On August 31, President Joe Biden formally drew to a close the war in Afghanistan, touting “the extraordinary success” of the withdrawal of US troops after 20 years of fighting. Despite the incorrect “assumption — that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown,” Biden noted he had “instructed our national security team to prepare for every eventuality — even that one.” Yes, that’s right: The chaos we witnessed in the scramble to leave Kabul was all part of a plan.
In the speech, there was, of course, the now-customary blame spread between the Afghan government and former President Donald Trump, but Biden did say that he “takes responsibility for the decision” to evacuate 100,000 Afghans, thereby implicitly distancing himself from the messy withdrawal itself.
Apparently deciding to withdraw all US troops is one thing, the consequences of that decision, another. Americans were assured that ties with our international partners were strengthening. Biden even spoke of the United Nations Security Council passing a resolution carrying a “clear message” that laid out international expectations for the Taliban.
Biden’s Misjudgments in Afghanistan
But by the time he did so, the president had already relinquished any leverage the US might employ to make those prospects real. No doubt the Taliban sat upright when they heard a threat as empty as those Washington had made to the Houthis in Yemen, who have paid them rapt attention.
Appearing a little defensive, President Biden underlined: “Let me be clear: Leaving August the 31st is not due to an arbitrary deadline; it was designed to save American lives.” This implies that the original withdrawal date of September 11 was decidedly non-arbitrary— before the withdrawal descended into bedlam.
Biden, who campaigned on his foreign policy experience and the global relationships he had cultivated over his long career, now finds himself saddled with a fiasco that has been compared to the US withdrawal from Vietnam and will be remembered for bodies in free fall, eerily reminiscent of 9/11.
While President Biden and his supporters say this was inevitable and the decision to withdraw forces was made out of necessity, the broader view suggests that misjudgment, mishandling and a lack of foresight were the culprits of the botched evacuation.
A Series of Missteps
When the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was announced by then-President Trump, NATO partners felt blindsided. At the time of Biden’s withdrawal announcement, 35 other NATO member states, led by Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, collectively had approximately 7,000 personnel in Afghanistan, according to official figures. They were understandably angry at not being consulted.
After Biden became president, a review by his administration reaffirmed the withdrawal, also without consulting with allies. While assurances of regional US support force were proffered, few doubted assets outside Afghanistan would be substantially less effective than America’s in-country posture. Where could the naysayers have developed such an idea? Perhaps they were listening to what our own military was saying at the time.
On April 20, Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. addressed the difficulties of an “over-the-horizon” approach when he said at a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee that “It’s difficult to [strike a target] at range — but it’s not impossible to do that at range.” General McKenzie also said of post-withdrawal peacekeeping and power-projection capabilities: “I don’t want to make light of it. I don’t want to put on rose-colored glasses and say it’s going to be easy to do.”
Leading up to the hearing, on April 9, the director of National Intelligence released a report that contained “the collective insights of the Intelligence Community,” stating that “prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year” because “the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.” In bold lettering, the report made clear that “the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
Two months later, in mid-June, an assessment prepared at the request of General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Kabul could fall six months after the US military left.
Almost from the moment the withdrawal encountered problems, the president alluded to inaccurate intelligence estimates, but weaknesses in the withdrawal plans became evident early on. Indeed, signs emerged in classified assessments sent over the summer that things were not going well.
The most damning of these was a State Department dissent cable, signed by 23 embassy officials and sent on July 13, that described the Taliban’s movement and the impending collapse of the Afghan government. Although the cable was immediately reviewed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it was largely ignored.
In addressing the dissent cable, President Biden concluded this assessment was outside the broader consensus, but even the rosiest estimates maintained the Afghan government would fall in 18 to 24 months — just long enough for a September 11 commemoration and the mid-term elections.
The most optimistic estimate tacitly acknowledged that the Taliban would capture remaining US weapons and supplies, and that forfeiture of materiel to the enemy was inevitable. In effect, the decision to pull out consciously contemplated the inadvertent arming of the Taliban within no more than two years.
