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Afghan collapse: Time to clean house at the Pentagon?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Say, whatever happened to Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Mark Milley’s promise to “support the Afghan Security Forces where necessary”? For those not keeping score, Milley made those remarks less than a month ago, in a joint press conference at the Pentagon with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Those words must have rang hollow in the ears of Afghan military commanders who saw the Taliban defy the deal they’d made with the Biden administration by attacking the cities — and never saw the US respond, not even to help them punish the Taliban for their betrayal.

This episode makes it clear that the failure of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan doesn’t belong to only Joe Biden alone. Three weeks ago, Austin and Milley stood at the podium and either lied, or demonstrated the kind of ignorance about the situation that we haven’t seen since Pearl Harbor or perhaps Korea in 1950. This is from DoD News, the official Pentagon news service:

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke during a Pentagon press conference alongside Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. “The future of Afghanistan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people,” Milley said. “And there is a range of possible outcomes in Afghanistan. … A negative outcome – a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan – is not a foregone conclusion.”

The general said the United States will continue to monitor the situation there and make adjustments to the support as necessary, he said.

Milley gave a quick rundown of the situation in Afghanistan. “There very clearly is a narrative out there that the Taliban are winning – they are propagating an ‘inevitable victory’,” he said. “As of today, 212 or 213 of the district centers are in Taliban control – it’s about half of the 419 that are out there. You’ve got 34 provincial capitals in Afghanistan. None of them have been seized by the Taliban, although they are putting pressure on the outskirts of about half of them.”

That was on July 21st, less than four weeks ago, and about two weeks before the Taliban overran a third of those provincial capitals. How’s that projection working out for y’all, anyway?

In the full transcript, Milley spoke more directly about the US role in maintaining a partnership with the Afghan military. Milley assured reporters that the Afghan military had the capacity to stand and fight, and that the US would continue to support them:

A major component of sustaining a robust diplomatic presence in Kabul is to maintain a functioning and secure airport in Kabul. So we continue to dedicate our security resources to that, to secure the embassy, to secure the international zone and secure HKIA, the international airport in Kabul for our diplomats, our personnel and our continued support to the government of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Security Forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country, and we will continue to support the Afghan Security Forces where necessary in accordance with the guidance from the president and the secretary of defense.

The future of Afghanistan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people, and there are a range of possible outcome in Afghanistan. And I want to emphasis repeatedly, and I’ve said this before, a negative outcome, a Taliban automatic military takeover, is not a forgone conclusion. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and make adjustments as necessary.

Additionally, we’re always going to maintain the capability of self-defense. We possess the military means and have several options at our disposal to fully protect our force in Afghanistan and throughout the region.

This was no mere misspeak, either. Two months earlier, Milley told the AP that the US would continue to partner with Afghanistan’s military to help it succeed:

After the withdrawal is over, the United States will provide unspecified “capabilities” to the Afghan military from other locations, Milley said. He did not elaborate on this, but other officials have said those “over-the-horizon” arrangements for supporting the Afghan military have yet to be solidified.

It’s difficult to get this any more wrong than Milley did, not to mention this close to the catastrophe. It’s akin to predicting at Thanksgiving 1941 that Japan wasn’t seeking to expand its empire, but that Pearl Harbor and our Pacific fleet was ready to respond to any provocation and to defend our territories in the western Pacific.

In the 26 days since Milley made those remarks, the Taliban has swept through each of those districts, sacked every one of those provincial capitals, and taken Kabul to declare an Islamic emirate. The US military has responded by, er, doing nothing to stop it. The only action taken by the military to “support the Afghan Security Forces” in the intervening month has been to secure the Kabul airport momentarily — and only its military section — to evacuate Americans from the collapse.

This class of leadership is hopelessly incompetent, at the very least. The next class of leadership should learn some hard lessons from this debacle. First and foremost, they should remain focused on military readiness and national defense, not cultural or political debates. Milley and Austin made fools of themselves getting involved in “wokery” in June, at precisely the same time both were apparently missing the signs of the resurgent Taliban. Rather than worrying about “woke,” they should have woken up to the reality in the one hot theater of combat they had.

Joe Biden deserves the lion’s share of criticism for these craven decisions and their disastrous outcomes, but there’s plenty left over for the military leaders who failed this spectacularly,  too. In previous eras, generals who spoke this falsely and suffered such humiliating defeats would fall on their swords. No one wants that to happen, but clearly this class of leadership at the Pentagon has proven itself either hopelessly incompetent or baldly dishonest. The honorable thing for them to do is to resign and fade away. Will they? Given their disgraceful performance of late, I wouldn’t bet on it.