‘Speed equals safety’: Inside the Pentagon’s controversial decision to leave Bagram early

“On a rainy day in early May, weeks after President Joe Biden announced the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, senior leaders from across the government gathered in the basement of the Pentagon for a broad interagency drill to rehearse the withdrawal plan.

During the exercise, top Pentagon leaders including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley stressed the need for American troops to get out of the country as quickly as possible to protect against renewed Taliban attacks.

Their plan called for the military to draw down to zero within 60 days of Biden’s official order, or roughly mid- to late-June — far sooner than the Sept. 11 deadline the president originally set. One of the most crucial decisions involved handing over Bagram Air Base to the Afghans as the last step of the withdrawal once U.S. forces were so depleted that they could no longer reasonably secure what had been the hub of the American military effort there for the past 20 years.

“All of them made the same argument,” said one defense official, who was in attendance at the drill on May 8, and whose account includes previously unreported details. “Speed equals safety,” the person said, referring to the message conveyed by the military leaders.

The military brass had done a remarkable 180. For the first four months of 2021, as the White House reviewed the withdrawal timeline inherited from the Trump administration, Austin and Milley, as well as senior military commanders, urged Biden to leave a few thousand troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. Both were overruled. Once that happened, the Pentagon embraced as quick a withdrawal as possible, including from Bagram. And the Pentagon stuck to that approach through the beginning of July, regardless of the conditions on the ground.”

“At every stage of the withdrawal, the White House went along with the Pentagon’s recommendations, accepting a timetable that ended up going faster than Biden laid out in the spring. When the Taliban started to sweep through northern Afghanistan in the summer, different plans were discussed but never altered. The priority for the Pentagon was to protect U.S. troops and pull them out, even as diplomats and Afghan allies stayed behind.

By early August, when it was clear Kabul would fall sooner than expected, the American military presence was down to fewer than 1,000 troops. It was too late to reverse course.

None of the civilian officials who were at the May 8 meeting at the Pentagon questioned the military’s rapid drawdown plan, according to multiple officials. Those attendees included national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy, Jon Finer; CIA Director William Burns; Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the ambassador to the United Nations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was not present, but was represented by his deputy, Brian McKeon. Besides Austin and Milley, other Pentagon officials included Gens. Frank McKenzie and Austin Scott Miller, the commanding generals of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, respectively, who joined via secure video.”

“This account of the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is based on interviews with 17 current and former officials — most of whom requested anonymity in order to speak candidly without fear of retribution. Their accounts shed new light on the Pentagon’s decision to hand over Bagram, and the back and forth between senior military leaders and the White House leading up to the American exit from Afghanistan.

Spokespeople for the National Security Council and the State Department declined to comment on the May drill.”

“The military’s first priority was getting its troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible after the initial May 1 deadline, in case of renewed Taliban attack.

The proposal assumed that the Afghans would control the base for at least a few months after the American withdrawal, allowing the U.S. to use the base for an evacuation if needed, the official said.

But as the drawdown neared completion in June and early July, some military officials were concerned that it was moving too quickly. This was one reason brass pushed American contractors to leave the country early, rather than on the administration timeline, said the former senior defense official.

“The one-stars and two-stars.… They are very discouraged because I think it shows some serious flaws in our four-star leadership,” the person said. “To me that was a big mistake by our military: they didn’t have to get them out that fast and they could have kept open some other options.

“The military should’ve pushed back harder and not pulled their people out the minute they didn’t win the argument with Blinken and Biden.””

“Within hours of the Americans leaving on July 1, looters descended on the base, grabbing gas canisters and some laptops. Afghan officials said the U.S. left behind millions of small items, including bottles of water and ready-made meals known as MREs, as well as thousands of civilian vehicles, hundreds of armored vehicles, and some small weapons and ammunition for the Afghan troops.

Critics say the perceived abandonment played into the hands of the Taliban insurgents and further eroded the morale of the Afghan forces.

“[T]hey lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” one Afghan soldier told the Associated Press at the time.

On Aug. 8, McKenzie sent Austin a new assessment about Kabul’s prospects: the city could be isolated within 30 days of the American withdrawal.

Just seven days later, the Taliban captured Bagram and released thousands of prisoners held there, including many with ties to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.”

“The Pentagon has defended the decision to give up Bagram, saying the administration’s cap of roughly 700 troops forced the military’s hand. With force levels dwindling due to the scheduled withdrawal, priority was given to securing the embassy over continuing operations at Bagram, Milley said in August.”

