Afghanistan: When Was Someone Supposed to Fall on Their Sword?

Jason Criss Howk

13 September 2021

2003 school opening

The US and NATO-plus coalition policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan never matched the outcomes the 50-plus nations assisting Afghans sought. I wondered on September 11th 2021 if there was a moment when a senior leader in Afghanistan, NATO, or CENTCOM should have resigned in protest for this fatal flaw, or if any leaders being considered for assignment to the Afghanistan mission should have publicly declined. Would falling on your sword made a difference in this war? I don’t know, but maybe it’s something we should think about for future overseas operations.

If there was ever a time to fall on your sword and refuse to go along with the policy on Afghanistan, maybe President Biden’s decision to completely abandon our Afghan security partners and allow a Pakistani-backed terrorist invasion of Afghanistan was the right moment. As I write this, I am hearing whispers that Secretary of State Blinken is considering his resignation from the administration.

We probably do need to know who advised what during this policy debate, and who did NOT stand up to the disastrous decision to recreate a terrorist training center the size of Texas. Congress will be asking some questions about this decision in the next week. In the meantime, I want to think aloud here about when it may have been appropriate for others, during the last 20 years, to resign in protest against the unworkable U.S. policy on Afghanistan.

Falling on your sword, or resigning to bring attention to a major policy issue is a seldom-used technique that has mixed results of successfully changing the policy. Sometimes even the threat of resigning publicly can work, other times it does nothing at all. If done wisely, in a creative non-partisan way, like Army Chief of Staff Ridgway did to prevent involvement in Vietnam; you can message loudly and safely that you disagree with a President and the Secretary of Defense. Ridgway’s stand on Vietnam and other topics only cost him two years of his normal 4-year tour. Eventually the nation would still go to Vietnam, just not on his watch.

From my various seats at the beginning of the terms of Bush, Obama, Trump, and then Biden I got to watch the policy debate about Afghanistan. As a junior and younger person, few noticed I was taking notes or even listening. (Although one time, Obama staffers saw me sneak into a secure VTC and told the Ambassador to make me and my colleague leave the room before the President asked his questions.)

This is what I saw. There were other moments and other issues, but these stuck out in my mind on the 20th memorial of September 11th.

Bush

In the Bush era you could likely say that a moment was missed for numerous generals in Afghanistan to resign due to a lack of resources as related to the mission. At the time, in 2002, that we ran out of terrorist targets to strike the President tasked the deployed forces to help the Afghans build an Army and Police force so that our own forces could start to withdraw. That policy was probably the right one, as we could have shifted into a Colombia-type model where we kept a small force in the country to help them professionalize their security forces for decades.

But that policy didn’t come with key resources. I was part of the 9-person Embassy Mission team tasked with building an army from scratch. It was laughable and somehow productive. In a year we did build a division-sized Infantry force. But the other necessary parts of the security sector were lacking. The human resources needed to support the security sector and grow the economy were missing. There was no “Marshall Plan” team to build the nation. We were under-resourced to such a level… that it maybe should have led the 2 and 3-star generals, the senior diplomats and senior development officers to resign in protest. We all knew that our efforts would take 4 decades at that pace, yet no one resigned in protest and went back to tell congress and the American people what this mission would really require. As the Iraq war continued to leave the Afghan mission under-resourced and the Bush administration failed to stop Pakistan from providing sanctuary and support to terrorists, there were ample opportunities for a senior leader in the chain to fall on their sword.

2003

Obama

As the Obama team came into office, my old boss from the early days of building the Afghan Army was selected as Ambassador. We had stayed in touch and I sent him a short note with my recommendations from studying the Af-Pak issues in post-graduate school. Top on my list was to solve the Pakistan problem. I stated at the time that Afghanistan still needed a bigger effort to build their security sector and all the other sectors to support it…but that all of that work would be for nothing, if the U.S. didn’t stop Pakistan from running a terrorist factory across the border and supplying the enemies that were killing Afghans and NATO forces every day.

I soon found myself with LTG McChrystal as his Aide De Camp as we wandered around Capitol Hill trying to get his congressional approval for promotion and assignment to lead the NATO mission in Kabul. No one was talking about the Pakistan problem. Most senators and representatives basically said you have an impossible mission that no American cares about. President Obama barely spoke to him at all, or listened.

In Kabul we studied the problem and talked with my old boss Ambassador Eikenberry. Stan and Karl disagreed on the path forward but pledged to work with the other no matter what policy was chosen by Obama. I was often the private LNO between them, as both were like fathers to me over the years.

Once the assessment was completed in Afghanistan and the campaign strategy was drafted, it was sent to DC. It was then quickly leaked into the press and used as a political tool in the Capitol. It was also used to create a wedge between Obama and his Afghanistan commander, and create another wedge between the US Embassy and ISAF. After much heated debate Obama decided not to send all the resources the military asked for. Further VP Biden claims to have convinced the President that he must announce a deadline for the small surge in resources.

