In Biden's Afghanistan Withdrawal, Echoes of Another Failure: Market-Garden (1944)
Biden and his team made many of the same managerial errors as General Montgomery in his ill-fated effort to end World War II in Europe by Christmas
By J.G. Collins
NEW YORK (September 24) - America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan brought to mind the kind of executive managerial failures that occurred this week in Belgium and Holland in1944. Such failures -- and disasters -- are the subject of a book I’m writing.
Operation Market-Garden, launched on September 17th and lasting eight days through the 25th, 1944, was intended by British General Bernard Law Montgomery to develop a salient into Nazi occupied Holland as a flank around Hitler’s heavily fortified Siegfried Line. The line lay on the German side of the French / Belgian border, with a northern terminus at Geldern. Montgomery’s plan was to seize Arnhem, 40 miles northwest of Geldern. From Arnhem, he intended some subsequent offensive would charge into the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland, and from there to Berlin.
He imagined he could return the troops home from the war by Christmas, 1944. It proved to be a disaster.
The plan was comprised of two parts:
“Market”, the largest airborne assault in history, was intended to nearly simultaneously seize six bridges in Nazi occupied Holland that lay along a 65 mile north-bound roadway and causeway to Arnhem.
“Garden” was intended as a rapid, mechanized infantry and armored assault moving north along the route of the seized bridges, thus relieving the airborne units along the way, consolidating the flanks of the salient from counterattack, and ending at its northern terminus, Arnhem. Planners estimated the Arnhem force would be relieved in just two days.
As executed, the plan ended in disaster. No relief was able to reach Arnhem and British troops there were mostly slaughtered or captured. Of the 10,000 British paratroopers deployed to Arnhem, less than a quarter were returned to allied lines over the Rhine.
Executive decisions and managerial failures that doomed Market Garden were also found in America’s catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal imbroglio, and nearly of the same type. The failures were several and all directly attributable to the most senior level commanders: Montgomery and his staff; Joe Biden and his. Nevertheless, both Montgomery1 and Biden2 deemed their exercises a “success”.
Here is a summary of the failures:.
Both Actions Were Impelled by Artificial Deadlines.
Market Garden: General Montgomery thought that developing the salient up to Arnhem in mid-September would allow allied forces to secure bridgeheads over the Rhine River and into the industrial Ruhr Valley, 60 miles away to the southeast. He hoped to end the war by Christmas, 1944.3
Afghanistan: President Biden wanted to secure a complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan by the 20th Commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to do a “victory lap” for ending America’s longest war.
Neither Plan Had Sufficient or Appropriate Assets Available to Execute
Market Garden: There were myriad shortages of assets for Market Garden.
First, there was insufficient air transport to deliver all the airborne forces for “Market” in the "simultaneous” airborne drop imagined in the plan. Instead, to fully deploy the three-and-one-half airborne divisions required, three successive days of airlift were necessary.4
Second, German anti-aircraft guns had built up so heavily around Arnhem that air transport commanders were hesitant to drop parachute troops closer to the city. As an alternative, strategists chose drop zones some six to eight miles from the targeted Arnhem bridge,5 a nearly three hour march with gear, thus eliminating any chance of the intended surprise attack.
Finally, for “Garden”, the mechanized units and armor that were to speed to the rescue of the airborne units along the 65 miles from the Dutch-Belgian border to Arnhem were limited to a narrow causeway, with some of it surrounded by marshland that would — and did — bog down heavy armored vehicles and tanks that sought to bypass traffic on the narrow causeway.
Afghanistan: The American deadline for withdrawal had been set for months. Yet commanders chose to abandon heavily defended Bagram Airfield, necessary for a safe, ordered, withdrawal, weeks ahead of the announced deadline. A planned airlift of US military equipment out of the region mentioned in the days preceding the US departure6 seems to have been abandoned entirely. For some reason, the US footprint of soldiers and Marines was minimal. A safer and more orderly withdrawal could have been achieved had more forces been surged on the ground to build a wider perimeter around Hamid Karzai International Airport, or, better, to secure Bagram Airfield.
Both Exercises Were Inflexible
Market Garden: Just as there would be no rescue if the D-Day seaborne landings at Normandy had failed, once the “Market” element had been dropped, it was stuck behind the Nazi lines; there was no hope of rescue without the full success of the mission.
