The fall of Kabul in 2021 after 20 years of war, unleashed a torrent of commentary. A significant amount of which was intellectually dishonest rhetoric about whether the airport evacuation was a failure and whether it would have an adverse effect on America’s standing in the world. We expect dishonest political rhetoric from commentators who want to score points against their opponents as well as from ignorant people who pontificate on social media. However, we do not expect it from those who profess to be educated about foreign policy, military history, or diplomatic history. They should know better. That they should know better makes their intellectual dishonesty unbecoming.
What is the issue?
When America agreed in 2020 to withdraw from Afghanistan, no one expected the Afghan regime to collapse as the deadline for America’s withdrawal drew near. When Biden confirmed, in April 2021, that all US forces would be withdrawn by 11 September 2021, commentators were not demanding to see his evacuation plans if Kabul fell as no one expected the regime to collapse quickly.[i] Yet, this is what happened. Without American forces, the Afghani leaders and military lacked the will to fight effectively. They failed to defend Kabul or the other major cities from Taliban attacks which left America and its allies in a precarious security position. America and its allies had to manage a large-scale evacuation, which they had begun to prepare for back in April,[ii] but now had to include thousands of civilians beyond the expected Western personnel. With the Kabul airport as the last exit for Afghanis who wanted to leave Kabul before America left on 31 August 2021, the challenge was enormous.
On 15 August, Taliban forces took control of Kabul. The American military and its allies had to improvise security around the airport. In many cases, they had to coordinate that security perimeter with the Taliban. Although the Taliban had agreed to honour the withdrawal agreement negotiated in Doha in 2020 and not attack American forces or its allies, they freed a large number of prisoners including, what were described as high value Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Islamic State fighters.[iii] These released fighters were not under the Taliban’s control.
In this uncertain, chaotic, situation, a suicide bomber attacked at the airport gates on 26 August 2021 killing 170 people and 13 American service members. The suicide bomber was one of prisoners released by the Taliban forces.[iv]
In the months that have followed this terrible event, commentators have made increasingly vehement claims of the callous sacrifice of American soldiers. Some have gone so far as to say that Biden wasted their lives for nothing as the withdrawal and the evacuation were abject failures.
Other commentators claimed that America’s allies could no longer trust America or its promises. It is worth noting that commentators both in the United States and abroad say this *every single time* America leaves or reduces its presence in an area. George Will went so far as to say, with a straight face apparently, that America’s withdrawal from Lebanon, in 1984, indicated that America was reduced to being a regional power.[v]
The critics accept the simple argument that dead soldiers and a hurried evacuation are an unmitigated failure and a terrible stain on America’s honour. They insist that the America soldiers died to defend a flawed strategy, a flawed evacuation, led by an incompetent President. The simple answer, though, is wrong. To understand why, we need to compare Kabul to a true foreign policy debacle, to a true waste of military life, to a true flawed strategy. Such an event is the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut and the subsequent withdrawal from Lebanon. If we compare Afghanistan to Beirut on the number of casualties, the mission objective the soldiers were trying to accomplish, and the mission’s outcome, we see why the critics are wrong about the Kabul airport attack and evacuation.
Casualties: Beirut Barracks was worse and the Kabul Airport wasn’t even the largest casualty event in Afghanistan war.
If we compare the number of casualties, we see the difference between the two events immediately. In Beirut, 241 America service personnel were killed.[vi] In the Kabul Airport bombing, 13 were killed.
On 23 October 1983 a truck bomb detonated at the Marines’ Beirut barracks killing 241 US Marines. It was the largest number of Marines killed since the battle of Okinawa in 1945.
By contrast, the Kabul attack was not the largest number of casualties in the Afghanistan War:[vii]
- On June 28, 2005, 19 U.S. special operations troops were killed in Operation Red Wings.[viii]
- On 6 August 2011, 31 US service personnel were killed when a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down.[ix]
Neither of these incidents attracted the same amount of attention as the Kabul airport attack. Why? They were larger casualty events. When we recognize this point, we realize that it was not the number of causalities that is the basis for the criticism. Let us turn to the mission objective.
