The war in Afghanistan has revealed a systemic mediocrity in the leadership of the US military. Those who have risen to the highest ranks of the Department of Defense are numerous and unimpressive. The US military entered Afghanistan in early October 2001, with Operation Enduring Freedom — a brilliantly designed, flawlessly executed attack in which only 1,000 US special forces soldiers and the USAF devastated al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in less than two months.
It went downhill from there, immediately. Apart from the generals who planned and directed that attack, the ensuing 20-year military occupation saw no Pattons or MacArthurs or Eisenhowers — only a succession of highly credentialed mediocrities, politically appointed to carry out a nation-building scheme concocted by highly credentialed mediocrities from the White House and the State Department. Military imperatives were subordinate to non-military concerns such as women’s rights, climate change, social justice, and TV appearances, to say nothing of post-Pentagon career options.
Those who have risen to the highest ranks of the Department of Defense are numerous and unimpressive.
The generals in command after the spectacular success of Operation Enduring Freedom acted more like preening administrators and diversity officers than gruff strategists and tacticians. Early in his presidency, a frustrated Donald Trump assembled the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shocking them with the statement: “You’re all losers.” “You don’t know how to win anymore,” Trump chastised them. In his essay ”How Did We Lose Afghanistan? Our Leaders Were Never Willing To Win,” former USMC lieutenant colonel Max Morton noted the disconnect between soldiers on the ground and “the focus group-driven rhetoric of the generals and foreign policy establishment back home.
It was like there were two worlds. Ours was noisy, bloody, and chaotic, encompassing a very real battle between good and evil. Theirs was diverse, inclusive, and superficially rational . . . composed almost entirely of PowerPoint fantasies reinforced by government stenographers posing as journalists.
The generals delighted in delivering optimistic progress reports to Congress and the news media, dwelling on the great strides they were making in organizing, training, and equipping the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). In 2005, General John Abizaid reported that “Over the three years we’ve been operating here, Afghanistan has shown interesting progress.” In 2014, then Lt. General Mark Milley noted that the ANDSF had grown to 350,000 strong on his watch, boasting that they “were tactically overmatching anything that the Taliban, Haqqani or anybody else could throw at them.” Two years later, then-commander of US Central Command General Lloyd Austin said that the ANDSF was looking to “grow stronger and more capable.” During a recent edition of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Carlson noted similar statements by the numerous other US generals who were in charge: Dan McNeill, David Rodriguez, Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, Joseph Dunford, and John W. Nicholson.
Their optimism was exuded nearly to the end in August 2021, when the US military withdrew from Afghanistan, and the ANDSF were defeated by the Taliban in less than two weeks.
Our generals were caught with their pants down; they didn’t see the collapse coming; it wasn’t in their latest PowerPoint fantasy. General Milley, who has now risen to the nation’s very top military position as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shrugged at the implosion and absolved himself and his fellow generals of their failure to prevent it. “There was nothing that I or anybody else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 Days,” Milley declared. General Austin, who has now risen to the nation’s top defense policy-making position of Secretary of Defense, also shrugged. In observing the Taliban takeover, he said, “There was less fighting and more surrendering and more forces just kind of evaporating. It was very difficult to predict with accuracy,” and blamed President Trump.
Our generals were caught with their pants down; they didn’t see the collapse coming; it wasn’t in their latest PowerPoint fantasy.
For 20 years, incompetents from the Pentagon thoroughly fooled incompetents in Congress and the news media. Said Carlson, “So lying to the rest of us about what is actually happening with our troops and our money in our name in foreign countries, that has been the philosophy of this country’s military establishment for 20 years. It’s also the philosophy of every high-ranking official in the Biden administration.”
What actually happened with our troops and our money in our name? Almost 2,400 US soldiers died; more than 20,000 were wounded in action. The dollar cost of the war is estimated to be well over $2.261 trillion, more than $16,000 per federal taxpayer. Such was the national sacrifice exacted by inept generals, for a Marshall Plan-like reconstruction of Afghanistan that turned out to be a house of cards. But the final act of incompetence — the plan to leave the house while it was crumbling and the ANDSF while it was “just kind of evaporating” — was so grand as to shove the previous 20 years of ineptitude off stage, as if it were only a bit player. During the withdrawal (which President Biden said would be swift and orderly), everything that could have gone wrong went wrong — horribly wrong. Cargo planes frantically scurrying out of Kabul airport, loaded to the hilt with American and Afghan citizens; constant chaos at the menacing Taliban checkpoints that led to the airport; a suicide bombing that killed 13 US service members and 169 Afghans; a retaliatory drone strike that mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children and an aid worker instead of the suspected terrorists. When the last plane left, hundreds of American citizens and tens of thousands of Afghans who had been promised safe passage were left behind. As was America’s pride in its leadership.
The US withdrawal was botched so badly that even CNN, the propaganda arm of the Democrat Party, criticized the Biden administration. In his scathing analysis of the debacle, Stephen Collinson wrote: “But the pandemonium of the US retreat — a humbling exercise that confounded everything Biden promised about a stable, honorable US exit — stained the aura of competence he sold to the country in the last election and raised questions about his leadership, candor and capacity going forward.”