While this risk is inherent in all airborne assault operations, General Maxwell Taylor opted to fly Jeeps, not small artillery, in with his gliders because he anticipated quick relief from armor and mechanized units at Eindhoven.7
The “Garden”, or ground, element of the operation also had no “Plan B”. The ground along the route of the intended salient was, in many parts, essentially a wetland in which tanks could - and were - bogged down if they left the narrow strip of roadway. Maneuver off the line was nearly impossible. As one veteran put it, “The drive… will be like threading seven needles with one piece of cotton and we only have to miss one to be in trouble.”8
Had the Nazis been able to counterattack into Belgium along a wide front, flanking the southern end of the allied salient, it might have cut off the armored and mechanized infantry element of the “Garden” salient, as well as large numbers of the lightly armed 82nd and 101st Airborne infantry divisions. The entire operation could have been annihilated or captured.
Afghanistan: The U.S. exit from Afghanistan had all the stability and strength of a structure held together with bailing wire and chewing gum. It was pure luck and the good graces of the Taliban that got the USA out of Afghanistan as whatever “plan” there was clearly lacked options. Had the Taliban desired, they could have cut off air transport out of HKIA with indirect fire on the runways and/or by firing on transports before they could land.
Both Operations Ignored the Latest Intelligence
Market Garden: The intelligence warning of the looming disaster was indicative, but not determinative.
Reconnaissance photos showed evidence that two, elite, SS Panzer (tank) divisions had been dispatched near Arnhem by mere coincidence for “refitting and rehabilitation”.9 The intelligence was known to senior commanders, but a “go along to get along” attitude seems to have prevailed. General Bedell “Beetle” Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, was aware and approached Eisenhower to perhaps cancel Market-Garden. Ike demurred, as he had approved Montgomery’s plan and was precariously situated as allied commander, but had Smith speak to Montgomery, who dismissed his concerns.
Major Brian Urquhart, a 25-year-old, baby-faced, chief intelligence officer in the British I Airborne Corps, warned his commander, Lt. General Frederick Browning, of his severe misgivings about the plan after seeing reconnaissance photos of German tanks near Arnhem. His continued warnings of the looming disaster caused him to be diagnosed with “exhaustion” and ordered to take leave. He went on to a distinguished career as a senior diplomat in the British foreign service.10
Afghanistan: Key decisions for the Afghanistan withdrawal were made in April, 2021. But by July, intelligence agencies’ assessments were warning of a “cascading collapse” of Afghan cities, with increasing risks to Kabul. It reported “the Afghan security forces were at high risk of falling apart.” Nevertheless, it appears the Biden Administration pretty much continued with its April plans, only reacting to the crisis in the last weeks of August. As with Market-Garden, an anonymous senior Biden Administration official told the New York Times, the pessimistic “assessments were also not given a ‘high confidence’ judgment, the agencies’ highest level of certainty”, 11so seem to have been dismissed.
LESSONS FOR THE REST OF US
Market-Garden and the Afghanistan catastrophe hold management lessons for all of us. Here are a few:
Deadlines Shouldn’t be Objectives
It’s fine to set a deadline to achieve some task or goal. It helps to set priorities and to allocate resources. But the deadline should not be the ultimate driver of decision-making. Schedules can be adjusted. Expectations can be managed. But putting an overly-ambitious deadline for achieving an objective over achieving the objective itself misstates priorities and can cause overall failure. “Meeting a deadline”, but failing because of it, is ultimately a failure of both the deadline and the objective.
Inventory Available Assets Before Finalizing a Plan
The old proverb, “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost….the kingdom was lost” is received wisdom for the ages. Logistics in any operation, not only in terms of materials, but expertise, abilities, and conditions precedent for success must all be available at the time they are required to achieve a given objective.
Keep Options Open, Especially if They are “Free”
In Afghanistan, Bagram AFB was essentially a “free option”; there was no reason to abandon it. Maintaining it, at relatively small cost, not only would have provided a better venue to exfiltrate Americans and Afghans who assisted us, but also a base for close air support for the Afghan armed forces as they fought against the Taliban’s summer offensive.
