Monday, August 29th, 2022
August 26th marked the 1yr anniversary of the 13 service members were killed in a suicide vest bombing at Abbey Gate of HKIA in Kabul. The 20 year war began and ended with tragedy, and many mark the chaotic withdrawal as the lowest point in the Biden Administration.
The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years began with President Obama in an agreement with former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai signed in 2010. However not much movement had been made until significant drawdowns occurred by President Trump. Trump also worked out timelines and small details with Military advisers. Had Trump won reelection, he would have overseen the evacuation but it was eventually fully executed by President Biden.
Leaving Afghanistan has been long supported by the majority of the public, and congress, across the political spectrum. The problem is that no one expected how ill-planned and abrupt the withdraw would be - eerily resembling our retreat from Vietnam years ago.
The evacuation from Afghanistan lasted from August 15th through August 30th, but is remembered for its two main highlights: videos of desperate Afghan people clinging to C-17 as they took off from the airport and the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate.
Despite Pentagon reports and preparation for mass casualty events at the airport, personnel on the ground struggled to close Abbey Gate. Abbey Gate had been the designated entry point for American citizens and certain allies to gather and join in the withdrawal.
Politico reported the following:
Commanders detailed a plan to close Abbey Gate by Thursday afternoon Kabul time. But the Americans decided to keep the gate open longer than they wanted in order to allow their British allies, who had accelerated their withdrawal timeline, to continue evacuating their personnel, based at the nearby Baron Hotel.
American troops were still processing entrants to the airport at Abbey Gate at roughly 6 p.m. in Kabul on Thursday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest there, killing nearly 200 people, including 13 U.S. service members.
The attack, which was attributed to a branch of the terrorist group ISIS, killed:
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover
Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosario
Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee
Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez
Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan W. Page
Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui
Navy Petty Officer Third Class Maxton W. Soviak
Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss
To this day there is no explanation as to why these 13 were where they were at the time of the bombing, and experts across all capacities consider their deaths completely preventable.
LT. COL. STUART SCHELLER SPEAKS OUT
Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller famously took to social media to express his disdain for our botched evacuation amid the deaths of 13 service members - most of which who were Marines. His words resonated with many, and he soon became a political pariah for many who were critical of Biden's handling of the situation. His wearing of uniform and addressing the topic within his official military capacity - openly criticizing his chain of command - is a no no, but he knew what he was doing. It doesn't matter how right his words may have been or how justified his contempt was. Consequences came quick.
“The reason so many people are 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.’”
- Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller during his 4min 45sec video posted to LinkedIn & Facebook.
There is no doubt it was a clear violation of the military’s Uniform Code of Military Conduct, and by December of 2021 he was a civilian.
However, this bleeds into a larger command climate issue within our military's ranks. Criticism of your boss shouldn't be something posted on social media for clout, but open door policies to hash out disagreement and disdain need be better followed. Far too many lower ranking service members are too fearful of ruining their careers to speak out or offer different ideas in problem solving situations.
Scheller read the room and decided to bet on the court of public opinion rather than his own chain of command. In the end, the public sided with him and anger with our top officials only grew when he was reprimanded.
Rank structure and decision making at the higher levels matters, but that doesn't mean we should abandon collaboration or punish those who see things differently. Scheller, for better or worse, made himself the face of questioning military authority. His sentiments may have been more welcome in a private setting, but his public questioning of leadership while wearing the uniform sealed his fate.
What is notable is that Lt. Col. Scheller gave a voice to the growing sentiment of many who felt a sense of loss and purposelessness. 20 years, thousands of fellow service members killed, for what? For the Taliban to retake the country as if we were never there? His insubordination couldn't go unpunished, but his willingness to speak out shows that there is a true lack of patience brewing with higher brass. Th 13 killed was clearly a breaking point for many, and it was enough for Scheller to willingly end his career.
Service members, active or not, are pissed and heartbroken. Heartbroken doesn't even begin to describe what many have felt. For the evacuation to be conducted in such an irresponsible manner is difficult to accept.