“In the end, the Pentagon got the withdrawal senior leaders wanted. But the Taliban ultimately advanced faster than anyone anticipated, forcing the Biden administration to scramble to rush thousands of additional troops to Kabul to pull together a mass evacuation effort.

“I think [the administration] accepted risk to try to accomplish competing policy priorities, and unfortunately that risk was realized when the Taliban swept into Kabul,” said a senior defense official. “The result was a tragedy. It’s been hard for our people to process.””

How the Pentagon Got Inside ISIS’ Chemical Weapons Operation—and Ended It

““We began to recognize that ISIS was pulling in not just fighters but people with unique skills: technical skills, scientific skills, financial skills,” said General Joseph Votel, the Pentagon’s special-operations chief at the time and a regular participant in the discussions. “That gave us pause. We all witnessed the horrific things they were doing. You had to make the presumption that if they got their hands on a chemical weapon, they would use it.””

Pentagon Fails Another Audit, Will Likely Get Budget Increase From Congress Anyway

“The third time wasn’t the charm for the Pentagon, which has once again failed to successfully complete an audit.

Thomas Harker, the Pentagon’s comptroller, told Reuters that it could be another seven years before the department can pass an audit—something that it has never accomplished. Previous attempts in 2018 and 2019 turned up literally thousands of problems with the Pentagon’s accounting system and millions of dollars’ worth of missing equipment.”

New Pentagon chief racing to make changes before Trump’s exit

“While the role of special operations forces has grown in size and scope since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the importance of the Pentagon civilian overseeing them has diminished, experts say.

This meant that military commanders, especially the head of Special Operations Command, end up making critical decisions that should be made by civilian leaders, argued retired Army Col. Mark Mitchell, who served as acting head of SO/LIC in the Trump administration, in a May op-ed.

“The net result is an inverted relationship that runs counter to the concept of civilian oversight,” Mitchell wrote.

Many in the special operations community, including Mitchell, have long argued that the civilian position should be elevated to the undersecretary level. Miller himself advocated for this change during his Wednesday remarks.

“I personally think SO/LIC deserves to be an undersecretary of defense, but unfortunately that’s beyond my authority and purview at that time,” said Miller, who briefly served as the deputy in charge of special operations and combating terrorism this year. “I know future generations will take that on.”

The change announced Wednesday reflects the fact that special operations have greatly increased in significance to America’s national security since 9/11, said retired Col. Stu Bradin, president and CEO of the Global SOF Foundation. As the Pentagon shifts its focus from counterterrorism to competition with Russia and China, special forces will have an even more important role to play, he said.

“The shift in focus to great power competition does not mean that SOF will be or should be relegated to the back burner. On the contrary, our enemies are not looking to fight us on the conventional battlefield,” Bradin said. “We must recognize the importance of irregular warfare in this next set of threats. And, in our opinion, the civilian oversight of special operations should be increased and elevated accordingly.”

Trump Will Raid Pentagon’s War on Terror Slush Fund To Build His Border Wall

“As part of an overall plan to divert $3.8 billion from the Pentagon to pay for the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico, President Donald Trump is planning to drain about $1.6 billion from the slush fund that pays for much of America’s post-9/11 wars in the Middle East.

Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports that the White House sent a memo to Congress on Thursday outlining plans to redirect military spending for the border wall. The administration plans to move $2.2 billion originally earmarked for purchasing vehicles, ships, and aircraft into an anti-drug trafficking program that has already been tapped to provide for wall construction costs. The other $1.6 billion in border wall funding will come from the budget used to pay for America’s foreign wars”

Trump downplays US troop injuries from Iran’s attack, calling them “not very serious”

“After Tehran fired 16 missiles at two US military sites in Iraq earlier this month, the Trump administration repeatedly said there were no casualties. Trump, during a January 8 address at the White House, reiterated that message by saying “all of our soldiers are safe.”

Then last week, a Pentagon spokesperson admitted 11 military members sustained injuries in the Iran strikes, saying in a statement that the troops were “treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed” in Germany and Kuwait.

And then on Tuesday — almost two weeks after Trump and other officials said no one was hurt — another Defense Department spokesperson said that “additional service members have been identified as having potential injuries” and are under evaluation in Germany, too, though the exact number of troops or nature of the injuries is unclear.

While Iran didn’t kill a single US military member — as far as we know — it’s clear the human toll is much higher than the administration initially let on. Of course, it’s possible that officials didn’t notice the injuries until well after the Iran attack, as the first injuries to be identified are usually those involving visible physical wounds.”