By Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, Jr.
Editor Note: This piece was originally published on Lt. Gen. Caslen’s personal blog on September 3, 2021.
There are many questioning our Nation’s withdrawal plans from Afghanistan, and we have to learn from what took place. Decisions like pulling all U.S. troops out before thousands of American citizens, not disabling billions of dollars of Afghan National Army (ANA) military equipment, not expanding the security perimeter around Kabul airport, failing to predict the quick evaporation of the ANA, why we gave up one of our most secure platforms – Bagram airfield – and settling to do an evacuation of tens of thousands of Americans and valued Afghan partners in the middle of a most at-risk city, Kabul. Am sure there is much more to why these decisions were made that we are unaware of, and I am sure there will be plenty of after-action reviews and analysis to learn from. At least I’m hoping that will be the case.
Regardless of how the withdrawal was conducted, many still continue to question the rationale of leaving Afghanistan in the first place. The national interests we identified that led us there 20 years ago were to defeat terrorist organizations with global capability that would place our national interests at risk (e.g., Al Qaida (AQ)), and to deny nations that provided safe haven to these organizations (e.g., the Taliban). We achieved the second late in 2001 with the collapse of the Taliban regime, and we can say we achieved the first with the killing of Osama bin Laden 10 years ago in 2011. We also know that although we may have removed AQ’s leader, we have yet to counter its ideology, which remains prevalent in AQ variants that have emerged and which continues to spread in virtual space.
Many have commented that our Afghanistan mission had changed over the years, but the one point not being made was our continued strategic objective of denying safe haven. If we did not want to let Afghanistan become what it was on September 10, 2001 – the day before our 9/11 attack – there needed to be a government that would not allow safe haven and a security apparatus to protect that government from both internal and external threats. That may not have justified how much “nation-building” we participated in over the last 20 years, but this strategic objective, many would argue, helped justify our continued presence over those 20 years. As an aside, an example of what that presence can do is evident in the 65 years we’ve remained in South Korea and even longer in Germany.
So, in my opinion, the national interests we identified in 2001 (defeating terrorist organizations with global capacity that threaten US interests and denying safe haven) remain the same 20 years later in 2021, and I think many will agree. And if we agree with what our President told us that there are no national interests in Afghanistan right now, the unanswered question we have to ask is whether our future absence of influence in that region will create the conditions to put both of these national interests at risk in the near future. In other words, will our withdrawal of influence create the conditions that existed in Afghanistan on September 10, 2001? I’ve heard the argument that we will use “over-the-horizon” intelligence, but the fact that a terrorist organization successfully attacked and killed 13 Americans 2 days after our President said terrorist organizations are no longer a threat to our national interests suggests – to me anyway – that there is a much greater risk than what we’re being told.
When I was the Superintendent of West Point, we had the privilege of annually honoring a distinguished American who most represented West Point’s motto – Duty, Honor, Country — and in 2013 we awarded our Thayer Award to former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As part of her visit to West Point, Secretary Albright spent time with our cadets in various forums, culminating with an emotional dinner speech to the entire Corps of Cadets. In that speech she warned us that “because our enemies have long term strategies, we have to make long term commitments.” It was clear she thought long about a nation persevering during a protracted war because during one of the cadet conversations, she warned us about combat “fatigue”, and related the historical WWI fatigue France, England and other western European nations felt after WWI. Her warning was that because of the combat fatigue France and England felt as a result of WWI, that they failed to confront a rising Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, leading to Germany’s occupation of a continent, to include all of France itself.
Combat fatigue is real. We have just now seen its impact, whether good or bad for both the short and long term. But history is important, and as Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. Let’s hope that our Afghanistan fatigue will not result in similar consequences western Europe found itself in as a result of their WWI combat fatigue.
Nevertheless, I was reminded last night about the American military sacrifice in Afghanistan, resulting in the loss of 2,372 military deaths. A good friend and colleague, Kevin Clarke, who was one of my former company commanders and executive officers, came to visit Shelly and me at our home in Florida. Our conversation eventually turned to one of his lieutenants who was killed in Iraq who was also a great cadet leader in the Corps of Cadets while I was the Commandant of Cadets there. This lieutenant was Dan Hyde, one of the most loved and endeared cadets within the entire Corps. Dan had so much talent and was an incredible cadet, Soldier, son, friend, role model, and leader. But we lost Dan on March 7, 2009.
When I think about Dan Hyde and every one of those 2,372 lives, and especially about the 13 men and women we lost just last week, I can’t help but reflect on the key message of the great movie directed by Steven Spielberg, “Saving Private Ryan”. Near the end of the movie, after a close combat fight with the German Nazi’s, the dying Captain Miller who is taking his last breaths, grabs Private Ryan and pulls him close to his face, and says to him, “Earn this; live a good life; earn this”. In other words, “men have given their lives for you, now live a life worthy of such sacrifice”. And then 50 years later, Ryan – now an old man – visits the Normandy cemetery to find the final resting place of this Captain. And when he finds it, with tears in his eyes, he runs up to Miller’s headstone and says, “I hope in your eyes I have earned what you have done for me”.
So as the debates will rage over the next weeks and months about our Afghanistan fatigue and withdrawal, let us first not forget the sacrifice of the 2,372 men and women, and let us ask ourselves whether “we are living lives worthy of such sacrifice”? The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Marty Dempsey, often says in response to this sacrifice, to “make it matter”. History will record the issues we observed over the last couple of weeks, but regardless of the on-going debate, the one thing I encourage each of us to do right now and always, is to commit (or recommit) ourselves to live our lives worthy of their sacrifice. In other words, let us commit or recommit ourselves to “make it matter”.
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