The Mission Objective: Rear-guard defence of innocent vs Targets in a “presence” mission.
In Afghanistan, the American soldiers died to defend people fleeing the Taliban. The specific mission, to withdraw American troops, embassy and specific individuals, was accomplished as America kept its word and withdrew before the deadline.
The larger mission purpose was an improvised evacuation to help people evacuate to a better life away from the Taliban, which demonstrated the military and the country’s highest ideals. The evacuation was not ideal, very few are, as the regime collapsed quickly. Both the local population and the American political and military leadership had to manage a larger evacuation than anticipated as the situation changed rapidly. In response to the collapse of the Afghan regime, Biden on 18 August 2021 ordered the military to fill up as many planes as possible to evacuate as many people as possible. The training for this type of evacuation had begun in April of 2021 as mentioned earlier, but it was not prepared for an event of this scale and scope.
The difference with the situation in Beirut is clear. In Beirut, the mission was vaguely defined as “presence” with uncertainty about the mission and the extent of the role unclear throughout the chain of command. In other words, no one knew exactly what they were doing in Beirut. [x]
The Marines were initially deployed to Beirut as part of a Multinational Force (MNF) to ensure the safe evacuation of the PLO fighters. The same PLO that was (until 1993) trying to destroy Israel. After helping the PLO to leave, the MNF and the Marines withdrew but had to return as part of a new MNF when the president elect of Lebanon was assassinated followed by the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The second deployment of the MNF was problematic in large part because their mission was ambiguous and more political or diplomatic than military.[xi] The mission was described as peacekeeping but its orders described it as a “presence.” Caught into a sectarian landscape, the Marines soon became drawn into supporting the Lebanese government which meant that they had taken a side in the local conflict where the government lacked any legitimacy beyond the areas it controlled in Beirut. The military commanders on the scene were confused about their mission and saw it more as diplomatic than military, to provide a presence for sustaining stability that would support the Lebanese government.[xii]
Outcomes: Afghanistan an evacuation with purpose and success; Beirut: death and years of civil war
In Afghanistan, the specific mission was accomplished. The American forces withdrew on time, as agreed, and they also were able to ensure a secure departure of 125,000 people in a few weeks. The overall mission, the 20 years of war, was not successful beyond its initial aims since the Afghan regime collapsed before America withdrew.
The October 1983 attack on the Marines showed the second deployment’s strategic problems. The force was too small to enforce or maintain a peace among the warring factions and it was not neutral within the conflicts between Lebanese factions as well as the wider strategic conflict between Syria and Israel. America was trying to do too much with too little with a poorly thought strategy on how to accomplish it. Even Reagan admitted in December 15th 1983 press conference that if the Lebanese government (already divided and unreconciled as the Syrians were undermining it) collapsed then America would leave. One could read into this that he gave the Syrians the reason to become intransigent while giving Reagan an excuse to leave as it would also allow America and the MNF to blame the Syrians. In effect this is what happened when the Muslim members of the Lebanese government resigned on 6 February 1984 following a call to resign encouraged by the Syrians. The next day America announced its withdrawal.
The Lebanese government was weak and ineffective as it was caught between Israel and Syria neither of which wanted it strong enough to resist them but not weak enough that it would allow the other to dominate it. On 16 August 1983 Graham E. Fuller, in a briefing to the CIA Director, explained this deteriorating situation and described it as the downward spiral.[xiii] On 2 September 1983 explained that America could withdraw having made “good faith efforts’ to support the unification process.
“US withdrawal of MNF support could be predicated on the fact that the US had made an intensive good faith effort to unite the countries’ warring factions. Since the parties could not agree upon national reconciliation, the MNF is no longer appropriate and would be regretfully withdrawn.”[xiv]
His option became a reality on 7 February 1984.
To make that happen, though, Ronald Reagan had to ensure the Syrians would get the message that if the Lebanese government collapsed the MNF would have to withdraw. He said that on 14 December 1983.