Managers who maintain a broad perspective will often see options and alternatives should their stated objective be impossible to achieve or to further capitalize on it when it is.
Know the Ground Before You Execute
Circumstances can change virtually overnight because of technology, taste, or the addressable market. (For example, Chilean Sea Bass was wildly popular (and expensive) among upper-income dining elites after the turn of this century, but quickly became passe when it was learned the species had been overfished and was no longer sustainable.) What seems to be “necessary” or “smart” in one instant can change overnight.
Market surveys for new products or services, including competitors, the addressable market, etc. should be revisited, and even duplicated, before sinking funds into a major investment tranche in pursuit of the planned objective. One might question, for example, the wisdom of the government spending billions on major transportation infrastructure planned in the 2010s in a post-pandemic economy where telecommuting has been normalized and increasingly preferred by workers and their employers. Spending on 5G for outlying or underserved areas might be a better choice.
Above all, leaders need to listen attentively and uncritically to those who challenge them and, moreover, to seek out and welcome the views of those who are in the best position to know.
The latter, mostly those closest to executing the planned action, might often be the lowest person in the pecking order. One should listen to them, question them cordially and welcome their assessments so as not to intimidate them or force them to choose to stand up to or undermine their higher-tier superiors. The leader’s mission is to get the best facts available, unhindered by “group think” (or sometimes more senior subordinate sycophants).
Ultimately, strategic and operational success or failure in major initiatives is determined by leaders at the very top of an organization. They must be given sufficient leeway to conceive their vision, but must also defend it in critique (so-called “Red Teaming”) before it is executed and accountable for their actions when it is. Wisdom, prudence, flexibility and knowledge should be the defining attributes of those who lead, whether in the boardroom or the battlefield.
J.G. Collins is the managing director of The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy, a management advisory and consulting firm in New York City. He is writing a book on business, military, and political failures that have occurred because subordinates failed to speak their mind to superiors (or, as with Market-Garden, leaders failed to heed their warnings.)
Ryan, Cornelius. A Bridge Too Far Touchstone Books (1974). Page 591. Montgomery claimed Market-Garden was a “90% success”. But without Arnhem, the “Bridge Too Far”, the salient was worthless. In one assessment, it was described as “a 50 mile salient-leading nowhere”.
Biden acknowledged no element of failure, calling the operation an “extraordinary success” despite the chaotic withdrawal, the ISIS-K bombing of 13 American armed services members, the tragic killing of an aid worker and his children, the enormous embarrassment to US prestige from his deference to the Taliban, and his leaving Americans and Afghan civilians who assisted us behind. Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan whitehouse.gov https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/08/31/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-end-of-the-war-in-afghanistan/ (Accessed 9/24/2021)
Ryan, Pages 64,113
Ryan. Page 129
Ryan. Page 140
Trevithick, Joseph. “U.S. Prepared To Destroy Equipment It Can't Airlift Out Of Kabul As Withdrawal Deadline Looms” TheDrive. August 24, 2021. https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/42122/u-s-prepared-to-destroy-equipment-it-cant-airlift-out-of-kabul-as-withdrawal-deadline-looms (Accessed 9/22/2021)
Ryan. Page 251
Ryan. Page 170
Ryan. Page 117
Major Sir Brian Edward Urquhart, KCMG MBE, went on to help create the United Nations. As the military adviser to Dag Hammarskjöld, he arranged the first U.N. Peacekeeping force during the 1956 Suez Crisis. He conceived the “U.N. Blue Helmet” as a quick workaround when the organization’s preferred blue berets could not be produced in time for their first deployment. As a substitute, Urquhart simply ordered US Army issue helmet liners, then available in quantity, to be spray painted with the distinctive U.N. Blue. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.N. Peacekeeping Forces are now commonly referenced as “the Blue Helmets”. His 1991 memoirs, A Life in Peace and War, remains in print. He died, aged 101, earlier this year. He is said to have never gotten over not being able to warn his superiors off Market-Garden.
Mazetti, Mark et. al. “Intelligence Warned of Afghan Military Collapse, Despite Biden’s Assurances” nytimes.com The New York Times, August 17, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/17/us/politics/afghanistan-biden-administration.html (Accessed 9/22/2021)