The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The confusion of a rushed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to disaster

Afghan security personnel search a car at a checkpoint near the Green Zone, which houses embassies, in Kabul on May 25. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
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Ronald E. Neumann was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.

Mishandling of the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan risks crippling the allies being left behind. In announcing the troop withdrawal, President Biden said we would continue to assist the Afghan security forces. Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated this. Last month, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul reiterated that “our mission is a safe and orderly withdrawal and to leave the [Afghan military] in the best possible position as we depart.” Yet the conduct of the withdrawal is moving toward a disastrous contradiction of these promises.

The Afghan military depends on technology for much of its power. Technology is an enormous “combat multiplier,” magnifying the effectiveness of training, discipline and firepower. This is how the United States fights, and it is how we have trained the Afghans. But technology requires maintenance that has been done by U.S. contractors who are now being ordered out, along with the troops.

Without proper maintenance, Afghan helicopters and combat support airplanes will soon cease to fly. Without maintenance, fire-control radars will not guide accurate artillery fire. The list goes on.

Since ending my tour as U.S. ambassador to Kabul, I’ve made yearly visits to Afghanistan and maintain civilian and military contacts, including with contractor organizations. Since they had no warning of the direction Biden would choose, neither the U.S. military staff on the ground nor their colleagues in the Pentagon had plans ready to replace the contractors or lessen the impact of their speedy and unexpected departure. Some contractors say they asked after Biden’s decision was announced whether they should prepare to manage operations from locations outside Afghanistan, but were told no.

Some of the gap might be bridged by hiring trained, non-U.S. personnel. Some U.S. companies have indicated a possible willingness to remain — for example, if they were hired by Afghan authorities. Some training and support might be maintained from outside Afghanistan.

One U.S. official has assured me that the Pentagon is doing all it can do for the Afghans, including developing bridging strategies. And there may be exaggeration in some of the stories coming out of Afghanistan, as that country’s government and military, installed and supported by the United States, reel from the shock of the U.S. decision to leave and cope with their own internal problems. But whatever is being planned inside the Beltway does not seem to be getting down to the field.

The only thing that contractors are being told is to get all their personnel out of Afghanistan. A memorandum from the Army Contracting Command at Bagram air base near Kabul reminds them that “the base closure timelines are set for every base at this time and it is imperative that each individual has a ticket and knows the date they are departing.” The Defense Department is requiring contractors to submit detailed plans for leaving Afghanistan for every one of their American employees, on pain of being held in noncompliance of their contract.

In principle, maintenance will be turned over to the Afghans. But they have not yet received any U.S. funding to pick up the operations, and setting up new procedures or contracts takes time. Perhaps we and the Afghans will find ways to manage the problem, but in the meantime, balls seem to be dropping right and left as the U.S. military (or the White House, or wherever the orders are flowing from) pushes to get out of Afghanistan months sooner even than the Sept. 11 date given by the president.

It may well be that feverish work is going on behind the scenes. But on the ground, the withdrawal of contractors is messy, confused and damaging, a process that is not only not continuing to support the Afghan security forces, but is actually weakening them.

Confusion is famously a byproduct of military operations. But this confusion is happening as fighting is intensifying and observers and analysts predict major Taliban offensives. As Afghans look for visible signs that Biden’s promised support will continue, what they see is a rush to the door — and silence about the details that would make the promises real.

Morale is as much a part of combat power as equipment and technology. The current uncertainty undercuts morale and could gravely weaken the Afghan army just as major Taliban attacks begin. And if the army crumbles, it will be the women of Afghanistan, the journalists, judges, democracy activists and the like — the same people now being regularly assassinated — who will be left to the Taliban’s mercy.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Thousands of Afghans risked their lives to help U.S. troops. The U.S. must help them now.

Madiha Afzal: What the Biden administration’s narrative on Afghanistan gets wrong

Henry Olsen: Withdrawing from Afghanistan is hindering U.S. military readiness. That proves why it’s the right move

Phil Caruso: What the United States owes its Afghan allies

Jeanne Shaheen and Angelina Jolie: Here’s how to ensure Afghan women are protected after the U.S. withdrawal