Between Nation Building and Giving Up
Oft stated, though, it is that the speed of Taliban advance was unanticipated, that intelligence agencies were equally caught off guard by the departure on July 12 of the top US commander, General Scott Miller. Perhaps most shocking to the intelligence community and US allies was the withdrawal from the Bagram Air Base on July 2, in the dead of night and without notifying its new Afghan commander.
This had enormously destabilizing consequences, especially on Afghan military capabilities and morale. Intelligence agencies were put in the position of having to guess not only what the Taliban and the Afghan government would do, but also what decisions President Biden would make.
Abandoning Bagram, which had two runways as opposed to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport’s one, was shocking to many. To reduce the number of US soldiers required to defend the embassy and the airlift, operations were limited to the HKIA. This consolidation was later seen as an error, but the military preference for keeping Bagram with its larger, more defensible perimeter became infeasible because of troop constraints placed by Washington.
Blindly optimistic despite signs of looming problems, Biden maintained on July 8 that “The Taliban is not … the North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy … of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
Biden’s statement was buttressed by a false choice: either walk away from Afghanistan or stay in a situation that would, as the president described it, add casualties and put “American men and women back in the middle of a civil war,” meaning that the US “would have run the risk of having to send more troops back into Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops.”
As Congressman Dan Crenshaw pointed out, “There are a lot of foreign policy options between nation building and giving up. We found the proper balance in recent years — maintaining a small force that propped up the Afghan government while also giving us the capability to strike at Taliban and other terrorist networks as needed.”
Vulnerabilities grew as contractors withdrew, removing air support that had been the lifeblood of the Afghan military. With the Afghan army unable to resupply and pay forces, particularly those at the edge of the Taliban’s advances, morale imploded. On August 13, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, stated that the Afghan military still held advantages against the Taliban, notably, “a capable air force.”
But by early July, reports had already come in that Taliban fighters were executing pilots, and the Pentagon still had not formulated a plan to keep Afghan aviators flying after US withdrawal. Recognizing the air-power advantage was all for naught once the planes stopped flying, a mere three weeks before he fled Kabul, then-President Ashraf Ghani pled with Biden for air support — to no avail.
Dwindling food and munitions, a lack of reserve support and tardy soldier pay all contributed to reduced capabilities and a weakened willingness to fight. In some cases, the Taliban would offer government fighters safe passage and the equivalent of a month’s salary to lay down their arms. Whatever plan was in place, it is now clear that the issue was not one of “a perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan … that things aren’t going well,” as Biden suggested to Ghani. Once the Afghan military lost air support, it was lights out.
Joe Biden has repeatedly claimed he had no choice but to comply with Trump’s deal signed with the Taliban in Doha last year, but it wasn’t at all obvious he was committed to that course of action when he ordered a review of the withdrawal. His own secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, visited Afghanistan in mid-March, saying he was there “to listen and learn,” promising that “It’ll inform my participation in the review that we’re undergoing with the president.”
Biden has reversed Trump’s policies in many other areas, making changes that have led to a surge of immigration at the southern border, setting a two-decade record. He has rejoined the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement, and is seeking to negotiate a deal with Iran similar to the discarded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Leaving Afghan Allies Behind Is a Threat to US Security
If, as this administration maintains, the US left Afghanistan because the Taliban have been weakened over decades of war and it was a time to seek an exit, why is Washington negotiating with Iranians who chant “death to America” at every turn and are more capable than ever?
Prior to the August 26 explosion at Kabul’s airport that killed over 170 civilians and 13 American service members, there had been no US combat fatalities in Afghanistan since February 2, 2020. That, alongside the choice of an emotionally significant withdrawal date of September 11, suggests that the decision was a largely symbolic political statement and the plans for how to execute this mission were engineered backward with devastating consequences.
A US force amounting to 2,500 — or 3,500, as per European and Afghan officials — was a small footprint, yet it held valuable assets such as the Bagram airfield, strategically located between eastern Iran and western Pakistan. Giving up those assets, in conjunction with the collapse of the Afghan government, led to a substantial reduction in US intelligence capabilities by early July, a trend that has only accelerated to the point that the US has now lost 90% of its intelligence collection capabilities.
In a mountainous, disparate place like Afghanistan, where the tribal loyalties are fierce, the human component is everything. Over-the-horizon strikes seldom work, particularly if you don’t know who the target is — or should be.
