re just talk.

    I see one and only one application for free speech: allowing those with the ability to face the truth to find each other and organize into an alternative society. Once that’s done, we don’t need the commons — except perhaps to recruit. We’ll make our own commons.

    To speak truth to power is pointless. Go speak truth to someone else, because power ain’t listening.

  11. VXXC says:

    “All major nations have suffered defeat in asymmetric warfare over the last century. WTF! Do generals not learn from history?”

    Well, yes. Our Generals learned to cash in.

    Now in truth the only reason “major nations” suffer defeat is at table from the diplomacy of the only “major nation” that is USA.

    Smart minor nations that ignore their treacherous, insane psychopathic nonsense like Sri Lanka win. Sri Lanka got China as ally in exchange for ports, then was able to kick out the NGOs and media and defeat the LTTE, who were the insurgent force par excellence.

    It’s all hype nonsense. I can find “4th generation war” in the freaking Old Testament.

    As Luttwak points out Counter-Insurgency is military malpractice. The truth is insurgencies that aren’t supported from outside are flashes in the pan. The Brits prepared guerrilla warfare against expected German invasion, but predicted a two-week lifespan. The French resistance and all the rest would have petered out without support from Britain, the SOE, the OSS, etc., as well as the Free French forces.

    The North Vietnamese had no trouble against tribesmen armed first by the French and after the Americans. Asymmetric is weak vs strong, it is crushed unless the “insurgents” have outside support and safe havens to flee and stage from.

    We’re looking at not decades of defeat but decades of treachery coming from Foggy Bottom and it’s vassals at Whitehall, Brussels, Turtle Bay.

    The Taliban won with our USA money filtered through Pakistan. This isn’t a secret, not only our money but our supplies.

    That we are fools who keep being swindled and tricked, into the very death of our children in war speaks to our inability to defend ourselves from betrayal, no matter how brazen, open, trumpeted, matter of public record, published…on and on.

    We are a high trust culture of trusting children who can’t deal with or accept betrayal, never mind respond to betrayal. So treason is no longer even conviction or ideology but monetized.

    That is what our Generals learned, and what DC taught them, but I am telling you NOTHING you didn’t already know. We are betrayed.

    We are betrayed, to death, to treason, to ruin? Now what will YOU do?

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