The official said the President’s reference to withdrawing American troops in the event of a ”collapse of order” was intended to suggest to Mr. Gemayel that ”if reconciliation doesn’t work in Lebanon, there’s no way we can solve his problems for him.”
He went on to emphasis this point, even as he denied it, on 20 December 1983
He [President Reagan] referred to his comments at a short news conference last week, at which he said that a ”total collapse” of stability in Lebanon could lead to an American withdrawal, and said this remark was not intended as a signal that the United States was contemplating such a move.
”I wasn’t trying to send anyone a message or anything,” he said.
For any avoidance of doubt, that is a classic example of the rhetorical technique called an Apophasis where the speaker mentions a topic by denying it or saying it should not be brought up. Reagan was well versed in this rhetorical tool and used it playfully with Walter Mondale in 1984 when he said he would not use his opponent’s youth and inexperience against him. He used it viciously against Michael Dukakis in 1988 when he said, in reference to the false allegations planted by Lee Atwater that Dukakis had sought psychological treatment for a mental illness, “Look, I am not going to pick on an invalid.”[xv]
Thus, Reagan knew before the Lebanese government collapsed in early February that this would be the likely outcome and one that they had positioned Syria to appear as the intransigent cause of the collapse. With the collapse, America could leave under the appearance it had ‘been the good doctor” but the patient (Lebanon) was beyond saving.
America was already aware in September 1983 that it was going to have to withdraw. What this means is that the Marines served no purpose since they could not achieve the stated outcome as they were not large enough to impose a peace nor to support the Lebanese government which lacked the legitimacy to sustain any peace the Marines might have kept.
In terms of the mission, the Lebanese government continued to exist, unlike the Afghanistan government, after America left. America was not needed to sustain the Lebanese regime as it remained caught between Israel and Syria with Israel leaving in 2000 and Syrian finally leaving in 2005.
The Kabul evacuation was not a debacle and would not even rank in the top 50 worst military events for the United States.
By contrast, the Beirut bombing and the subsequent withdrawal were an unmitigated disaster and debacle with purposeless deaths and a failed mission. Just over three months after that attack, America withdrew from Beirut. America cut and ran. Even though President Reagan had said three times that America would not withdraw, America left.[xvi] America achieved nothing with their deployment nor with their deaths. The Marines died in vain. They were not defending refugees fleeing a repressive regime. They were not assisting in an evacuation as a regime collapsed. They were not defending the perimeter to protect other American personnel or equipment. Instead, they were killed where they slept. In large part because the President had put them in an untenable position.
In less than 10 months after the Beirut Bombing, Reagan would be re-elected in a landslide. He suffered no political cost for sacrificing 241 Marines for no purpose and no gain. Yet, we are told that Biden should be castigated for the 13 soldiers who died defending Afghanis and the American evacuation agreed by someone else.[xvii]
So why should Biden suffer for ending a 20-year war, in which no one can explain why we should still be? Instead, critics can offer nothing more meaningful than we need to be there, to be there. The critics want to focus on 13 dead service personnel who at least died knowing their purpose and died to save others, while the veterans who were in Afghanistan are still waiting for someone to explain to them what their mission was after the Taliban were initially defeated and Osama Bin Laden chased from the country.[xviii] In this the Afghanistan War veterans at least know they were tied to a greater purpose, defeating the regime that had protected Bin Laden, and they were not pawns, without enough support and leaders uncertain of their mission, sacrificed cynically for an outcome that could not be achieved.
If you ask any Marine which was a greater humiliation, I do not think you would find one who would say Afghanistan was worse than Beirut. If you do, please have them explain their reasons to those at Arlington who would disagree.[xix]
[i] https://lordslibrary.parliament.uk/timeline-of-taliban-offensive-in-afghanistan/ It is important to note that the American troops were mostly withdrawn by this point since the Doha treaty stipulated that the majority of American (and NATO) troops would be withdrawn with 135 days of the treaty being signed with the remainder removed by May 2021 if the Taliban honoured its commitments.
