Looking Away from Afghanistan

It was my late father who gave me a heart for lost countries. I have recounted here on Bearing Drift in the past how I stood as a child in places that seemed hopeless, almost forsaken by God, as he explained to me what was happening. As a military intelligence officer in the 1960s and 70s, there was much he could not share, but when the opportunity arose, he did so, showing us just how fortunate we were to be Americans.

I am eight years old, my hand in his atop a hill overlooking an enclave in the country of Panama called “Hollywood” where the homeless, which include a legion of poorly clothed children of all ages, live in miserable shanties. They stare up with haunted eyes at this American family stopped on the highway. He explains to me what happens to bodies when they don’t get enough to eat, and where the money goes that the United States sends for aid. It is my first lesson in corrupt politicians.

I am nine when my father takes me on a visit to the interior of Panama to a village his parachuting club has adopted. It is a celebration as the club has brought candy and an American doctor and nurse to help some of the children with health conditions. A little boy rides on my father’s shoulders eating a chocolate candy bar and a pet pig has been taught to sit in the cantina and drink beer. The village band plays in the background. This is what Americans do, he tells me. We don’t turn away. It’s up to us to know. It’s up to us to make the world a better place.

I am ten years old when my mother reads aloud from my father’s letters from Vietnam, written once and twice a week like a novel describing in detail that faraway country. The heat, the rain, the jungle, the villages and Saigon City come alive, especially the children who concern my father the most. In each one, he sees my brother and me and he cannot turn away.

My father has been an aide to General Westmoreland, but he feels he isn’t doing enough, and he volunteers for the field in a way more dangerous job. He is in the U.S. Army Special Security Group with the 101st Airborne at Ben Hoa. He is in the country for the Tet Offensive of 67 and the information he carries is so sensitive, he and his group are placed in the center of the compound while the 101st surrounds them to prevent their capture.

In the Spring of ’68, my father helps a Vietnamese grandmother from a nearby village retrieve the body parts of her granddaughter from their bombed-out hut for burial. My father’s job is to die for his country if necessary so I can wake up every day as a free American. My father has shown me that I am blessed, and I feel a strong connection to this country so far away. I will always have a heart for Vietnam.

I am twelve when I stand at the entrance to Dahua Concentration Camp in Germany, again my hand in his as we go inside to the Visitors Center. We are part of a large group that day including an elderly priest and a group of nuns. My father has prepared me for what I will see. I have read the books, know the facts.

The priest approaches the large photos in the museum area and as he moves from picture to picture, he begins to cry. My bravery dissolves and I cry too sitting down on a nearby bench. I want to look away. My father is there in an instant, with a comforting arm around me. This is the way we learn history, he says, so that we prevent this from ever happening again. This is what we do.

My father died in 2000, a year before 911. His tombstone says, “A Warrior Who Stepped In The Gap.” My mother and I wondered just what his thoughts would have been on this surreal attack on our country and on our shores. When the decision was made to go into Afghanistan to dismantle the terrorist operation who had masterminded this attack, we knew he would have approved and as a young soldier would have been the first to volunteer to go, just as he volunteered to go to Vietnam. There was never a country more lost for centuries than Afghanistan.

Most people agree that several years later the mission expanded to encompass bringing much more to the people of that country – health care, education for women and equipping an Afghan army to defend themselves. That monumental resources have been used to help the people of Afghanistan would have been my dad’s forte as well. This is who my father was and this is what Americans do. At the core of American exceptionalism is our heart for lost countries.

As the events of August unfolded this year and the world’s media was filled with the images of our abandonment of our allies, the abdication of our reputation and the completely unexplainable way we withdrew from Afghanistan, I was glad my father was not alive to see 2021.

I am sure he would have advocated for the withdrawal, but on our terms and with a clear and smart plan for evacuating Americans and Afghani allies.

My father hated war, especially endless wars, and his letters from his travels strongly reflect those sentiments, but I don’t think he could fathom the loss of place the United States suffered worldwide and the senseless death of the 13 service men and women. Every time I saw a soldier with a child in his arms I wanted to turn away from Afghanistan.

I am, however, my father’s daughter.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, I watched and listened like so many Americans to the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee hearings on the events that went down in Afghanistan. I genuinely want answers.

Here are some of my takes from the proceedings with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie

Our top military officials have now stated publicly for the first time they personally believed it would be a mistake to withdraw all U.S. Troops from Afghanistan. They advised against dates in the sand, and instead advised withdrawal in increments based on unfolding situations and events. This is in direct conflict to statements President Biden has made. Wednesday those statements were entered into the record.

The hearings were unusual in that it was not in my opinion completely partisan. While the Senate Democrats all echoed the blame game placing it squarely on the Afghani government and the security forces, they also asked some tough questions on the “whys” of how the withdrawal happened. Many referenced how angry their constituents are with how the events unfolded.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said essentially it was perhaps unreasonable to think even with the spending of 800 plus billion we could change the culture of a country when we cannot get one-third of the population of the United States to take a vaccine or accept the election.

Many senators from both sides of the aisle referenced how many times over the years they had been told by military advisers during session that everything was going well in Afghanistan.

One Senator related how when he visited that country he was told the same thing upon arrival by the officers in charge, and something entirely different when he had lunch with the rank and file. They told him they did not trust the Afghan army; they were not capable of defending the country and that many only showed up for payday.

