It’s difficult to characterize President Biden’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan as anything but a shameful debacle. It’s also difficult to determine who was responsible for the lack of a strategic withdrawal plan. Can the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff be that incompetent or feckless if an immediate and unconditional withdrawal was forced on them by Biden, the Commander-in-Chief?
Biden—typically—blamed Trump. It was Trump’s fault for negotiating a troop withdrawal with the Taliban. Yet Trump’s withdrawal proposal was phased and conditional. If the Taliban failed to meet any of those conditions, hell would rain down on them. Indeed, before Trump left office, the Taliban violated one of the conditions and Trump let the bombs fly.
When addressing the nation in the aftermath of the debacle, Biden spent nearly all his time on the need to end our involvement in Afghanistan after 20 years of war. That, of course, is misdirection. Trump ran for president pledging to end American involvement in these futile overseas interventions. It’s not about the withdrawal but how it’s done.
There was no perfect way to withdraw, but even Pvt. Snuffy, a rifleman in the third squad, knows a team of operations officers should have been tasked with formulating a strategic withdrawal plan. First and foremost would have been the evacuation of all American civilians. That this was not done boggles the mind—do you mean to tell me the trigger-pullers left first and the American civilians were left behind to fend for themselves?
This reminds me of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, which ran aground in January 2012. The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, climbed into a lifeboat and headed to shore while most of the passengers and his crew were still aboard. Twenty-seven of those passengers and five of his crew died. Captain Schettino was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Will we see those in charge of the Afghanistan debacle fall on their swords or be court-martialed?
Pvt. Snuffy would also know you don’t leave anything behind that might be of use to the enemy. Everything you can’t take with you is burned or blown to the heavens by combat engineers, who not only build but also demolish—often with explosives. Yet combat engineers were not employed and the Taliban is now the recipient of the war materiel left behind, materiel upon which America spent tens of billions during the war years. Estimates vary, but it is believed that the Taliban now owns over 100 U.S. helicopters, more than 7,000 machine guns, over 3,000 Humvees, 36 planes, and countless forms of other weaponry. Uncle Sam, i.e., the American taxpayer, is now the Taliban’s quartermaster.
Furthermore, Pvt. Snuffy would tell you that in a landlocked country like Afghanistan the last thing you’d abandon when evacuating is a secure, defensible air base. We had that in Bagram Air Base—a 12,000-foot-long runway, three large hangars, a control tower, housing units, a swimming pool, restaurants, a hospital, a dental clinic, and more, all surrounded by walls, razor-wire fences, and clear fields of fire. Moreover, it’s not in the middle of nowhere, but about 35 miles from Kabul by road.
We abandoned Bagram in the middle of the night without even informing our Afghan allies. This enabled Afghan civilians to loot the base before the Afghan army learned of the American departure and dispatched troops to restore order. No one was more surprised by the unannounced nighttime departure of American forces than Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the Afghan who should have received the base in a change-of-command ceremony. So much for military protocol and tradition.
All this contrasts sharply with another American withdrawal, which occurred in early December 1950 when 20,000 men of the 1st Marine Division found themselves surrounded by more than 120,000 Chinese Communist troops. The Marines were in this predicament through no fault of their own but had been ordered by Gen. MacArthur, commander of all U.N. forces in Korea, up a narrow, 80-mile-long, twisting dirt road that led from Hamhung, near the seaport of Hungnam, through mountains to the Chosin Reservoir. From there, according to MacArthur’s plan, the Marines would dash to the Yalu River, while an Army column to the west of the Marines and another to the east were executing similar dashes.
MacArthur’s daring strategy had been based on the assumption that China would not intervene. However, undetected by American intelligence, Mao Tse-tung had already sent more than 300,000 troops across the Yalu and into North Korea, and 120,000 of them were moving into position to meet the approaching Marines. Meanwhile, the Marines began fighting their way through North Korean troops and up the road, all the time receiving ominous reports from scattered and retreating ROK troops of “many, many Chinese” in the mountains.
The Marine commander, Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith, was less than sanguine about the operation. The only way up to the Chosin and the only way back out was the treacherous dirt road they were on. Travel on the road could only be protected if the Marines took hilltop after hilltop as they moved north. It was exhausting and deadly. Nonetheless, the Marines kept making progress even when they began encountering those “many, many Chinese,” who struck Marine positions at night.
