If Junior Officers Had Botched Afghanistan, They’d All Be Fired Right Now

If Junior Officers Had Botched Afghanistan, They’d All Be Fired Right Now

A private will suffer greater consequences for losing a rifle than a general will for losing a war.
William A. Woodruff
By

On July 30, 2020, off the coast of California, units of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were conducting amphibious assault exercises when tragedy struck. After successfully completing a training assault on San Clemente Island, members of Bravo Company left the island in their amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) and were “swimming” back to the Somerset, an amphibious transport ship.

One of the AAVs, with a crew of three and carrying 12 Marines and a Navy corpsman, never made it to the Somerset. The AAV began taking on water, lost its emergency lighting system, experienced mechanical failures due to a leak of transmission fluid, and two of the bilge pumps stopped working.

The AAV commander delayed ordering an evacuation. To make matters worse, radio communications did not operate properly. The 26-ton AAV sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, taking eight Marines and the Navy corpsman with it in the deadliest amphibious training accident in the Corps’ history.

The official investigation of the mishap concluded “a confluence of human and mechanical failures caused the sinking of the mishap AAV and contributed to a delayed rescue effort, resulting in the deaths of eight Marines and one Sailor.”

The Buck Goes All The Way Up

The investigation found the AAV was unsafe due to maintenance failures, the crew was not properly trained, safety protocols for amphibious exercises were not followed, and the passengers aboard the AAV were not properly trained and certified in safety evacuations. Three commanders — of Bravo Company (a Marine captain), Battalion Landing Team 1/4 (a Marine lieutenant colonel), and 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (a Marine colonel) — were all relieved of command.

Only after a House Armed Services subcommittee scheduled a hearing into the incident did the Marine Corps take administrative action to hold the former commanding general of the 1st Marine Division accountable for the mishap involving his subordinate units.

All of these commanders were responsible for the training of the Marines under them, the maintenance of the equipment, the planning of the operation, and the execution of the operation. The relief from command in the aftermath of this tragic incident illustrates the military maxim that the commander is responsible for everything the unit does or fails to do.

Fast-forward one year and move from the Pacific Ocean to Afghanistan. The planning for the military withdrawal from Afghanistan and its execution resulted in the death of 13 service members, stranding a number of Americans in Afghanistan, abandoning thousands of Afghans who worked for and with U.S. forces over the last 20 years, and surrendering billions of dollars of high-tech military equipment to the Taliban when the Afghan security forces, whom we had trained and equipped for 20 years, collapsed.

Will the same standards that punished those responsible for the amphibious assault exercise that killed nine service members be applied to those responsible for the planning and execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal?

Who Botched the Afghanistan Withdrawal?

President Biden claimed the withdrawal was an extraordinary success because more than 120,000 people were airlifted out before Aug. 31, 2021. But the amphibious assault exercise on San Clement Island was successful as well. The assaulting forces left their docking ships, “swam” to the island, assaulted and overcame the resistance forces on the island, and seized their military objective.

It was during the return to the docking ships where things went horribly wrong. Even then, the vast majority of the Marines involved returned safely. Only one AAV sank, and not everyone on that AAV died. But it was still part of the overall military operation for which the commanders bore responsibility. With responsibility comes accountability. Or, at least, it should.

Who planned the Afghanistan withdrawal? Where within the civilian-military leadership does the buck really stop? Were planners and ground commanders constrained by unreasonable political considerations that increased the risk? If so, did our military leaders inform their civilian superiors of that increased risk?

Someone decided to withdraw U.S. military forces before we successfully evacuated American citizens and our Afghan partners. Someone decided the “retrograde operation” should be conducted during the summer “fighting season” in Afghanistan while the Taliban was expanding their control across the country. Someone decided relying on the Taliban for security around the airport was a good idea.

Someone believed the Afghan army could stand up to the Taliban after U.S. air support and U.S. operational intelligence networks were withdrawn. Someone thought the will of the Afghan government was sufficient even when told otherwise by the Afghan president.

After the release of the nearly 2,000-page Marine Corps investigation into the 2020 amphibious assault tragedy, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness held a hearing on the incident. The chair of the subcommittee, California Democrat John Garamendi, remarked that flag officers whose oversight failures contributed to the incidents “need to be fired.”

Leadership Needs To Answer These Questions

Just this past week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said, “I think one of the big lessons learned here is maybe [the Afghan forces trained and equipped by the United States] were not designed appropriately for the type of mission.”

Milley also explained that to stage the evacuation out of Bagram instead of Kabul would have required another 6,000 U.S. troops for security and that exceeded the cap the president had placed on military personnel in Afghanistan. In other words, relying on the Taliban to secure the Kabul airport instead of using U.S. forces to secure the Bagram airbase was the result of the president’s decision to use a smaller force. According to Milley, what we saw in and around the Kabul airport was a contingency plan put into operation because the president decided not to authorize sufficient U.S. troops to provide security for Bagram.

Recall that some 26,000 National Guard troops were deployed to Washington, D.C., after the Jan. 6 riot to secure the Capitol and protect the 535 members of Congress. Were the tens of thousands of American citizens, Afghan interpreters, and others who assisted U.S. and allied forces during the 20-year war not important enough to warrant a sufficient troop presence to efficiently and effectively evacuate them from harm’s way?

When did Milley and other senior military leaders realize the Afghan government and the Afghan military were unreliable? Why close the embassy if the Afghan government was stable and the Afghan military was capable of providing security? When did it dawn upon our senior leaders that the Afghan army was inadequate to provide security for the withdrawal?

Did our senior military leadership tell the president that conducting the operation either before or after the summer “fighting season” would have lessened the likelihood of armed conflict? If our senior leaders harbored doubts about the ability of the Afghan security forces, why didn’t they begin the evacuation earlier and deploy a larger U.S. force?

Maybe there are good answers to these questions. But because the Afghanistan withdrawal was planned and approved at the highest levels of government, there is no senior commander who can objectively review the operation and, if appropriate, hold accountable those who failed to anticipate the collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan military. Nor is there an institution, other than Congress, who can get the answers that the families of those service members who died on Aug. 26, and all Americans, deserve.

Will Congress have the temerity to thoroughly and impartially investigate the foreign policy debacle we all observed on TV? Or will it retreat into its partisan camps and engage in spin and hyperbole to protect its political interests?

Garamendi, who called for firing flag officers in the wake of the AAV accident, seems to have already decided that “President Biden has a consummate understanding of the history of Afghanistan [and] he considered every fact and contingency and made the correct decision to drawdown the U.S. presence in the region.” With the politicians circling the wagons, it does not appear that the Afghanistan withdrawal operation will receive the sort of investigation and critical review that the American people deserve.

Professor Woodruff is a retired Army lawyer and retired law professor. He served 22 years on active duty in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps and taught law for over 25 years at Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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