Afghan Air Force A-29 attack aircraft sit among body armor in a Kabul hangar on August 31, 2021.

Afghan Air Force A-29 attack aircraft sit among body armor in a Kabul hangar on August 31, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP via Getty Images

Afghanistan shows the U.S. needs a doctrine not just for fighting wars, but also leaving them

And other lessons from Thursday’s hearing on the 2021 evacuation.

There are fresh lessons to be learned from the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, witnesses told lawmakers in a Thursday hearing that—unlike earlier ones intended to make sense of what happened or affix political blame—produced some helpful recommendations for avoiding future catastrophes. 

Closing Bagram Air Field and evacuating out of Hamid Karzai International Airport was a massive mistake, Command Sgt. Maj. Jacob Smith of the 10th Mountain Division told the House foreign affairs committee.

In the leadup to the August 2021 evacuation, Smith testified, he told superiors that “Bagram held the logistical capability to meet the requirements of 103,000 people. Bagram had over 35,000 bed spaces and could create more using cots within the airfield hangars if necessary. Bagram had four dining facilities and food together...had tens of thousands of gallons of potable water and on-site water for purification capabilities…the greatest life-saving capability of any hospital remaining in Afghanistan.”

He was overruled, he said, because the State Department believed the airport would be more comfortable.

The U.S. Army made its own mistakes, Smith said, by initially assigning just a single rifle company to provide security for the evacuation. 

“For approximately six weeks before things began to unravel in mid-August, an area that [had been] protected by hundreds of soldiers and contractors was not protected by 113 American soldiers and two companies of our Turkish department forces,” he said. 

That number should have been closer to a battalion, he said. 

Seth Krummrich, a retired Army colonel, told lawmakers that the Biden administration made a huge mistake by ignoring Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and others who warned them not to allow the number of U.S. forces in the country to fall beneath 2,500 unless key provisions of the Doha agreement had been met. 

“The administration made that determination based on intelligence that overestimated the Afghan government's capabilities and wished away the Taliban capabilities,” Krummrich told lawmakers. “There was very little Intel evidence to suggest that the Biden administration's plan would work in a mountain range of evidence to suggest the plan would fail. Gen. Milley, Gen. [Austin] Miller and Gen. [Kenneth] McKenzie all recommended not withdrawing until the Doha agreement conditions were met. These seasoned experts were ignored and the best case scenario plan to withdraw immediately started the domino effect to catastrophe.”

Moreover, he said, the Biden administration’s obsession with the September 11 withdrawal date forced the evacuation too quickly.

But recognizing these mistakes won’t necessarily keep a future administration from making them again. Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told lawmakers that future administrations should begin to plan now specifically for how to exit an Afghanistan-like conflict. 

The United States, he said, should develop a doctrine for ending a war. 

“The military doesn't have one. The State Department doesn't have one. State Department's got no expert body of knowledge on how to conduct wartime negotiations in which the United States is the active participant and it has not worked out well every single time,” Kolenda said. “So that expert body of knowledge is not difficult to create and something that you know could be done fairly rapidly.” 

Instead, the Trump administration relied on Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to flesh out the parameters of the Doha Agreement, leaving the Biden administration to live by what had been previously agreed to or draft a new deal but little room to enforce the Taliban to adhere to what it had agreed. 

Kolenda also said that the United States should establish a central point of authority not just for the military but also civilian agencies in war, a sort of new Goldwater-Nichols Act to give “the President the capability to appoint a senior civilian or military official to be in charge of all U.S. efforts on the ground and everybody reporting to you know, to that individual. That person is then held accountable by the President for achieving U.S. aims, and can also appear before Congress for proper oversight and accountability. We're missing that today.”

The objective would be to “actually put somebody in charge on the ground of our wars. So instead of right now, with all the silos… he lowest-ranking person that anybody on the ground reports to is senior leaders on the ground. The lowest-ranking person they all report to is the President of the United States. I mean, you can't run a business that way,” he said.