Néstor T. Carbonell
Congressional committees will soon explore the causes and consequences of the U.S.-led evacuation in Afghanistan, a chaotic debacle which stranded Americans and local partners, emboldened our enemies and angered our allies.
Historians may not find explicit lessons or warnings relevant to this particular situation. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
Yet several American strategists have suggested that Biden’s dismal Afghanistan fiasco evokes memories of Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs disaster. While the circumstances differ, there are several notable parallels.
Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs
During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy criticized the Eisenhower-Nixon administration for “permitting a Communist satellite only ninety miles from the shores of the United States.” Yet, as president, he rejected the well-thought-out invasion plan to overthrow Castro, recommended by the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His rationale: “it put us so openly in view of the world.” In an effort to hide the obvious involvement of the United States, Kennedy pared down the operation — and condemned it to failure.
JFK fatally micromanaged the invasion (as Biden did with the Afghan withdrawal), insisting on a quiet nighttime landing of the 1,400-man U.S.-trained Cuban brigade. To meet the President’s demand, the CIA reluctantly abandoned its ideal landing site (Trinidad, which was close to the mountains where anti-Castro guerrillas were fighting), and chose instead a swampy, largely uninhabited area known as the Bay of Pigs.
Kennedy also curtailed plans for pre-invasion air raids by fake deserters, designed to destroy Castro’s attack planes on the ground. When the plot was uncovered and the U.S. involvement exposed, JFK cancelled the remaining raids. Surmising that an invasion was imminent, Castro preempted a planned uprising by detaining more than 150,000 suspected conspirators across the island. He later executed the five underground leaders.
But the ultimate death-blow to the invasion was JFK’s cancellation of the promised air cover during the landing. As a result, two brigade ships were sunk or grounded, and three were unable to unload war materiel or disembark troop reinforcements. Under these dire conditions, and facing Castro’s overwhelming forces, the brigade men courageously fought for three days until they ran out of ammunition.
Despite having a major naval task force with jet fighters and combat-ready marines awaiting orders near the Bay of Pigs, JFK refused to support the besieged brigade or even to authorize a mini-Dunkirk evacuation. “I don’t want the United States involved in this,” he said to Admiral Arleigh Burke. But, the admiral replied, “we are involved.”
Sadly, more than 120 young Cuban freedom-fighters died in the struggle, and close to 1,200 were imprisoned and held as hostages by Castro for twenty months, pending payment of ransom arranged by the U.S. government.
Kennedy publicly assumed responsibility for the defeat. Privately, however, he blamed and subsequently sacked the upper echelon of the CIA. He told Richard Bissell, in charge of the covert Cuba program: “In a parliament government I’d have to resign. But in this government, I can’t, so you and Allen Dulles have to go.”
Shortly after the invasion disaster, Eisenhower asked Kennedy when they met at Camp David: “Why on earth didn’t you provide the Cuban brigade with air cover?” JFK said he feared it would prompt the Soviets to cause trouble in Berlin. IKE’s rejoinder was prescient: “That is exactly the opposite of what would really happen. The Soviets follow their own plans, and if they see us show any weakness, then is when they press us the hardest…”
Sure enough, Khrushchev thrashed Kennedy at their June 1961 summit in Vienna, built the Berlin Wall and unleashed the Cuban Missile Crisis that shook the world.
Biden’s Afghan Debacle
Determined to be the president who ended the “forever war” in Afghanistan, Biden declared in April 2021 that the total and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. and Allied forces would be completed by August 31. He knew that would mean withdrawing during the dangerous summer fighting period, but his overriding priority apparently was flaunting the symbolism of concluding the withdrawal a few days prior to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which precipitated the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Consequently, he denied requests from allies and advisers to extend the deadline.
Biden also chose not to follow the Pentagon’s advice to keep a U.S. contingent of 3,000 to 4,500 troops—supported by drones and close air cover—to enable the Afghan security forces to continue holding off the Taliban.
Biden and most of his team underestimated how demoralizing the withdrawal announcement was on the Afghan government and its forces, as well as the psychological boost it gave the Taliban fighters.
But the decision that killed all hope of containing the Taliban surge and ensuring an orderly evacuation was the July 2 U.S. abandonment — at night — of Bagram Air Base. This devastating blow, akin to Kennedy’s cancellation of the Bay of Pigs air cover, was made worse by the American forces leaving behind troves of modern military equipment worth billions of dollars.
Following the unraveling of Afghan defenses, accelerated by the withdrawal of U.S. air support, Biden asked Afghan President Ghani on July 23 to create the “perception” that the Taliban weren’t winning—“whether it’s true or not.” Shortly after Biden proposed this masquerade, Ghani fled the country. The Afghan government fell on August 15.
Biden blamed everyone, from Trump to the Afghan forces, for the collapse before declaring that the buck stops with him. His military team took over the national airport in Kabul, but relied on the enemy (the Taliban) for security and clearances to enter the airport. This resulted in the deadliest Afghan terrorist strike in a decade with 182 killed, including 13 American service members.
About 120,000 men, women and children were evacuated in less than three weeks, an impressive feat. But we left behind, exposed to Taliban reprisals, many American citizens, Afghan interpreters and supporters of our cause who Biden had promised to evacuate before U.S. forces left the country.
Like the botched Bay of Pigs operation, the catastrophic U.S.-led Afghan evacuation created serious new challenges. How will we rescue the American citizens and Afghan loyalists who are held hostage by the Taliban, and what ransom will we have to pay? Will we be able to deal, “over the horizon,” with a resurgence of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS-K without having CIA listening posts on the ground?
Finally, how will we rebuild our credibility, now deeply tarnished, as a reliable ally, respected competitor and feared combatant able to confront the geopolitical, economic, military and cyber threats posed by China, Russia and Iran? And will we be able to defend our national interests not only in Asia and the Middle East, but in Latin America, currently facing a surge of anti-American authoritarian governments influenced by Communist Cuba?
There are many challenges looming on the horizon, but our highest priority today must be to restore the leadership standing of the United States of America.
Nestor T. Carbonell, author of the newly released book Why Cuba Matters: New Threats in America’s Backyard