The likelihood of creating a terrorist safe haven seems to grow by the day. Weighted against damage to US credibility and prestige, not to mention the threat to the homeland, it is hard to imagine how a nominal support force could not be justified, considering the much greater deployment of US troops in places like Germany and South Korea.
If the objective is to withdraw from “forever wars,” then why pull so few soldiers from an unstable part of the world where the Taliban and al-Qaeda (who the US Department of Defense say keep a cozy relationship) plot against the West only to leave tens of thousands of troops stationed residually from World War II and the Korean War? If the objective is to maintain stability, as it appears to be in South Korea, then why abandon the progress made in Afghanistan?
Some have praised President Biden for the consistency — others would say obstinacy — of his decision, but the principle of withdrawal and the manner in which it was conducted has been inconsistently applied. In the primary debate in October 2020, then-candidate Biden had this to say about the Trump administration’s decision to pull out troops from Syria that undermined the position of America’s Kurdish allies:
“I would not have withdrawn the troops and I would not have withdrawn the additional thousand troops who are in Iraq…
It has been the most shameful thing that any president has done in modern history — excuse me, in terms of foreign policy. And the fact of the matter is, I’ve never seen a time — and I’ve spent thousands of hours in the Situation Room, I’ve spent many hours on the ground in those very places, in Syria and in Iraq, and guess what? Our commanders across the board, former and present, are ashamed of what’s happening here.“
In a speech in Iowa the same month, Biden blasted Trump for creating a humanitarian crisis and undermining national security. “The events of this past week … have had devastating clarity on just how dangerous he is to our national security, to our leadership around the world and to the lives of the brave women and men serving in uniform.” Trump, he said, “sold out” the Kurds and gave the Islamic State (IS) “a new lease on life.”
“Donald Trump, I believe — it’s not comfortable to say this about a president — but he is a complete failure as a commander in chief,” Biden said. “He’s the most reckless and incompetent commander in chief we’ve ever had.”
The White House appears to be reeling from the uniformly negative coverage, but more than a few must be thinking, “Et tu, Biden?” While the president rejects criticism of his Afghanistan departure and shows no signs of altering his position, America’s weakened posture in the world is being exploited by its enemies.
Already the Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians are asking countries to question US reliability. Moscow has objected to setting up US military bases outside Afghanistan that might have effected a less chaotic withdrawal. Meanwhile, China, no doubt giddy at seeing US forces vacate Bagram just across their border and likely eager to control it themselves, seized a propitious moment to threaten Taiwan, suggesting resistance to reunification is futile.
If the withdrawal from Afghanistan is to “focus on shoring up America’s core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations,” then the US should seize upon the opportunity to reassure Taiwan and reiterate our constancy. Thus far, we have only heard posturing as Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, seeks nods for his cause against China’s intractable “two lists and three bottom lines” that would have Washington abandon its allies in democratic Taiwan.
All We Left Behind
When met with concerns about partners questioning America’s credibility on the world stage, Biden deflected by saying: “The fact of the matter is I have not seen that. Matter of fact, the exact opposite … we’re acting with dispatch … committing to what we said we would do.” The president appears not to be watching much TV or reading the news. According to numerous reports, America’s NATO allies are furious, and snubbing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson isn’t winning him any more friends in the “mother of parliaments.”
Meanwhile, Europe, Pakistan, India and others are worried about terrorists entering the regional vacuum, not to mention fleeing Afghan refugees looking for a haven at a time when the absorption of Syrian refugees has strained government resources. Many of these countries are anticipating another massive influx of refugees. As for those the US has evacuated, conditions were reportedly squalid and, according to an email from supervisory special agent Colin Sullivan, “are of our own doing.”
Although conventional thought by the administration held a swift withdrawal would prevent greater destabilization to the government of Afghanistan, it was fanciful to maintain we could get everyone out in such haste. A now-common complaint by president Biden’s defenders is that the US didn’t start evacuating Afghan allies when Trump ordered the withdrawal. Yet that is wholly inconsistent with what Biden did.
