The Afghan government fell Sunday in the culmination of a lightning-fast Taliban offensive that met little resistance. The United States, in its last act before withdrawing from the country after a 20-year commitment, has sent thousands of troops to take control of Kabul’s international airport and evacuate personnel. As debates rage about the legacy of the war and the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal, the immediate, critical goal is to get lingering Americans, Afghan allies, and those at risk of violence from the Taliban out of the country. Stunning videos from the airport have shown desperate Afghans clinging to taxiing U.S. military aircraft.
While much of Congress, now on recess, has taken to feuding about the episode on Twitter along with everyone else, numerous veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq currently serving in Congress have been sharing their personal experiences and expertise. On Monday, I spoke with a veteran of the Afghanistan war, freshman Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss. Born into a prominent Massachusetts family, Auchincloss joined the Marines after graduating from Harvard. In 2012, he deployed to Afghanistan, commanding an infantry unit through Taliban-contested villages. He’s now a major in the reserves. We spoke about the immediate objectives for the Biden administration following Kabul’s collapse, his time in the country, and lessons to take from what he characterized as the United States’ “failed forever war.” The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Jim Newell: What years were you in Afghanistan, and what kind of combat did you see there?
Rep. Jake Auchincloss: I was a platoon commander for an infantry unit in southern Helmand province in 2012, leading patrols through three Taliban-controlled villages along the Helmand River, at the tail end of President Obama’s surge.
What has this been like for you, watching the Taliban take the country back so quickly?
Ernest Hemingway has this wonderful line where he says a man goes bankrupt two ways: gradually, and then suddenly. And the Taliban takeover has been sudden, but the bankruptcy of American foreign policy in Afghanistan has been gradual. It’s been a 20-year failure, because what began as a counterterrorism mission that was tightly scoped and effective—to deny safe harbor to terrorists in Afghanistan and to bring to justice the architects of 9/11—devolved under Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld into a boondoggle of a counterinsurgency effort that had no endgame, because it had no political partner.
Even recognizing that the foreign policy had been botched for decades, were you still surprised that it happened this quickly? Even a few days ago, there were estimates it could take months.
Less salient to me than the speed is the will. The Afghans were bequeathed by the United States a 300,000-person security force, and a darn good air force. And because of the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government and central leadership, they weren’t able to get bullets and rations to their front lines. I fought alongside Afghan unit police in Helmand. I saw that these guys are good tacticians, these guys care about their homeland. But the first rule of combat is that leadership is what holds the line. And there was no leadership from the Afghan central government.
How many people have you heard from, or are you hearing from, who are in the country and are concerned about their lives?
Personally, I am not having contact with people in the country.
The United States, right now, has a cascading series of well-defined missions. First and foremost, secure the international airport and evacuate American personnel. Second, evacuate allied Afghans who served as interpreters, who were prominent advocates for the rights of women and girls, who were journalists—people who have special risk for Taliban reprisal. And thirdly, to sustain an over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability so that no terrorists are able to strike the United States homeland from harbor in Afghanistan.
On that second part you mentioned, getting out interpreters and those who aided us who are under significant threat now: Do you feel that the prospect of getting out as many as we wanted to is limited, given how quickly Kabul fell?
These are questions I want to ask the administration, in security briefings for members of Congress, because the situation is so fluid, and information is so scattered, that I need to get a fuller briefing before I can opine on the prospects of evacuating Afghan allies.
Are those briefings on the books yet? What are the next few days like for members of Congress who want to get information?
The White House has been communicative with members, and we are going to have a security briefing when we come back to vote on the infrastructure and voting rights bills [the week of Aug. 23].
Do you think that you should come back sooner?
I think, right now, members of Congress are able to get the information they need. And the president’s remarks today, I’m confident, are going to further shed light on the situation. [A few hours after Auchincloss and I spoke, President Joe Biden defended his decision to leave, saying that “it is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.” He acknowledged, though, that the Taliban takeover “did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.”]
What are the conversations like between you and those you served with, who you still keep in touch with? What have reactions been like the last few days?
Even as a lieutenant in Helmand in 2012, it was blindingly obvious to me what the special inspector general for Afghanistan wrote only a few years after, which is that the American people have constantly been lied to about Afghanistan. This president had the integrity to tell the truth.
Was there a specific moment when it really hit you that the prospects for long-term success were limited?
I was patrolling through three, I would say, Taliban-contested villages on the northern side of the Helmand. And on the southern side of the Helmand, the Taliban were flying their flag. And they would, you know, plant IEDs, and they would mildly contest, I would say, these villages. But actually, the Taliban did not engage in direct firefights, when they could help it, with U.S. forces there. And what quickly became apparent—again, even as a platoon commander—is that the Taliban knew they had time on their side. They didn’t have to win battles against the Americans. They had to outlast the Americans. And that has been a core strategy for insurgents for time immemorial. And it is what briefers in the situation room, I think, never fully conveyed to the American people, which is that we were fighting against people who were willing to outlast us as long as we took. We could fight there for another century, and we could win every battle against the Taliban, and yet at some point, we’re going to have to leave and they will be there waiting.
What do you think about those who’ve been saying that we had limited troops for the last year and a half, there weren’t any American casualties for a while, it’s been a pretty stable situation, so why would we want to disrupt that status quo?
The status quo was not an option for this president. I want to underscore this point. He did not have a decision between the status quo and withdrawal. He had a decision between ramping up the American footprint to prepare for the Taliban fighting season—because after May 1, the Taliban was clear, based on President Trump’s negotiations with them, that they were going to be coming back out, guns blazing—or ending a failed forever war and preventing a third decade of fruitless conflict. So he had a very stark decision between sending thousands of more troops into harm’s way to fight a war he knew we could not win, or being the president who finally ended a failed conflict.
I’m not sure how directly you’ve been involved in this, but I know some of your other colleagues in Congress who are veterans, like Jason Crow and Seth Moulton, have been pushing for months to get the administration to streamline the visa process to get our Afghan partners out of the country. And they’re pretty angry right now. How big a mistake do you think this visa process has been?
I was alongside them advocating for expedited special immigrant visa processing, and ensuring that we had a roster of those who were at special risk of Taliban reprisal and a plan for evacuating them. The situation right now is so dynamic on the ground that I don’t think now is the right time to be pointing fingers about who did what when. Now is the time to be securing the international airport so we can actually get these evacuations up and running again.
Is there anything else you want to add about the situation that you think may be missing from the conversation?
Just that, when the dust settles, we need a clarion call to build on the work that the Washington Post has done with the Afghanistan Papers, to hold to account U.S. and Afghan national security officials over the last two decades who dissembled, and lied, about the viability of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. There should be a presumptive declassification of the documents surrounding the decision-making of this war, and we need to ensure that the next time a president like Bush calls for a war of choice, we as a country can say no.