The suicide bomber who killed 13 Americans outside Afghanistan’s Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate in August 2021 didn’t appear out of nowhere. Nor did the Chinese spy balloon that collected intelligence over some of the most classified locations in the U.S. earlier this year.
In both cases, the U.S. military received actionable threat warnings in time to prevent these outrages. Both times, the administration blew it, and then proceeded to compound its mistakes.
Let’s examine the incidents individually.
At a recent Congressional hearing, Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews described the chaotic scene outside the Abbey Gate, where he was part of a sniper team providing cover for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Intelligence assets were tracking the suicide bomber, who had been released from Parwan prison days prior and was en route to the airport. According to Vargas-Andrews, on the morning of Aug. 26, he received an imminent threat warning with a description of both the bomber and his handler.
Shortly after noon, Vargas-Andrews and Sgt. Charles Schilling spotted the two and requested permission to take them out. Bafflingly, their leadership could not authorize the engagement.
President Joe Biden’s order to evacuate Afghanistan as quickly as possible forced senior military leaders to turn down the Taliban’s offer for the U.S. to control Kabul during the evacuation. U.S. forces had no authority beyond the boundary of the airport. Hence, Vargas-Andrews and Schilling were ordered to stand down, even in the face of a clear and present danger.
Four hours later, the terrorist detonated his device, killing 13 U.S. servicemembers and severely wounding Sgt. Vargas-Andrews.
The tragedy caused the Biden team to lose complete control of the narrative surrounding its disastrous withdrawal. The only hope of regaining it was to take some kind of redemptive action. The administration saw its chance three days later, when vague intelligence reports suggested an explosives-laden car would be targeting U.S. forces at the airport.
U.S. drones spotted a white Toyota Corolla—the kind of vehicle favored by ISIS-K for car bombs—and followed it for eight hours until it had “reasonable certainty that the target was valid.” The administration dispatched a Hellfire missile, striking the car shortly after the driver, Zemari Ahmadi, brought it to a stop in the middle of a residential area.
Pentagon spokesmen immediately boasted about the “righteous strike” that carried a low probability of civilian casualties, against an imminent threat. But drone footage released shortly afterward contradicted both claims.
The strike killed Ahmadi, a 43-year-old aid worker, and nine family members, several of whom were clearly visible in the strike footage.
During the final three minutes of his life, Ahmadi executed a multiple-point, 90 degree turn off a narrow alleyway into the even narrower driveway of his home. It would have taken just as long to get out of the driveway. If Ahmadi really posed a threat to American troops, it was anything but imminent.
Looking back, that horrific tragedy was likely caused by an administration embarrassed by its fatal incompetence three days earlier and trying desperately to change the narrative.
The administration’s handling of the Chinese spy balloon only reinforces that perception.
Despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, it is now clear that U.S. satellites and ground-based radar tracked the balloon from the time it was launched from China through its entry into Northern American Aerospace Command (NORAD) airspace. Gen. Glenn VanHerck, the NORAD commander, testified that on Jan. 28, when his Alaska-based radars detected the balloon, he scrambled fighters to identify it. The pilots confirmed it was a balloon carrying a massive sensor package.
NORAD has authority to engage imminent, fast-moving threats, but engaging slower-developing threats requires the approval of the president or the secretary of defense. VanHerck therefore notified the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the threat and awaited their response.
Over the next three days, the balloon drifted over the desolate tundra of Alaska and Canada, where it easily could have been destroyed without endangering anyone or anything on the ground, apart perhaps from a lone caribou. But only when the balloon crossed into the lower 48 states did the National Security Council even request military options from the Pentagon.
After re-entering U.S. airspace, the balloon collected and transmitted signals intelligence, likely targeting grade images and coordinates on everything from our ICBM silos to the B-2 stealth bomber facilities at Whiteman Air Force Base.
Only after receiving overwhelming pressure from both sides of the aisle did Biden order the balloon to be shot down, an order carried out off the coast of South Carolina.
Embarrassed, and once again faced with withering accusations of incompetence, the president ordered NORAD to destroy three more balloons over Canada, Alaska, and Lake Huron. Because of their altitudes, size, and payloads, intercepting pilots could readily determine each to be harmless, but the order stood.
It wasn’t an intelligence or military failure that caused the deaths outside the Abbey Gate, or that gave up valuable security information to a Chinese spy balloon. Those losses arose due to the ineptitude of this administration. These two failures all but guarantee our adversaries will see fit to challenge us again.
National security is an unforgiving game. Adversaries make decisions based on both the capability and demonstrated competence of our national-security apparatus. From the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal to the bungling of the Chinese spy balloon, this administration has conveyed nothing but incompetence, and there is no sign it has learned any lessons from these strategic blunders, opening the door for China, Russia, Iran and North Korea to put even bigger ones in motion.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive