America’s Biggest Military Stories in 2021

Amid challenging times, here are the five gravest challenges the Pentagon faced during the past 12 months:

The Disastrous Afghanistan Withdrawal

The catastrophic and immoral withdrawal of our military from Afghanistan effectively ended a major phase in the Global War on Terror that began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

With the withdrawal date telegraphed by President Joe Biden, the Taliban launched a military offensive, overthrowing the United States-backed Ghani government.

With the Taliban’s swift rise to power, the U.S. began a haphazard evacuation for its citizens and Afghan allies who would be at risk under the new regime. In total, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan during August, though many still remain.

The shambolic surrender was marred by tragedy when an Islamist terrorist detonated a suicide vest, killing 13 service members and nearly 200 civilians at Karzai International Airport.

China and Russia Test Missiles

China tested “a nuclear-capable hypersonic” missile that “circled the globe before speeding towards its target” in August.

Russia intentionally used a missile to destroy a satellite that scattered thousands of pieces of debris across space in November.

Both tests were the first of their kind for the countries, though neither demonstrated new technology. The goal was to make tracing and intercepting more difficult.

China’s test represents an acceleration of their nuclear expansion program to where Beijing could have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads within five years. For more on China’s nuclear ambitions, listen to this recent podcast.

Russia’s Potential Invasion of Ukraine

Russia has amassed a substantial military presence on its border with Ukraine, which has ratcheted up fears of a possible invasion.

While Biden administration officials say it’s unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will invade, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently claimed he’s seen “evidence that Russia made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine.”

Related: U.S. and Russia on a Collision Course Over Ukraine

Biden spoke with Putin Thursday upon the Kremlin’s request. Reports are that the American president “laid out two paths, two aspects for the U.S. approach that will depend on Russia’s actions in the path ahead’; one is the “path of diplomacy leading to deescalation,” while the other “is a path more focused on deterrents.”

The Jan. 6 Riots

Thousands of people, spurred on by misinfomation, stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, hoping to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

Some rioters even sought to harm then-President Donald Trump’s loyal vice president, Mike Pence, simply for following his constitutional duties.

Five people died, including Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by a Capitol Police officer as she climbed inside through a broken window. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, an Air National Guard veteran, died of natural causes a day later, and two other police officers committed suicide after the riot.

More than 650 arrests have been made in the ensuing month, and controversy has erupted over how detainees have been treated.

COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate

Embattled Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mandated coronavirus vaccines for all Defense Department personnel this summer, though he allowed service branches to determine how to implement the controversial policy. While an overwhelming majority complied, each service branch discharged those who refused the order. No branch granted religious exemptions, even though about 12,000 applied; however, thousands of medical requests were granted.

More than 200 Marines have been discharged, and the Army relieved six active-duty leaders, including two battalion commanders, and issued nearly 3,000 general officer written reprimands. The Air Force reported 27 of the roughly 5,000 active-duty personnel who refused the vaccine were discharged.

Finally, in a paper released last week, experts from conservative think tanks and the last two Republican administrations outlined alternatives to the current administration’s various national security strategies.

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