Basic and advanced officer training both teach that the hardest military maneuver is what they term “Hasty Withdrawal in Contact”. Retreat is a kinder term, though it is undeniably what is happening. The problem is that a retreat can easily become a rout. That is exactly what our military and diplomats in Afghanistan now face as known hostile forces have reached Kabul and are likely preparing an assault on the last bastion of “The Great Satan” - the US Embassy. It didn’t go well in Saigon in 1975 nor in Tehran in 1979. It may be even worse in Afghanistan.
Withdrawal in contact is extremely difficult even for highly trained troops, because remaining calm and avoiding casualties while under fire is exceptionally hard and can easily turn into a panicked rout. A hasty withdrawal usually results from the enemy advancing far faster than planners allowed for. It is a maneuver for minimizing disaster. We saw similarities during the fall of Saigon, but Kabul has the potential to be much worse, with significant potential casualties and greater press coverage resulting in even worse international humiliation.
Our leadership seems to have been caught flat-footed by the speed with which the Taliban have moved to take vast swathes of the country, ignoring President Biden’s timetable for an “orderly” withdrawal. Afghanistan already seems to be collapsing much faster than the “experts” in the NSC , Pentagon and Foggy Bottom thought possible. The possibility of hostage taking and many casualties should be of enormous concern and the avoidance of such should be the focus of exceptional military and political effort, but haste now seems the order of the day rather than any carefully planned strategy.
Complicating the difficulties of the coming withdrawal from Kabul is the need for the military to protect the civilian staff and contractors remaining in the Embassy. This protection of non-combatants multiplies the difficulties and also adds the pressure to account for the wishes of senior State Department officials such as the Secretary and Ambassador/Chief of Mission, neither of whom is in the military chain of command, but who can exert enormous pressure on field commanders.
The rumors of the conduct of the withdrawal from Bagram airbase (US troops abandoning the site in the middle of the night, turning off the power as they left, without coordination with local commanders), the failure to extract critical Afghan allies such as the interpreters who often fought alongside our troops and the recent focus of senior military leadership on such issues as CRT do not instill confidence. The reporting on the waste, fraud and stupidity of investment in projects providing no value to the US (though making many people involved wealthy beyond their dreams) adds to the reasonable doubts of the competence of our military and civilian leaders at the highest echelons.
The withdrawal followed by the re-insertion of an additional 5,000 troops to cover the final withdrawal also indicates poor planning. Let us hope and pray that our tactical commanders are better prepared than their (supposedly) strategically-minded superiors.
The Taliban has enormous experience in dealing with and is very aware of all the weaknesses of our military. They are also well practiced in minimizing American military might, even when we had a much larger presence and greater capability. Furthermore we (and they) have the lessons from the Soviet withdrawal and the speed with which the Taliban rolled up the country in the aftermath should have indicated the problem now facing our people.
The Soviet forces conducted a withdrawal in contact in reasonably good order, including negotiating ceasefires with various tribal groups. It seems unlikely that more than 30 years later our hasty withdrawal will go as well. I hope I am wrong!