While Biden announced the withdrawal on April 14, the airlift did not begin until July 30, and the withdrawal deadline was moved from September 11 to a more politically palatable but hastier August 31. Since then, cable news and any number of articles have focused on those the US left behind, including an Afghan who served as an interpreter and rescued Biden when his helicopter was stranded during a snowstorm in 2008.
The administration prefers to focus on the hundreds of US citizens who still remain in Afghanistan, but how many special immigrant visa (SIV) holders or those who “earned them” through their bravery and assistance have been left behind? By some estimates, a quarter of a million Afghans helped the US during the war, and rumors now circulate that the Russians are collecting the data of all calls going to the US that is being handed over to the Taliban.
The Taliban is not known for paying friendly courtesy calls. Secretary Blinken recently said that we have “now learned from hard experience that the SIV process was not designed to be done in an evacuation emergency.” But how to square that with repeated complaints from the administration about the SIV backlog and the 14 steps required to gain one or the delay between announcing withdrawal and airlifting people out? All of this seems to make US departure appear at once precipitous and callous.
A Common Excuse
A common excuse made by the Biden administration is that many people do not want to leave. This was echoed time and again, but it conflicts with the thousands of people who have assisted with private efforts to extract America’s friends. Whatever the reasons for the poorly executed withdrawal, for those who did make it out, thanks may be given not necessarily to the US government but to the informal band of wealthy donors, veterans and CIA analysts who formed groups such as the Commercial Task Force in the Peacock Lounge of the Willard Hotel.
In that one instance, about 5,000 people were evacuated. Other groups have sprung up to guide refugees to safety or give them passwords to write on posters that would help them gain entry to the airport. Biden acknowledged the “network of volunteers,” and although many do not like hearing it, these groups have in many ways been more effective with fewer resources than the federal efforts.
Afghanistan: A Final Nail in the Coffin of American Foreign Policy
For all of the president’s attempts to claim that “we planned for every contingency” and that “the buck stops with me,” the private efforts were no less necessary in the face of a self-reinforcing view that an ill-conceived, poorly-executed plan during the fighting season is proof of its necessity. When Biden said on August 16 that “the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision,” it was a justification as inversely logical as the withdrawal.
While there were no helicopters on the roof of our embassy, officials there were nevertheless evacuated in situ. Originally, the Pentagon maintained that the embassy evacuation was “a very narrowly focused, temporary mission to facilitate the safe and orderly departure of additional civilian personnel from the State Department. … Once this mission is over … we anticipate having less than 1,000 U.S. troops on the ground to support the diplomatic presence in Kabul, which we all agree we still want to be able to have.”
We now know the embassy, one of America’s largest, is shuttered, with Taliban graffiti scrawled on it, and policy is run out of Qatar. While Biden is unlikely to have any “mission accomplished” signs up, US efforts have been reduced to “a new diplomatic mission” that will apparently work in concert with the Taliban.
As it stands now, the Taliban head the government in Kabul, Islamic State Khorasan is making moves, US “collaborators” are being hunted down and the Haqqani Network is ascendent. It is striking to hear the same people who cite the $2-trillion cost of the war in Afghanistan are also those who push for the abandonment of US labors, willfully or otherwise ignoring the promise of a renewed terrorist safe haven.
It does not take much imagination to picture the Biden administration in the same position that President Barack Obama found himself in when he pulled out of Iraq. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz reminds us: “Mr. Biden should have known to expect this because something similar happened 10 years ago when we withdrew our forces from Iraq. Lacking U.S. air support and advisory capabilities on which the Iraqi army had grown to depend, it collapsed under an assault by Islamic State. Three years after the withdrawal, President Obama had to rush 1,500 troops back to Iraq to assist in the fight to drive out ISIS. By 2016 that number had grown to 5,000.”
A Question of Competence
Criticism assails President Biden from all quarters, with a few observing that he had planned a 10-day vacation to Camp David as the withdrawal was reaching a crescendo. Top Obama adviser, David Axelrod, has said: “you cannot defend the execution here. This has been a disaster. … It is heartbreaking, it is depressing, and it’s a failure. And he needs to own that failure.”
