The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—a defeat, no matter what the Biden administration chooses to call it—will have both short- and long-term effects on our armed forces. To see the short-term effects, just talk with almost any service member or veteran who deployed to Afghanistan. Here, based on anecdotal evidence and informed speculation from conversations with veterans and active-duty service members, are four emerging problems to watch for.
1. Less Respect for Political Authority: The calamitous withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan were the result not of military incompetence but of the president’s poor leadership. Active-duty officers tell me that they have never heard so much vocal disrespect for the commander-in-chief. When I asked an active-duty officer in the Air Force—one who enthusiastically voted for Joe Biden—for a comment about this, he said, “Fuck Joe Biden! How’s that for a quote?” An Army officer said, “Biden is simply another mediocre leader who only landed the job because the Dems ran Hillary as a gift to the Reps in 2016 when they happened to run a maniac.”
This kind of talk about the president, depending on the context, may be a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. At the very least, it’s terribly unprofessional behavior in an officer. On the other hand, these service members watched much of what they risked their lives for—what so many service members gave their lives or lost their limbs for—wasted by order of the president. And they have watched as many Afghan allies, helpers, and translators, as well as their families, have been abandoned to the depredations of the Taliban. Their anger toward the president is understandable.
2. The Return of the Powell Doctrine: The Powell Doctrine, which sets a high bar for when military force ought to be used, was already making a comeback among officers before the Afghanistan War ended in defeat. The doctrine stems from the military’s post-Vietnam hangover and distrust of politicians. It has the effect of polarizing military strategy (either all-in for an all-out war, or all-out with no military intervention at all), which reduces diplomacy to a checklist and artificially limits the range of options. Gen. Colin Powell was so wary of the use of force that he vehemently objected to the Persian Gulf War, until President George H.W. Bush put an end to his objection by giving him clear orders to begin the planning. Expect a sudden boost for the doctrine after the Afghanistan withdrawal.
3. The Mental Health Risk Among Veterans: One of the worst disservices of the entertainment and news media has been the false image of the broken veteran. This has made some Americans wary of associating with or employing vets. The percentage of our veterans suffering from major depression or PTSD that results in functional impairment is very small. Yet given that the number of veterans is in the millions, that small percentage is numerically still quite sizable.
In recent weeks, both the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have emphasized the availability crisis hotlines for veterans, as well as resources to help them “reconcile [their] service.” The emotional toll that the defeat in Afghanistan will have on veterans, from self-questioning to disillusionment with their past to the effects of seeing the Taliban abuse and kill Afghan civilians, including old Afghan comrades, will likely lead some veterans to the darkest corners of their minds. If the reaction among active service members has been, as one officer told me, “dissonance, disappointment, anger, [and] apathy,” it is likely the same among veterans.
We have an obligation to make sure that our friends and acquaintances who served in war are not left to suffer without help.
4. Retention and Recruitment: After long deployments, living under terrible physical (and emotional) conditions, away from their families, some service members now feel that our involvement in Afghanistan was all for nothing. In recent weeks, I have received many messages like “it was all a lie” or that military service “was not worth it.”
The defeat has been terrible for the military’s morale. Many officers feel detached from the immaterial attractions of the military, such as fighting for a cause or country and honor. The Air Force officer I quoted above is planning his exit from the service, years earlier than he once had hoped. We could see a dropoff in retention—which would come at a time when the military is already struggling to retain its officers.
Note that this problem isn’t likely to be limited to those who deployed to Afghanistan. Service members who never deployed yet watched what the defeat has done to their friends and peers may find themselves rethinking whether a life of military service is worth it. In both cases, there will be a calculation about whether risking their future for yet another cause that the political class would waste is worth it.
Recruitment will likely be affected, too. The indicator that correlates best with whether a person will want to join the military is whether he or she has a family member—often a parent—who served in the armed forces. Many of the officers now cooling to military service as a result of the Afghanistan War’s outcome will now discourage, rather than encourage, their family members and friends to join. As one officer told me, “My father, both grandfathers, great-grandfather, etc. were in the service. I don’t necessarily want my children to join, but if they decide to, they will do so as adults. Their choice. Hopefully they choose better than I did!”
Another veteran of the Afghanistan War that I spoke with was even more cynical: “Don’t get emotionally involved. Use it [military service] as a means to an end.” There is nothing new in officers and enlisted personnel seeing their time in the military as a balance of service to country—an honorable act of patriotism and a higher cause—and a job with benefits: stable pay, education, a chance to see the world. But if the balance tilts too far away from thinking of time in the military as service to country and cause, we can expect to see that reflected in more difficulty with recruitment.