U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain and the 101st Airborne units disembark from a Chinook helicopter March 11, 2002 as they return to Bagram airbase from the fighting in eastern Afghanistan.

U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain and the 101st Airborne units disembark from a Chinook helicopter March 11, 2002 as they return to Bagram airbase from the fighting in eastern Afghanistan. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Army Chief Calls for Afghanistan Review: ‘Let the Cards Fall Where They Fall’

McConville says lessons must be learned because “terrorism is not going away.”

The Army’s chief of staff wants a review of the decisions that led to the fall of Kabul and the U.S. military’s withdrawal. 

The last few weeks have been “heartbreaking” for soldiers who fought there, including members of his own family, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said during the Defense One State of Defense event, his first extensive public comments since the war’s end. “Let the cards fall where they fall.”

But the general also stressed that the Army and Americans concerned about “forever wars” should be prepared for “infinite competition” against terrorism and nation-states, and that leaders should reconsider what happens when American forces who have trained and supported foreign armies are pulled out. 

“The capacity was there,” McConville said of the Afghan armed forces who eventually gave up, and so was the equipment. But, he continued, “did they have the will to fight” after 20 years?

“I think that's a lesson to be learned,” he said. “The thing I've also learned in my time, my time in Afghanistan, is—with many of our allies and partners, when American troops are on the ground with them, they will fight. And, you know what happens after we’re gone? We have to take a look at it.”

President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces, the collapse of Afghanistan’s government, and the disintegration of Afghan armed forces that Americans had spent billions to train and equip have sparked worldwide criticism and commentary about the worth of the entire war. As Taliban leaders in Kabul begin to establish a government of once-wanted terrorists that Americans were fighting just weeks ago, McConville said he hopes U.S. soldiers remain “proud” of their service. 

“We know why we went to Afghanistan. We went to Afghanistan because Osama bin Laden attacked our country and killed thousands of innocent Americans. Al Qaeda was a terrorist force that had pledged to continue to try to kill Americans,” McConville said. “So we went to Afghanistan to hold Osama Bin Laden accountable and that mission was accomplished.” McConville said Afghanistan benefitted and was improved because of those missions. 

“They did their job. They did extremely well, they served their country during a time of conflict, and I am personally very proud of what they did, and they should be too,” McConville said. The general said his two sons, daughter, and a son-in-law all served in Afghanistan. 

Asked whether the war was a failure, McConville said, “We need to take a look at what the outcome was...there's gonna be a lot of folks that will say certain things. I think we need to take a hard look at it.” 

For now, he said, the Army has been tied up executing the evacuation from Kabul, facilitated largely by soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.

Beyond Kabul, McConville said the United States and the Army will have to continue preparing for and fighting terrorism. 

“Terrorism is not going away,” McConville said, “at least in my eyes. There's groups of people out there who have committed to wanting to kill Americans and if they have the opportunity, to attack our homeland. So we need to be cognizant of that. We need to work very closely with our allies and partners, because we all share the same goal. To me, you know, these terrorists are almost like a cancer, you know? And sometimes they go into remission, and it kind of slows down, but they can come back. And when they come back they are committed to harming a country.” 

The chief said the U.S. military still “has a role” to retain capabilities that break terrorism groups and to help allies with counterterrorism and intelligence sharing, seeming to caution against turning backs away from one mission for the sake of great power competition.  

“I see the future—when I take a look at where the Army's going and transforming—we're certainly cognizant of the strategic competition that's happening in the world with places like China and in Russia, and we're certainly concerned about Iran and North Korea. But the violent extremist threat, in my eyes, it's not going away, and we need to have the appropriate forces committed to that to make sure they don't attack our homeland.”

McConville bristled at the rhetorical use of “forever wars,” but described a similar frame for the global security threats the U.S. Army faces. 

“I think we're going to have infinite competition,” McConville said. “There's always some type of competition going on in the world that we have to participate in and we would hope that would not get to conflict. And it's the same thing with with terrorism and violent extremist groups—we would hope they wouldn’t be positioned to attack the United States. And again, that becomes a strategy: how do you get after and how do you guard against organizations that are committed to killing Americans? We need to have the capability, and it's not always a military solution.”

McConville said there are three end-state conditions the U.S. needs to pay attention to before going into another conflict: a source of security, a government, and economic development. 

“And as we look at the lessons learned, you know, let's look at all decisions, let's put them on the table. The way we get better is doing very detailed after-action reviews, and then let the cards fall where they fall.”