Americans have learned the hard way that we must be wary when our presidents deliver feel-good messages about what has been accomplished in a war-torn region.
Too often, our presidents have proclaimed a “mission accomplished,” but then taken actions that diminish what they accomplished and inadvertently turn the final result into a mission decomplished. (Yes, quibblers, it’s a non-word. But it says best a reality the world has witnessed for decades. So it stays invented.)
President Joe Biden chose his words carefully Wednesday in announcing he will withdraw all official U.S. military from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 – the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, directed by al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden from his Afghan sanctuary where he was the ruling Taliban’s guest terrorist.
Biden made sure he didn’t fall into the same trap that has been infamously linked forever to the legacy of George W. Bush, first as he stood beneath a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier, and then when he told U.S. troops at Afghanistan’s Camp As Sayliyah that their “mission has been accomplished.”
Tragically, the great success and sacrifice of those troops was presidentially devolved when Bush diverted U.S. resources and focus away from the pursuit of Afghanistan’s fleeing Taliban and al-Qaida to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. With the full U.S. resources diverted, the Taliban and al-Qaida leaders found refuge in a despicably welcoming Pakistan. Ultimately the Taliban was able to regroup and regain control of vast amounts of Afghan territory that they hold today. Despite decades of U.S. military sacrifices.
Fast-forward three presidents: As Biden spoke to us from the White House Treaty Room where Bush announced the 2001 retaliatory invasion of the Taliban’s Afghanistan, 2,448 U.S. troops had been killed and 20,722 wounded in Afghanistan.
“We already have service members doing their duty in Afghanistan today whose parents served in the same war. …War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida is degraded … in Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war.”
America has learned the hard way the perils of how a mission accomplished can be presidentially devolved into a mission decomplished.
When President Barack Obama withdrew the U.S. military from Iraq, it produced an unintended consequence that was ill-considered and ultimately damaging.
When the military left, America lost vital intel resources. Result: U.S. policymakers in Washington were shocked, shocked when ISIS – a little-known terrorist group – suddenly surfaced and captured with seeming ease cities in Iraq and Syria.
“Intelligence operations are often run from the safety of military bases, but when the bases went, so did the intelligence units,” said Roy Gutman, an award-winning journalist and author, who is an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and was the first to spotlight that outcome. “As a result, the U.S. government was blindsided by the rise of ISIS and had to follow news reports about the fall of Mosul and ISIS’s advances through Syria.”
Good news: While Biden was announcing his troop withdrawal, top intelligence officials were testifying at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. And new CIA Director William Burns made clear he gets the very point Gutman had spotted long ago. “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish,” Burns testified. “That’s simply a fact.”
But there’s no sign that former President Donald Trump shared that concern when he promised the Taliban he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1 – and the Taliban promised it won’t allow al-Qaida to operate in Afghan sanctuaries. But that leads us to our new central concern – given the certain upcoming mission decomplishment:
Q: With U.S. intel sources diminishing when the U.S. military leaves, how can Washington be sure the Taliban is keeping its promise – and al-Qaida is not replenishing and plotting another terrorist attack?
The quest for that answer looms as a major reason the U.S. must delay its troop withdrawal from May Day to Sept. 11. U.S. officials are scrambling to develop all manner of plans for being able to launch, from distant locations, powerful and accurate military responses to any Taliban attacks. Also, while the U.S. will be withdrawing its remaining 2,500 official military forces – and NATO allies are withdrawing their 7,000 troops – another 1,000 U.S. special operations or other counter-terrorism and intelligence personnel will be staying. And their capability and numbers may well be upgraded.
Biden’s challenge is to somehow assure that those officially off-the-books forces will be able to fill the pending Afghanistan intelligence gap. Our security half a world away may depend on their ability to operate skillfully with their urgent mission re-accomplished.
Martin Schram is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.