At this moment maybe again a General or Ambassador or a group of them could have resigned in protest. Here was the “A-Team” Obama picked and promoted to win “the good war” he campaigned on, and he wasn’t listening to their advice. Again, everyone knew that the policy didn’t match the outcome anyone wanted. The lack of forces meant they could not train enough Afghans quickly and also adequately turn the tide against a surging Taliban terrorist network. The arbitrary deadline to end the surge was a huge gift to the enemy, they knew exactly how long they needed to wait to see us leave. Finally, there was no solution to the Pakistan problem, and the U.S. continued to send money to Pakistan that was funneled back through its army to recruit and train the terrorists that were killing NATO forces and Afghans by the thousands.

GEN McChrystal, Helmand battlefield circulation 2009

Trump

The Trump administration listened a little more to the military, but was too distracted by the bad diplomatic actions by hurricane Zal to make the hard decisions in the end. While Trump did avoid a total rapid withdrawal and allowed a CT force and advising force to stay in place, and even take some actions against Pakistan for their double-dealing on terrorism—it wasn’t enough. Trump wanted a big fast win, and that was never an option in Afghanistan. Most don’t realize how close to a total withdrawal on inauguration day 2017 was to occurring, as the press was more interested in attacking Trump than analyzing his policies.

The first moment that a diplomat or general might of stepped down was the foolish decision to put more trust in Qatar and hold peace talks in Doha. Qatar was not a neutral partner and had allowed the Taliban to keep a terrorist outpost in Doha for years. The next moment to fall on the sword was when Khalilzad was duped into a lopsided agreement with the Taliban that gave the terrorists the upper hand in the long-run. That deal, even when linked to the US-Kabul agreement on security support, ignited a plethora of Afghan abandonment issues that were never remedied. 

When the Taliban repeatedly broke their Doha agreement promises for the next few months and the U.S. did not walk away from the deal, a senior leader’s resignation might have woken the DC establishment to the futility of this kind of arrangement. In the end Trump, like Obama, gave the Taliban an end-date to wait for, and abandoned a conditions-based withdrawal.

Taliban delegation meets publicly with their Pakistani backers throughout 2020 and 21

Biden

The final opportunities for any leader from Kabul to DC to resign in protest occurred during and after the Biden administration Afghanistan policy was created and presented to the American people. I was part of many interagency discussions before and after the 2020 election and it became pretty obvious that no one in DC was willing to stand up to Trump or Biden to explain the disaster that awaited Afghanistan. Biden wasted a lot of precious time holding policy debates after the election when his mind was already made up about his decision. Someone should have resigned when Biden chose the one policy, total abandonment, that everyone knew was going to allow Pakistan the free-hand to use their terrorist networks to overpower the young Afghan government and military.

When the President lied and said no one presented him with an option to continue the advise-and-assist mission with a counter-terrorism focus to ensure that Pakistan was kept in check, there was another moment for someone to pull out a sword. When Biden enacted his policy and everyone saw the increase in terrorism activity and Pakistani meddling, there was another moment for someone to step-down in protest. Especially after Pakistan told a public CENTCOM audience in February 2020 that they had no intention of stopping Taliban support after they convinced the Taliban to sign a peace deal with the US.

Next, when the US policy required the military to give up both major airports outside of Kabul before it was clear the ANDSF could hold back the terrorist onslaught someone could have resigned. Finally, after the Taliban began to encroach on the outskirts of Kabul someone should have resigned when the Commander in Chief ordered his embassy to close and his military to barricade itself inside the Kabul airport. This action doomed the evacuation to chaos and death. In the aftermath of the US leaving in disgrace, while US citizens were unable to get to the airport,was unthinkable to most, again no one resigned. The fact that we also left behind tens of thousands of Afghans eligible for US resettlement was so dishonorable that thousands of US citizens formed their own self-funded task forces to begin and evacuation that was much more humane than the U.S. governments, and still no one resigned.

2021 evacuation from Kabul

It is clear that at many moments in the two decades the U.S. deployed its citizens to work beside Afghans some persons at a senior enough level failed to put their career at-risk to raise the flag on the dangers of an incomplete national policy. While it is not known if that kind of stand would have changed the policy or not, maybe it is known that someone should have tried. I personally know the majority of the people that might have fallen on their sword to possibly change the outcome of the war in Afghanistan, yet I have never asked any of them if they thought about it.

While I was aware of the flaws in the policy for 19 years, as a Lieutenant, Captain, Major, and professor my advice and protest did not carry much weight from 2002-2021. But looking back, I think a general or ambassador advising/resigning in very public way was worth a chance.

This is an age-old option that senior leaders should be educated about as they rise in the ranks. I wish I had been strong enough at the time to urge one of my bosses to step down to try to turn the course of the war. Maybe none of them would have taken my counsel, I will never know.

I will live with that integrity failure, but many Afghans did die and will continue to die because of all of our integrity and loyalty issues as a nation. Pakistani-backed terrorists were always the problem, yet our policies were aimed at the symptoms that appeared in Afghanistan.

Afghans and many US citizens paid the ultimate price for our inability to get our policy right.

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