(Edit, to reflect that Antony Blinken was not a career state department officer. Lawrence Eagleburger was the only career officer to become Secretary of State.)
Military personnel would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation, Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top U.S. commander on the ground during the operation, told Army investigators, “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”
The collapse of the Afghan army was foretold by many. In Biden: Leaving Afghanistan, I wrote,
I have grave certainty that they [Taliban] won’t uphold. This will be a slaughter of the good. The future reeks of the fall of Saigon, when our friends were falling off helicopter skids as they begged for rescue.
…concluding that indecisiveness among Biden administration officials and initial reluctance to shutter the embassy in Kabul sowed chaos and put the overall mission at “increased risk.”
With the military exonerated, this leaves as targets NSC and State. In (CNN) Don’t you have an obligation, sir?’: Tapper on Biden’s probe dismissal, Jake Tapper criticizes Biden for his blunt rejection of the Army report.
The ritual Washington solution is to look at the organizational chart, determine the highest appointee through whom the errors flowed, and fire that person. It relies on the fiction that the errant logic actually inhabits the person to be sacrificed. Ritual human sacrifice is a political vice that offers two choices: lop off the head, or multiple eviscerations of subalterns.
The organizational chart does not tell the real story, which has these elements:
- The tendency of rank-and-file foreign service officers to “go native”, to develop strong affinities and personal bonds with Afghans.
- Profound depression at the prospect of abandoning Afghans, with paradoxical dissociation from morbid ground knowledge.
- Group-think among these officers.
- Absence at State of an active dissent channel, stocked with voices of conviction. A consequence of groupthink, it risks insularity, unless balanced elsewhere in the organizational chart. Who do you believe, and why?
- The background of NS Advisor Jacob Sullivan, while not inherently insular, does not suggest a strong pushback against State insularity.
- The debacle was caused by a broadly decentralized effect, involving dozens, if not hundreds of people, each of whom possess valuable areas of competence.
Biden had two choices, ritual sacrifice, or preserve the team. He chose the latter, with “The buck stops here.” It is a politically costly choice, a particular form of integrity. The solution is not assignment of blame, which would be fictionalization of a complex error.
Biden might address Tapper’s concern, for free upward flow of information, with a more direct military channel than “NSC principal” implies.