News & Politics

Flashback: When the Bureaucracy Lied to a President About Troop Levels in a War Zone to Get a Win

U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15. U.S. DoD photo.

In November 2020, once the result of the presidential election was clear, a government official stepped out of the shadows and admitted to lying to President Donald Trump about the true number of troops that were present in Syria. Trump deployed U.S. forces there to crush ISIS, which grew up after the Obama administration hastily withdrew from Iraq.

Task and Purpose reported at the time:

America’s top envoy to the multinational military coalition to defeat ISIS claimed in a recent interview that he routinely lied to senior government officials about U.S. troops levels in Syria.

“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” outgoing diplomat Jim Jeffrey told Defense One reporter Katie Bo Williams in an interview.

Jeffrey added that the real number of U.S. troops in Syria was “a lot more” than the several hundred Trump planned on leaving behind following his abrupt withdrawal announcement in December 2018.

Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria led to the resignation of both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGuirk, Jeffrey’s predecessor as the leading U.S. envoy to the counter-ISIS effort in Iraq and Syria.

They were running their own war independent of what the elected president both wanted and had ordered?

At least they did it to win a battle and maintain stability, not to lose one and unleash chaos.

Nothing happened to them. There were no resignations or court-martial proceedings against anyone involved, and there had to have been numerous officials and officers who were aware of what was going on.

But while Trump reiterated his call to withdraw U.S. forces from northeast Syria ahead of an imminent Turkish invasion in October 2019, Jeffrey told Defense One that, for all intents and purposes, there “was never a Syria withdrawal.”

“When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out,” Jeffrey told Defense One. “In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story.”

Question: Why didn’t anyone do anything remotely similar for Afghanistan? Not the “shell games” and lying to the president part, that’s not acceptable. The part about coming up with better arguments to convince the president to change course and keep American from a devastating defeat. That is their job.

Perhaps they did and were not heard. Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller was the commander in Afghanistan who drafted the plan to abandon Bagram Air Base and concentrate what was left of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on the embassy and the airport. That plan was capped to use only the 600-700 troops Biden authorized. That clearly was not enough force to do even that job. Did anyone raise this point? Were they heard and overruled? If so, by whom?

Biden had to order another 6,000 to 7,000 combat troops in just to secure the airport long enough to evacuate the thousands of civilians stranded there. In short, in the name of withdrawing the 2,500 U.S. troops that were deployed to a relatively stable Afghanistan when Biden took the Oval Office, he had to deploy nearly three times as many to cover the retreat he ordered and now Afghanistan is a tinderbox.

Related: PHOTOS: Here Are Just Some of the Capabilities Thrown Away By US Commanders at Bagram Air Base

The military high command cannot be so stupid as to have just gone along with Biden’s plan. Gen. Miller is himself a decorated Delta Force combat veteran who was the ground force commander in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, Somalia. He was also one of the first U.S. military officers engaged in Afghanistan after 9-11. If anyone knew what kind of disaster Biden’s orders would lead to, Gen. Miller would. He had been fighting various forms of the Taliban for more than 20 years. He knew Afghanistan as well as any American could. He is also an intellectual on the history of warfare according to Politico:

Miller is known for a relatively quiet leadership style marked by careful listening, rather than the bluster and swagger of some senior officers. He is also famously well read, especially in military history; he’ll quote from memory General Ulysses S. Grant’s memos to his commanders on the eve of the Battle of Vicksburg, or Henry Kissinger’s musings from his memoir “Ending the Vietnam War.”

Gen. Miller may be one of America’s finest officers. He is certainly among our most experienced. He indicated to Politico that he was pessimistic about Afghanistan, where things can “turn quickly.” It’s telling that he departed Afghanistan in July, a week after Bagram closed in the dead of night. He drafted the plan but was not in country to implement it. That’s unusual and suggests a lack of faith in that plan. The entire character of the plan and the fact that there were no orderly unit handoffs of any kind to the Afghan military, our allied military in country, after Bagram closed is highly unusual. The exit from Afghanistan during the fighting season, even as conditions were turning negative very quickly, just to meet an arbitrary deadline was highly unusual in every regard.

This suggests at a minimum that the State Department, which takes lead on evacuations, refused to listen to the Pentagon. Biden and his inner circle backed State over the Pentagon. The Pentagon therefore came up with a plan based on what it was being forced to do.

But why hasn’t anyone in the Pentagon called Secretary of State Antony Blinken out yet? Why have we not heard from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on this? The Trump years were rife with leaks from all over the government anytime anyone objected to anything he said or did. He was infamously impeached over a phone call. A military officer originated the complaint that led to impeachment.

Gen. Mark Milley proactively endorsed the plan to abandon Bagram in June 2021 and has reactively defended it since. If he or Austin objects or now believes the plan was flawed, it is their duty to speak up even if that costs them their job. Honor is more important, or was. They have a duty to the country and to the service members under their command, and to their families.

Thirteen of them are dead because of this plan and its staggeringly poor execution.

Is there no one willing to stand up for them? I’m reminded of the film depiction of the Ia Drang Valley engagement in Vietnam in 1965 in We Were Soldiers. After the battle is done, which the Americans won but at the cost of several soldiers, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, played by Mel Gibson, is asked how he feels about the victory.

“Guilty,” he says. “I feel guilty.”

“Why?”

“Because those men died and I didn’t,” he replied.

Where is that spirit today? We have 13 dead in Kabul and no one has stood up for them.

Jeffrey’s “shell games” comments — admitting to hoodwinking a president but in the name of winning, not losing, a battle — in November drew at least one authoritative rebuke.

Jeffrey’s comments drew swift condemnation on Twitter from retired Army Gen. Raymond Thomas III, former head of U.S. Special Operations Command.

“An Ambassador, NOWHERE in the chain of command was responsible for playing ‘shell games’ and hiding troop numbers?” Thomas tweeted on Thursday.

“That’s not how it works. Secondly, he thinks we now have a more coherent/transactional approach? We’ve done NOTHING about the root of the problem—the Assad regime.”

But that hasn’t even turned out to be a bump in his career. Mr. Jeffrey landed well in a cush think tank job. The swamp takes care of its own, and apparently, it takes care of literally no one else. If you’re not in the swamp club you don’t matter. Hundreds or more Americans remain stranded in Afghanistan thanks to Biden’s hasty, humiliating retreat and may never get out alive.

None of what we have seen over the past few weeks in Afghanistan is normal or acceptable. None of it.