LASTING PAIN, UNADDRESSED
Anyone who knows someone who has served during our occupation of Afghanistan knows the scar this has left. Anger, distrust, and depleted morale. Afghanistan still begs the question of "why?" and salt is poured on the wounds when reports of further humanitarian crises emerge from the new Taliban controlled government.
The 13 service members and 200+ civilians who died at Abbey Gate stings. Our failure to heed warnings about ISIS-K in the region and our overall rushed approach to the evacuation cost lives, and the lingering pain from that fact exists more so each day responsibility isn't taken.
At a time when soldier suicide is through the roof, morale is low, recruiting and retention is abysmal - the idea that the war we've been in for the past two decades was worthless is a hard pill to swallow. Mental health is a stigma that needs to be broken within our forces, and its awareness is needed now more than ever.
Not only has there been zero public accountability for this botched withdrawal, but US officials have pivoted their attention to Ukraine as a new flavor of the week. To this day, thousands of US citizens and our allies still remain in the region - left behind due to a logistical quagmire and rushed planning. They are hunted every day by the Taliban. So many questions remain as to why this withdrawal was so chaotic.
We have billions and billions to throw at Ukraine, and millions of aid to give to Taliban controlled Afghanistan for "humanitarian aid", yet we couldn't use proper resources to efficiently plan out an orderly withdrawal? Leaving billions worth of equipment doesn't seem to remotely bother the powers that be. Optics can be everything, and all this handling does is throw sand in the eyes of those who've served.
Unfortunately, this administration has done every song and dance to avoid any blame - going so far as to point the finger at previous President Donald Trump. Claiming his planned timeline boxed them into a corner. Yet intel reports suggest our officials failed to properly assess Taliban advancement and failed to secure Bagram Air Base as a more tactically fortified evacuation site than HKIA in Kabul.
It doesn't matter to me what either administration did or didn't do. Intelligence reports of the Taliban's ability to retake the country were ignored, and we underestimated how ill-prepared Afghan National Security Forces were. During the transition of power between Trump and Biden in January of 2020, politics were center stage and no known meeting between the two occurred.
This lack of passing of the baton doesn't provide the best optics or sew much public trust in how things transpire within our government. I'd like to trust top brass behind the scenes within the DOD and IC communities actively worked every angle and prepped beyond the changing Commander in Chief, insulated from politics. Yet, by all accounts, this was a military failure.
But who is to blame? Did political officials actively ignore insight from top brass? Did top brass fumble the planning of the evacuation when they were seemingly blindsided with Taliban advances? The buck should stop somewhere, and the fact that no one has accepted responsibility or resigned for the deaths of the abovementioned heroes and the countless left behind is a failure of leadership.
Senator Josh Hawley, love him or hate him, has been one of the few consistently calling for CENTCOM hearings to get to the bottom of how things went down during the withdrawal. Hawley, who has been hyper critical of Biden, called out Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley for their "lack of leadership" and demanded their resignation in the face of our failures in Afghanistan.
Now, I want to be very clear here. Josh Hawley is as partisan and divisive as they come. Is unabashed loyalty to Donald Trump and his insistence on election fraud claims long after they've been disproven does him no favors. But, to his credit, he has consistently called for answers on Afghanistan. Unfortunately he's likely using it as an easy political football to lob insults at President Biden, but perhaps he and others can make it lead towards further investigations and hearings.
Getting answers for this debacle shouldn't be political. Its been an entire year and most mainstream outlets have moved on from Afghanistan. It feels as though this issue just gets swept under the rug and the next thing we all need to change our profile picture to is a Ukrainian flag. "Support the troops, but only when its politically convenient or when we want online clout and attention!" I've become jaded and cynical, and I don't expect any answers to come, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep attention on this. 13 service members were killed due to apparent negligence.
The least we can do is look into it and hold anyone accountable whose lapse in judgement contributed to their deaths and the abandonment of our equipment and more importantly our allies and other personnel who remain in Afghanistan to this day.
Listen to my discussion with fellow Officer Candidate School graduates as we reminisce about our time down in Alabama.
I'm convinced this will be one of many discussions in this lane!
Listen on all podcast platforms and at www.thecoganconvo.com