The Afghan Withdrawal is a Hot Mess. The Pentagon is a Big Reason Why | Opinion

As America's withdrawal from Afghanistan picks up speed, reports are emerging about massive amounts of military equipment being destroyed in place. Some blame the president for ordering a "precipitous" exit. Others claim it as an unfortunate but required military necessity. There is one culprit, however, who has thus far escaped notice, and this offender may shoulder the most blame: the Pentagon.

Former President Donald Trump started the ball rolling when he concluded an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, calling for "a complete withdrawal of foreign forces" from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. That gave the United States more than a year to complete the withdrawal. By all rights, Pentagon leaders should have launched into immediate and sustained action. Instead, they dragged their feet—needlessly complicating the withdrawal.

There were 14 months available to complete the withdrawal. Because there is so much gear, equipment and weapons of war in Afghanistan, even that amount of time would have presented a challenge to execute. But a focused effort with the full backing of the White House could have conducted the mission in a professional way and on time.

When the agreement was signed, there were about 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The agreement stipulated that the number would be reduced to 8,600 within 135 days, and then to zero nine and a half months after that. The U.S. met the first benchmark on time, and by June the number of troops was in the "mid-8000s." By October the number was down to about 5,000 when Trump made an unexpected announcement: "We should have the small remaining number of our brave men and women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas," the president tweeted.

Neither Trump nor the Pentagon provided any public information on how the accelerated withdrawal would be carried out. As the months passed, it became clear the Pentagon had no interest in pressing the White House for clarification. Evidence suggests that some military leaders never wanted to leave Afghanistan, either by Christmas or beyond.

Prior to the end of Trump's term, the Pentagon did reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan down to 2,500, but the drawdown stopped there. By all rights, knowing the May 1 deadline the U.S. was committed to achieving, by that mid-January date, the Pentagon should have completed disposition instructions on all its remaining equipment, have closed all but the final bases and should have already redeployed the vast majority of equipment designated for return.

Just as the number of troops had been reduced to about 20 percent from the number on the ground at the beginning of the process, the percentage of equipment disposition should have been about the same. Instead, it appears that while the number of troops had been coming down, the infrastructure had remained in place, hoping that the incoming administration would reverse course and cancel the withdrawal. That is certainly the advice many former generals were giving publicly.

Quoting U.S. contractors working at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base (who requested anonymity to defend against reprisals), a New York Magazine report last week interviewed them on the state of withdrawal preparations.

"So far, nothing is changing," said one contractor.

Afghanistan
Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a damaged petrol station near the site of a bomb attack, in Kabul on April 21, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

"I don't have much to share because no one has told us shit," said another. If the Pentagon brass were stonewalling the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration, it wouldn't be the first time.

Trump three times declared the U.S. was going to withdraw from Syria. Three times senior Defense officials—twice the secretary of Defense and once the National Security advisor—pushed back or thwarted Trump and no withdrawal ever took place. To be clear, Trump was the commander in chief and had full authority to order the military to execute his commands, and he failed to do that; he bears ultimate responsibility.

But it is equally true—and should be concerning to every American—that senior Defense officials are getting too comfortable with undercutting (or at least meekly supporting) the elected leader of our country. We spiral down a dangerous path when we stand idly by as unelected officials, especially high-ranking generals and admirals, pick and choose which orders of the commander in chief they obey, which they undercut and which they outright disobey.

Americans get to choose the man or woman who will lead us and enact their preferred domestic, foreign and military concepts and philosophies. Coups and subversion of governments don't happen overnight. They happen by the cumulation of tiny steps and inches. Before this propensity moves further into dangerous territory, we need to ensure elected and appointed officials remain in their constitutional lanes.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of "The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America." Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.