There is no doubt the official plan to finally withdraw and the agreements with the Taliban began and were fostered by the Trump administration who largely ignored the Afghani government and dealt directly with the Taliban. This is ironically a mirror of exactly what happened to the South Vietnamese Government with the Vietnam peace agreement in 1975. The Trump administration announced a five thousand troop drawdown in May of 2020, with all troops including our NATO Allies gone in fourteen months.

Speaking to West Point graduates that year, President Donald Trump said it was not up to us to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands. He said elsewhere it was time to bring our people home. The majority of Americans apparently agreed.

What I did not know, but learned on Tuesday, is that Trump issued an order just after he lost the election that complete withdrawal was to happen by January 15th, 2021, just before the inauguration. This jives with the interview by Chris Wallace with Leon Panetta last month when asked if the withdrawal would have fared better under President Trump. Panetta told Wallace the results would have been the same or worse as clearly he knew this information.

The only thing which caused this cup to pass was the intervention of General Milley who made the case to Trump that they needed to leave several thousand troops in order to plan to evacuate Americans, and the order was restated with that caveat. Listening between the lines, time was our friend and the inauguration prevented the August scenario and worse from happening in January 2021. Trump is not the savior for this debacle.

Even more revealing on Wednesday it was revealed that Congress was already worried about Trump’s withdrawal plan and inserted legislation in the NDAA bill which would forbid the withdrawal of more than 2,500 troops from an operation without coming to Congress. Biden in August brought us down to 600, which violates this law.

Testimony at both hearings reiterated The Trump agreement in 2020 in Doha hugely impacted the morale of the Afghani army. After the deal was signed, the Taliban went on a world tour, meeting with Turkey, Pakistan, Qatar, Iran, China, and Russia to make sure they would not interfere with the occupation of Kabul when the United States pulled out. They also wisely met with Afghani local leaders around the country to get their agreement. At that point the stage was set for the occupation of Kabul, and the Defense Department knew all this and the fact that many Taliban had already moved into the provinces surrounding the city. According to testimony however no one was prepared for the fall in eleven days.
General Milley pointed out that in the future, modeling the armies of counties like Afghanistan who have nothing in common with the U.S. after our military model is perhaps not a good idea, and other methods should be employed. On Wednesday Senators sought an explanation as to why Joint Forces Bagram Air Base was not chosen as the departure point. General McKenzie pointed out the impossibility of transporting thousands of people 30 miles for evacuation, as well as the number of troops needed to defend that base’s location in the country, a minimum of 5,000 which was not an option open to them.

Although this was not covered in this week’s hearings, it is worth mentioning that the fact is all the stories of the state-of-the-art equipment left on the ground is false. This is a familiar mantra with Fox News.  The U.S. did not in fact spend the lion’s share of the resources on equipment for the Afghani army, and they remained dependent on the firepower of our military. The equipment of the “Afghani Air Force” is a joke. Much of the billons pumped into the country was salary.

Milley also answered questions about his role in Bob Woodward’s new book which was of primary interest to me. I would advise anyone with questions to go to You Tube and watch the testimony. The body language, and what is not said, speak volumes about what was happening just after Trump lost the 2020 election.

Milley said Trump leaders and military officials were aware of the calls. He testified that eight people were with him on the call in October to General Li of China, and eleven people were on the call in January of this year. The infamous call from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Milley where she worries about Trump going rogue was also discussed at length. While Woodard’s book, Peril, would have one believe this was all top secret, many people knew about her call and in fact met about the content of it and what was discussed just after it happened.

These calls have become a center for partisan criticism, with many calling for Milley’s resignation. The General said the calls to the Chinese were part of his job and involved routine communications “with the knowledge and coordination of civilian oversight.”

He indicated the Defense Department had received intelligence which caused them to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States and his mission was to convey to the Chinese to stay calm and de-escalate. The United States is not going to attack you.

The following are direct quotes.

“I am specifically directed to communicate with the Chinese by Department of Defense guidance.”

“I know, I am certain, that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it is my directed responsibility, and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese.”

As to the call from Speaker Pelosi….

“I’m not qualified to evaluate the mental fitness or the health of a former president, present president or anybody else or anybody in this room. That’s not my job. That’s not what I do. And that’s not what I did.”

General Mark Milley is the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to sit for book interviews which criticize a president and describe conversations of national security while holding the office. More than one Republican Senator and Congressman called on Milley to resign and his last answer on Wednesday was to point out he serves at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of these proceedings however, the enormous question still looms of why President Biden chose to overlook the advice of the military and unbelievably why he would sully his record on foreign policy as a newly elected president when it did not have to be.

It truly defies reason. He assured us a “Saigon repeat” was not in the cards and in an interview in August said his military leaders did not initially advise him to keep troops on the ground past the deadline.

I am not one of those people who disrespect my president on social media. My father also taught me chain of command. Joe Biden is the President of the United States, but I want to understand whose ignorance and incompetence produced this excruciating tragedy and who is going to take responsibility?

The actions in Afghanistan must be not the country we have become and this is not a partisan issue. Presidents Bush whose foreign policy helped to restore order after 911 globally and President Clinton’s humanitarian missions to Somalia are the United States of America.

I know my dad, the greatest patriot I have ever known, would want answers. He would say we must know how it happened to prevent it from happening again.

Until then this American cannot look away.

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