Hundreds of American citizens and tens of thousands of Afghans who had been promised safe passage were left behind — as was America’s pride in its leadership.
Perhaps the pandemonium could have been averted, if the generals who presided over it had not been sidetracked by their obsession with understanding “white rage” and purging it from the military. The families of the soldiers who died in Afghanistan, well over 80% of whom were white, would no doubt be quite eager to explain their rage, and ask the generals if they had spent any time trying to understand Taliban rage. Instead of ferreting out white extremism among their soldiers, the time of Generals Austin and Milley would have been better spent ferreting out mediocrity in the general officer corps.
Hold them accountable for their incompetence! USMC Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller expressed this sentiment, “criticizing military leaders for failing to take responsibility for the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.” In one of the videos he posted, Scheller argued:
The reason people are so upset on social media right now is not because the Marine on the battlefield let someone down. … People are upset because their senior leaders let them down, and none of them are raising their hands and accepting accountability or saying, “We messed this up.” If an O-5 battalion commander has the simplest live-fire EO complaint — boom, fired.
The generals heard his plea. The next day, he was forced to resign. Today, he is in the brig.
In his 2007 article “A Failure of Generalship” Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote: “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” Today, generals are rewarded — in the private sector, handsomely –after they fail. In his 2021 article “Corporate boards, consulting, speaking fees: How U.S. generals thrived after Afghanistan,” Isaac Stanley-Becker noted that “the eight generals who commanded American forces in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2018 have gone on to serve on more than 20 corporate boards.”
General Austin, who retired from the military in 2016, is a glowing example. To supplement his $15,000 monthly pension, he became, in effect, a professional board member, quickly amassing a fortune of $7 million. He joined the boards of Raytheon Technologies, Nucor, Tenet Healthcare, and Auburn University. He also joined the advisory boards at Booz Allen Hamilton and the private equity firm Pine Island Capital Partners. In January 2021, he became Secretary of Defense, earning $221,400 a year and commuting to the Pentagon from his $2.1 million mansion in Washington DC.
For the top generals in the US military, failure in war-fighting has become a form of career advancement. During the war in Afghanistan, not a single general officer was relieved of his command because of incompetence. Nor were any disciplined for lying about its progress. Progress was an illusion. As was honor. Not a single general objected to the nation-building project, that they all knew to be futile, and resigned.
Generals such as Milley, however, would insist that they were honorable men. For example, when President Trump advocated the use the military to deal with the riots that followed the death of George Floyd, General Milley took an honorable stand. Believing that a picture of him with Mr. Trump (at a Lafayette Square church that had been set on fire by rioters) indicated his tacit approval of Trump’s riot control musings, Milley, in a highly publicized video speech, stated that his presence in the photograph created the wrong impression. Said Milley, “It was a mistake that I have learned from.”
During the war in Afghanistan, not a single general officer was relieved of his command because of incompetence. Nor were any disciplined for lying about its progress.
But where was Milley’s backbone in 2014, when he was commanding a war that would kill 2,400 American soldiers, 66,000 Afghan soldiers, and 48,000 Afghan civilians? Instead of angry video speeches decrying the folly of the war, he delivered flattering PowerPoint fantasies promoting it. Serious mistakes were frequently made throughout the 20-year conflict. None were admitted, much less characterized as a lesson learned. Nothing was learned, not even from the mistakes of the Vietnam war. For Milley and company, if honor was a performance measure, mediocrity would be a high grade.
To be fair, today’s military is like other bloated federal government bureaucracies; the FBI, CIA, DHS, and CDC are but a few examples. Plagued with mediocrity, it is not designed for the few best to rise to the top. The best no longer matter. Meritocracy has been trampled in the rush of middlings to their sinecures. Nevertheless, inept generals were not entirely responsible for the failure in Afghanistan. They were put into the position of executing an untenable mission that was concocted by arrogant mediocrities in the White House and the State Department. Neither did the mediocrities in Congress and the news media hold them accountable for their failures.
Obviously, the current state of US military leadership does not bode well for America’s future security. Equally obvious, major reform is necessary. Some experts believe that a large-scale reduction in the number of generals is the best solution. In “Purge the Generals,” Lt. Col. Daniel Davis recommends replacing “a substantial chunk of today’s generals, starting with the three- and four-star ranks.” This he would follow by changing the system by which officers are selected for promotion — a change to the one most Americans thought was already in place: “a system based on demonstrated superior performance, holding leaders accountable for what they do or fail to do, and fostering a new culture that encourages prudent risk-taking and nonconformist thinking.”
If honor was a performance measure, mediocrity would be a high grade.
During World War II, General George Marshall had seven four-star generals. They won the war, in four years. In the process, noted Davis, Marshall relieved from their commands scores of generals, “clearing the way for the ones who would help win” that war. Today, there are 43 four-star generals. They failed in Afghanistan for 20 years, spectacularly so in the final months. None were relieved of command.
World War II demonstrated that America can win wars with only a few good generals. The war in Afghanistan demonstrated that, given our current military leadership, a few is too much to ask.
What an excellent, and infuriating, commentary. Thank you, Steve Murphy and Liberty. I’ve posted a link on my Facebook page.