Alan Zendell, August 22, 2021
The City of New York and the effort to wind down our military involvement in the war-torn (so-called) nation of Afghanistan both faced daunting challenges of Intelligence gathering and logistics over the last few months. The consequences of potential failure weren’t comparable in the two situations, but there were striking comparisons. Both demonstrated what can happen when Intelligence information is flawed or incomplete, and both were examples of how unforeseen events can undermine even the best plans.
In Afghanistan, the challenge was to move tens of thousands of people, both Americans and Afghans fleeing the Taliban, out of the country ahead of the advancing Taliban forces. In New York, one of the most crowded cities in the world, the challenge was to move tens of thousands of people in and out of Central Park and provide a secure environment for a five-hour concert celebrating the city’s recovery from the COVID pandemic. Totally different goals, but strikingly similar in some ways.
One thing we saw in both places was a catastrophic failure of Intelligence, one understandable, the other, not so much. Afghanistan was the latest in an abysmal six decade track record of failure of military and diplomatic Intelligence that includes Vietnam, the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, nine-eleven, and our invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. New York needed to find a way to hold a massive concert without having it turn into either a riot or COVID super-preader, or a terrorist attack.
The Intelligence failure in Afghanistan was largely an American problem, but other NATO countries were equally guilty. I appreciate the logistical nightmare facing our military, but I cannot grasp the incompetence of our Intelligence efforts. We flooded Afghanistan with tens of thousands soldiers, marines, contractors, diplomats and intelligence agents. Germany and the UK did the same thing on a smaller scale, and those personnel were supported by continuous satellite, aircraft, and drone surveillance.
How is it possible that all those assets failed to observe 60,000 Taliban fighters mobilizing around the country? How could our operatives on the ground fail to have noticed the Taliban systematically dominating regional warlords all over this tribally divided country in preparation for an assault on Kabul? And how, after working closely with and training the Afghan military, did our people fail to realize that the departure of American forces would leave Afghan defenders feeling betrayed and unwilling to fight for their own government?
Those missteps and the failure to plan for the possibility that the corrupt Afghan government would cut and run are responsible for the chaos and human tragedy that is visible to the entire world. I believe we’ll get through this in the end, because it’s in the Taliban’s interest to honor their agreement for safe passage and avoid horrific images of civilians being beaten and killed. And the Taliban depends heavily on financial aid from outside Afghanistan, most of which has been frozen by NATO countries.
My intention is not to harp on failures that are obvious to everyone – it’s to shine a light on the success of New York City. While New York wasn’t facing a military disaster, its attempt to provide a badly needed spiritually uplifting experience for all Americans faced enormous logistic and planning issues. Gun violence and mass shootings have been on the rise for decades, and Homeland Security repeatedly warns that the greatest threat to our nation is domestic terrorism. In the past year, we witnessed demonstrations result in violence and death, culminating in the insurrection at the Capitol. And we’ve seen reckless, politically motivated actions and decisions that sought to deny and ignore the deadly effect of the pandemic.
But New Yorkers overcame all that, and for a couple of hours, the city put on a picture-perfect event that achieved all of its objectives. Each of the 60,000 attendees had to show proof of COVID vaccination and a negative test for the virus before being allowed in, and the concert was the complete antithesis of the divisiveness and political rancor that has kept us from moving ahead with the nation’s business. For three hours, the world saw pure joy, among the well-behaved crowd, the performers, and the security personnel who were largely invisible. The first hour, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra supporting brilliant performances by Andrea Bocelli and Jennifer Hudson were uplifting and beautiful, illustrating what we’re capable of when we set our minds to getting it right.
In the end, the one thing beyond everyone’s control, Hurricane Henri, cut the festivities short. But even there, New York shone. The ease and efficiency with which the entire crowd was safely, calmly evacuated in the face of potentially dangerous storms demonstrated that the event planners had prepared for every contingency. We’ll live with the anxiety and stress of Afghanistan a while longer, but for part of one evening, we were reminded of how we look at our best. Maybe the military should have hired Clive Davis, the record company executive who planned and managed the New York concert, to get our people out of Kabul.
I have no doubt that the crowd in Central Park exceeded the one at Donald Trump’s inauguration, both in numbers and joyousness. Way to go, New York!