Still smarting from our leaders’ intelligence failure

Martin Schram

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Joe Biden, never one for subtlety or secrecy, has been known since his veep days as this capital city’s most outspoken insider who wanted in the worst way to end America’s un-won and unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

And that is just what he has done. President Biden decisively ended America’s military role in Afghanistan this past week — but he did it in the worst way.

And he did it with the whole world watching, with disbelieving eyes. Biden, who recently promised we’d never see a panic scene like those people clamoring to get on the last chopper off the Saigon embassy roof, just watched on TV as we did, as panicked Afghan masses desperately ran beside a jet taking off from the one runway that was America’s lone escape route out of Afghanistan.

Today Biden and his closest advisers want you to know they were shocked — shocked! — when their Afghan allies simply stole away, in 11 days in August, with all the U.S. money they could steal. And that the Afghan military, seeing that, walked away. Some got Taliban payoffs; most got Taliban safe conduct — and gifted the Taliban with the aircraft, weapons, vehicles and info-packed computers they’d gotten from us.

But wait: All year (much longer, really), Washington’s policymakers and policy-massagers had been getting very specific intelligence reports from Afghanistan’s war zones detailing devastating deterioration, demoralization and corrosive corruption within the never-really-combat-ready Afghan military. Afghan troops weren’t getting paid or fed. Weapons were disappearing.

One report said that in January, a desperate police captain whose Mazar-I-Sharif outpost was under assault by Taliban troops radioed desperately for ammo. But he got only one can of 200 rounds — enough for one minute of intense firing. That was too typical.

By April, Washington’s policy pooh-bahs were reading dire war zone reports of Afghan troops being bought off by the Taliban and going home. So how shocked can any official be today?

And there’s one more thing you need to know: All the above intelligence arrived in Washington not in top-secret computer cables but in news reports that were read by everyone with a news screen. Yet last week Biden and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley insisted no one told them it could turn out like this.

When I first saw those reports earlier this year, I felt like I’d seen this movie before. I not only knew the ending; I’d covered it.

Way back in December 1974 — after all U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam — I went there as Newsday’s Washington bureau chief to gauge the probable success or failure of Richard Nixon’s plan to gradually get out of that war. Henry Kissinger, who choreographed Nixon’s Vietnamization plan, famously spoke of an “elegant bugout.”

FLASHBACK: In the Mekong Delta area, my interpreter and I talked with a civilian crew digging a huge government irrigation project. The workers were terrified. Viet Cong soldiers camped in the nearby jungle, sometimes came out at night, kidnapped and beat workers to get them to quit.

“Sure I am afraid,” one worker told me. “ ... But we have no choice.”

The government wouldn’t pay them until they did several months of digging. Democracy or communism? They no longer cared who won the war.

“My life will not change. I just want peace.”

Back home one day, I told the story to a young senator from Delaware when I rode the Amtrak train home with him after work.

FAST-FORWARD: Today, when it comes to Afghanistan, President Biden is not an elegant bugout kind of guy. He’s Scranton Joe — a get-the-hell-out guy.

But while my long-ago pal has surely benefited from the lessons of today’s intelligence and yesteryear’s history, he has also missed a big one. Because, as we heard in his interview with ABC News’ persistent George Stephanopoulos, Biden was asking his experts the wrong question:

“The basic choice is: Am I going to send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan in perpetuity?”

No, never perpetuity. This war had run its course.

That’s why Biden and his team were morally obligated to pursue — quietly, but with the all-out determination they are showing now — a plan to classify and approve all Afghans eligible for rapid rescue because they risked their lives to protect Americans. And months ago, they needed to develop a Worst-Case Scenario Exit Plan to create and militarily enforce a safe corridor that would get Americans and our Afghan protectors safely to the Kabul airport and on planes.

Joe Biden’s America could have — and should have — provided a moral, humane end plan so the world would see that this time America’s war, while un-won, was at least also un-lost.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send emails to martin.schram@gmail.com. © 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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