Nor is Biden finding many friends among former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, and Princeton’s Robert George, both of whom have some unflattering opinions that echo that of Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Secretary Gates wrote that Biden is someone who has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Trust in America and in Joe Biden’s judgment is at a low ebb, and it is difficult to understand how the president developed a reputation for competence. On July 8, he said that “The mission was accomplished in that we … got Osama bin Laden, and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world.” This elides the fact that it was Biden who dissented in planning the operation that would kill bin Laden.
While Biden was not right about bin Laden, bin Laden might have been correct about Biden. When deciding not to target Biden when he was vice president, bin Laden described him as “totally unprepared for that post [of president], which will lead the US into a crisis.” Contrary to the president’s belief, it also seems that terrorism may soon be “emanating from that part of the world” again.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of blame to go around. A commander in the Afghan army, General Sami Sadat, has kind words for neither Biden nor Trump, nor did former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster pull any punches when he said in mid-August that “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”
Indeed, President Trump’s former defense secretary, Mark Esper, called the Doha agreement with the Taliban “conditions-based” and said Trump “undermined” his own plan when the drawdown continued despite a lack of progress by the Taliban on the agreement’s provisions. The Biden administration would have been well within its right to renegotiate the drawdown in light of the Taliban’s unwillingness to honor its end of the bargain.
What Biden had hoped would be an orderly, triumphant return of the US military — a hope still maintained by the Department of Defense as late as July 6 — turned into the posturing fecklessness of a nakedly political stunt.
Biden has repeatedly telegraphed his punch with, however awkwardly denied, artificial deadlines that were tethered to very little outside of political opportunism. This was never more obvious than when September 11 was set as the withdrawal deadline. In choosing that date, his hand was tipped, and a plan to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan was revealed as a political stunt, an unnecessary capitulation masquerading as destiny, vainglory turned tragedy.
An Ignominious Retreat
The Economist writes of the US withdrawal: “If the propagandists of the Taliban had scripted the collapse of America’s 20-year mission to reshape Afghanistan, they could not have come up with more harrowing images” — a withdrawal where “Mr. Biden failed to show even a modicum of care for the welfare of ordinary Afghans.” In the wake of this irresponsible and costly withdrawal, there is a now burning conviction by America’s enemies that if God wills it, their adversaries will be vanquished.
That is a devastatingly effective emotional tool and recruiting argument that all but assures we will see this enemy again in closer quarters. When President Biden paid his respects on September 11, it was against a backdrop of triumphant marches elsewhere for the jihadist cause.
While some may sigh with resignation at the “inevitable” calamity unfolding, they ignore a great number of facts and forget the indiscriminate brutality the US attempted to excise when it entered Afghanistan. They shrug at the lost lives of brave US and Afghan soldiers (2,500 and 66,000 respectively) who fought for that cause. To claim all of this was preordained is to foreclose a possible, if uneasy, calm and greet with resignation — a decidedly un-American trait — the reversion to greater violence and the tribalism that all but precluded loyalty to a central government in Kabul.
To declare the withdrawal just with rhetorical genuflections toward those who died is to forget the sacrifices of the dead, which in many cases were made for causes beyond themselves or even their country. It invites feuding terrorist groups to reconstitute and gain strength.
Accusing the Afghan government of not defending the gains of the past 20 years is at once to blame the victim and to banish the memory of what was there before the US entered and what will surely reappear in its absence. It is to debase women’s lives by accepting as banal the butchery Bibi Aisha survived, whose June 2010 Time magazine cover shocked the world and hung above my desk for years as a reminder of the inhumanity we were fighting.
It is to indict exiled President Ashraf Ghani in the face of impossible odds for remembering history and the fate of another ousted president, Mohammad Najibullah — the last Afghan leader to see the Taliban roll into Kabul in 1996. Najibullah was captured by the Taliban, castrated and, according to Robert Parry, had his severed genitals stuffed in his mouth before being strung up from a lamppost.
Although it may be said by the current administration that withdrawal was necessary and an earlier, better coordinated drawdown would have destabilized the Afghan government and the country, we have to ask what is more destabilizing: rolling up the carpet or yanking the rug from underneath a mission that brought stability so costly in blood and treasure?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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