Marine Commandant Wants 'Honest, Open Critique' of Afghanistan Withdrawal

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger delivers remarks at a press briefing about the Marine Corps and COVID-19, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., March 26, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lisa Ferdinando)

Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, thinks the U.S. military should thoroughly examine the decisions it made in the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"While it's relatively fresh in our minds, we need the honest, open critique, or a commission ... that cracks open: What were the options that were available, who made what decisions at what time?" he said Wednesday speaking at an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Naval Institute.

Berger was responding to a question about whether he thought his recent memo to reassure veterans that the war in Afghanistan was worth their sacrifices still applies now that the conflict is over.

"The events of the past 10 days have not at all altered my view of 'was it worth it,'" he replied.

The top Marine officer said that, in the last two days, he and others have gone back "through the Holloway Commission, the Long Commission" in an effort to "try to figure out a framework or how can we study, to your point, what went right, what went wrong, what can we learn going forward."

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The Holloway Commission investigated the failed attempt to rescue 52 staff members held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in April 1980, while the Long Commission scrutinized the failures that led to the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

News of the withdrawal from the 20-year Afghanistan conflict has prompted introspection about the legacy of the war, as well as criticism from veterans and active-duty officers alike over a wide range of related issues. The criticism came after the Taliban managed to quickly and surprisingly seize nearly all of Afghanistan’s provinces in just over a week, including Kabul, and U.S. forces surged to protect that city’s airport as more than 100,000 people were evacuated ahead of the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31.

Maj. Eric Flanagan, a spokesman for the commandant, said that Berger was "referencing the last few weeks in Kabul, not the totality of Afghanistan" in his remarks.

At one point in the conversation, Berger specifically noted that the surprising speed of the Taliban's takeover of the country should be examined.

"How did this surprise us that, in the span of 11 days, it's so fundamentally changed?" he said. "Those are things critically as a government, as a military, we absolutely ought to unpack.

"Were there decisions that were made that we ought to go back and scrub? Absolutely, yeah," Berger added. "Should we both go back and look at the options themselves? Yeah, absolutely."

The remarks come less than 24 hours after President Joe Biden spoke to the nation to defend the choices made in the last days of the conflict.

Referring to complaints that "we should have started mass evacuation sooner" or "couldn't this be done and been done in a more orderly manner," Biden replied: "There is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges and threats we faced -- none."

Despite his calls for review and introspection, Berger said he remains convinced that his letter -- which stood unflinchingly behind the value of the Marine Corps' service in Afghanistan -- does not need amending.

"My confirmation is the service members who were there, who would do it again because they feel like they saved lives," he said.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: 'Was It Worth It? Yes. Does It Still Hurt? Yes.' Marine Leaders Reassure Troops on Afghanistan

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