The farther north and higher into the mountains the Marines went, the colder it got and the more frequently snow fell. Nighttime temperatures dropped to 20 degrees below zero. On ridgelines the wind gusted to 30 or 40 mph. Weapons froze. Food and water froze. Morphine and blood plasma froze. Men froze.
By mid-November lead elements of the Marines reached the southern end of the Chosin Reservoir, which the Marines immediately dubbed the Frozen Chosin. Other Marines were consolidating positions along the way—at Koto-Ri, Hagaru-ri, and Yudam-ni.
On the night of Nov. 27, the Chinese launched everything they had at the Marines. Tens of thousands of them came at Marines holding hilltops, at Marines protecting the road, at Marines in Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri. The Chinese outnumbered the Marines 6 to 1 and overran jarhead positions nearly everywhere. The Marines engaged in hand-to-hand combat, stabbing their attackers with bayonets and Ka-Bar knives. By daybreak the Chinese had retreated, leaving behind thousands of dead and wounded who were soon to die, from the cold if not from their wounds.
Attacks came again the next night and the next, and again the fighting was savage and the Chinese were killed and wounded by the thousands. By then Marine companies were the size of platoons and platoons the size of squads; companies were commanded by lieutenants, platoons by sergeants, and squads by privates. The toll on officers and noncommissioned officers was terrific.
When the Marines got word that MacArthur ordered all forces to retreat to Hungnam they couldn’t believe it—withdraw? The order from MacArthur must have been garbled. Although the Marines had taken heavy casualties, they had not been dislodged. “Everyone agreed that if the Chinese Communists couldn’t take us in three days, they were never going to take us,” declared Lieutenant Robert McCarthy, a wounded platoon leader holding a hill above Toktong Pass against hundreds of enemy troops.
Since the Marines were surrounded, a withdrawal would mean fighting their way out. When a war correspondent asked Gen. Smith if the Marines were going to retreat, Smith replied, “Retreat, hell! We’re just advancing in a different direction.”
Marine operations officers worked furiously devising a withdrawal plan. It would be orderly and in phases. No immediate abandonment of positions or pell-mell retreat down the road. From each Marine position everything that could be of use to the Chinese was carried out or burned or blown up. All Marine dead were carried to trucks. Badly wounded Marines were carried to the airstrip at Hagaru that combat engineers had worked day and night to build, and flown to safety.
The withdrawal began with those Marines farthest north around Yudam-ni slowly fighting their way 14 miles south to Hagaru. Rifle companies came off hills sequentially. One rifle company—at least what was left of it—didn’t come off the hilltop above the critical Toktong Pass until the last Marines passed by on the road below.
After several days the last of the Marines were inside the perimeter at Hagaru. They had their first hot meal in two weeks. Some hadn’t eaten much at all in the last few days. The badly wounded were flown out. Anyone who could walk and squeeze a trigger remained. Despite sleeping on frozen ground and most Marines suffering some degree of frostbite, morale was good. With several regiments now concentrated at Hagaru and with hot chow in their bellies, the Marines felt they could not be defeated.
On Dec. 6 an orderly procession of Marines, artillery, trucks, tractors, and tanks began fighting its way from Hagaru 11 miles south to Koto-ri. The Chinese contested every mile. Marine Corsairs strafed Chinese caught in the open and napalmed their positions in the hills. If tanks or trucks were disabled by Chinese fire, they were destroyed. The Chinese would get nothing.
The battling Marine column was inside the perimeter at Koto-ri by Dec. 7. The next day the Marines left Koto-ri, fighting their way through Funchilin Pass and the last concentrated Chinese attacks, to Chinhung-ni 10 miles to the south. From there it became a 43-mile march to the sea.
In Korea one Marine division in the most dire of circumstances out-fought 12 Chinese divisions in a well-executed withdrawal that left nothing behind for the enemy. Yet, in Afghanistan, in far better circumstances, we withdrew precipitously and left behind enough war materiel for a generation of Taliban fighters. It’s worth asking: what’s happened to our leadership between then and now?