[ii] For the evacuation plan see the U.S. Central Command Report on Fatal Afghanistan Airport Attack https://news.usni.org/2022/02/08/u-s-central-command-report-on-fatal-afghanistan-airport-attack See also remarks by Air Force Maj. Gen. Corey J. Martin indicating that evacuation planning began in April 2021 after Biden announced the withdrawal. https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2807571/general-says-planning-connectivity-were-keys-to-afghanistan-evacuation/
[v] …. [W]hile George Will saw the withdrawal as a U.S. expulsion from the Middle East. “The signal to the world is that the United States is- at most- regional power,” he wrote in a column entitled “A Military and Political Defeat Boston Globe , February 10, 1984. (see fn 31 p. 76 in Aruri, Naseer H., Arab Studies Quarterly , Fall 1985, Vol. 7, No. 4, The Realignment of Power in Lebanon: Internal and External Dimensions (Fall 1985), pp. 59-77) There is hyperbole and there is stupidity. The comment that that the United States was reduced to a regional power was a stupid statement with no foundation in reality.
[vi] I am leaving out, at the moment, the number of French soldiers (58) who were killed in a near simultaneous suicide bombing against their barracks. https://www.britannica.com/event/1983-Beirut-barracks-bombings
See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Afghanistan_Boeing_Chinook_shootdown or perhaps the tragically large number of military suicides since 2001 which exceeds the combat deaths. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/military/9-11-military-suicides-dwarf-number-soldiers-killed-combat-n1271346
[x] “The Commission concludes that the “presence” mission was not interpreted the same by all
levels of the chain of command and that perceptual differences regarding that mission, including the
responsibility of the USMNF for the security of Beirut International Airport, should have been recognized and
corrected by the chain of command.” Long Commission report p.12 https://irp.fas.org/threat/beirut-1983.pdf
[xi] The mission statement provided to SCINCEUR by the JCS Alert Order of 23 September 1982 read as follows:
“To establish an environment which will permit the Lebanese Armed Forces to carry out their responsibilities in the Beirut area. When directed, USCINCEUR will introduce U.S. forces as part of a multinational force presence in the Beirut area to occupy and secure positions along a designated section of the line from south of the Beirut International Airport to a position in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace; be prepared to protect U.S. forces; and, on order, conduct retrograde operations as required.” P.35 REPORT OF THE DOD COMMISSION ON BEIRUT INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT TERRORIST ACT, OCTOBER 23, 1983 https://irp.fas.org/threat/beirut-1983.pdf
[xii] “Competing with the MAU commander’s reaction to the growing threat to his force was his dedication to the USMNF mission assigned to his command and his appreciation of the significance of peace-keeping and presence in achieving U.S. policy objectives in Lebanon. He perceived his mission to be more diplomatic than military, providing presence and visibility, along with the other MNF partners, to help the Government of Lebanon achieve stability.” Long Commission p. 90
[xv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophasis on the Reagan quotations see M. J. Stephey. “Reagan’s Age-Old Wisdom”. Time. Retrieved 9 September 2017. and Lamar Jr., Jacob V. (15 August 1988). “Reagan: Part Fixer, Part Hatchet Man”. Time. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
[xvi] Three-and-a-half months after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. military personnel — and after repeatedly pledging not to do so — Reagan ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Lebanon. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/02/07/when-reagan-cut-and-run/
[xvii] Congresswomen Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene heckled President Biden over the Kabul deaths during his State of the Union address. https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2022/03/01/state-union-heckle-lauren-boebert-marjorie-taylor-greene/9337266002/ Boebert might be excused for her ignorance since she was born after the Beirut Bombing.
[xviii] https://www.npr.org/2021/08/17/1028542770/veterans-who-supported-ending-the-war-in-afghanistan-describe-seeing-the-country?t=1644783237551 and https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/10/politico-mag-afghan-vets-roundtable-506989