By Yaakov Kornreich And Avi Yishai
The total collapse of the US and NATO-trained and armed security forces in Afghanistan and the government they supported over the weekend marked the predictable end of the doomed 20-year-long US effort to turn the primitive, tribal, and strongly Islamic Afghan culture and society into a modern, Westernized democracy.
US military leaders realized a decade ago that the corrupt Afghan government and military establishment would continue to need continued US military support and guidance to keep the much more highly motivated and locally popular Taliban fighters at bay. But the catastrophic implosion of the Afghan government could have been easily avoided had President Joe Biden listened to his veteran military advisers and agreed to keep the existing minimal force of US personnel in place in Afghanistan which would have been able to maintain the rough military equilibrium between the Taliban and the Afghan army indefinitely.
But President Biden had long been determined to remove the last US troops from Afghanistan. His announcement of the withdrawal undermined the confidence of the Afghan security forces and left the way open for Taliban fighters to sweep the country in just a few weeks, without encountering serious opposition.
As Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials fled the country Sunday, Taliban forces surrounded and entered the capital city of Kabul through its four main gates. Kabul was the last point of resistance to be overcome as the Taliban completed their stunning return to power 20 years after a US-led coalition of Afghan militias, in response to the 9/11 attack on the US homeland, ousted the Taliban from power and sent its leaders into exile in Pakistan.
The sudden collapse of the Afghan government and takeover by the Taliban, leaving thousands of Americans and their Afghan allies stranded and exposed to Taliban retribution, became the first major foreign policy crisis of Joe Biden’s presidency. It was a huge humiliation for the American superpower.
Heart wrenching pictures were seen around the world of desperate Afghan civilians crowding the Kabul airport, with some clinging to aircraft taking off from the last area of the country under U.S. control, ignited a firestorm of criticism of Biden’s competency even among Democrats and the usually supportive mainstream media.
The outcry prompted Biden advisors to fly him from his vacation at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland to the White House Monday afternoon to read a speech during which he defended his decision to withdraw the final American troops from Afghanistan and place the blame for the unfolding catastrophe on others. Following the speech, he left back to Camp David without answering any questions.
BIDEN STILL STANDS BEHIND HIS WITHDRAWAL DECISION
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said during his address in the White House East Room. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
Blaming Afghan political and military leaders for the greatest failure of American foreign policy since the end of the war in Vietnam, the president conceded that the Taliban takeover “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened?” He answered simplicity that “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”
Biden reiterated his previous statement, that he was determined not to turn the mess he inherited in Afghanistan over to his successor in the White House, who would become the fifth U.S. president to have to deal with the situation. That was why, he said, he rejected the pleas of his senior military advisors to keep a small number of American troops in the country to continue propping up an Afghan military which was unable to fight on its own but did a fine job of keeping the Taliban at bay as long as they benefitted from American army intelligence, guidance and air power.
THE FALL OF KABUL
The fall of Kabul was set up the previous day with the negotiated surrender to the Taliban of the major city of Jalalabad in the east, and the Taliban’s seizure of Mazar-e Sharif, long a center of tribal resistance to Taliban rule, in the north of the country.
While the Biden administration refused to say where the Afghan president had fled to, local media reported that he and his aides were bound for neighboring Tajikistan. A few hours later, armed Taliban fighters celebrated their victory by occupying Ghani’s presidential palace in Kabul without a fight.
The handover of the presidential palace by three lower level Afghan government officials was broadcast live to the rest of the world by Qatar’s Al Jazeera news network. One Taliban official claimed there were similar “peaceful handovers of government facilities ongoing across the country.” Another Taliban fighter boasted on Al Jazeera that he had formerly been imprisoned as a terrorist in the detention facility at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The most senior Afghan government official left behind to deal with the situation was acting Defense Minister General Bimillah Mohmmadi. He complained bitterly in a tweet Sunday, calling President Ghani and his fleeing associates, “the rich man and his gang. . . [who had] tied our hands behind our backs and sold out the homeland.”
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Al-Jazeera’s English-language channel that the insurgents are “awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul.” But when pressed on what kind of agreement the Taliban wanted, he made it clear that they were demanding an unconditional surrender by the Afghan government, which now seemed inevitable.
The Taliban also tried to calm residents of Kabul, claiming that their fighters wouldn’t enter people’s homes or interfere with businesses, and that they’d offer an “amnesty” to all those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces. “No one’s life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk,” said the Taliban statement. But that statement’s credibility was undermined by reports from other cities and towns of revenge killings and other brutal tactics for which the Taliban had become notorious when they ruled the country before the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago.
BIDEN’S OVERCONFIDENT PREDICTION
In a period of just two weeks, the Taliban seized every major city in Afghanistan, and the sudden military collapse of the Afghan government defied the confident public assessment by President Biden just six weeks earlier. Biden predicted that after the US troop withdrawal was complete, the Afghan defense forces would easily be capable of keeping the Taliban at bay, giving the Afghan government enough time to complete the stalled negotiations in Qatar for a power-sharing peace settlement with the Taliban.
Biden told reporters at the time, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” But that prediction has proven to be completely and tragically wrong.
NEW YORK TIMES FAULTS BIDEN FOR LACK OF FORETHOUGHT
As a New York Times editorial sadly concluded on Monday, “The Biden administration was right to bring the war to a close. Yet there was no need for it to end in such chaos, with so little forethought for all those who sacrificed so much in the hopes of a better Afghanistan. . . Yet after [countless] billions and at least 2,448 American service members’ lives lost in Afghanistan [over the past 20 years], it is difficult to see what lasting significance has been achieved. . .
“While the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government was shocking, the result should not have come as a surprise. . . The Afghanistan papers published in the Washington Post [in 2019], including a confidential [section] on “Lessons Learned” [originating from] the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an agency created by Congress, painted a devastating picture of corruption, incompetence, lack of motivation and other flaws among the Afghan forces [that] the United States and its allies were trying to mold into a serious military. . .
“The war in Afghanistan began in response by the United States and its NATO allies to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as an operation to deny al Qaeda sanctuary in a country run by the Taliban. How it evolved into a two-decade nation-building project in which as many as 140,000 troops under American command were deployed at one time is a story of mission creep and hubris. . .
“The war needed to end. But the Biden administration could and should have taken more care to protect those who risked everything in pursuit of a different future, however illusory those dreams proved to be.”
BIDEN REMAINS ENTRENCHED IN HIS MISTAKE
With both the House and Senate out of town on their August recess, the collapse of the Afghan government took place while Biden was vacationing at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. He was kept apprised of the deteriorating situation and the difficulties in evacuating American civilians still in the country during video conferences with his White House national security team.
In a statement released from Camp David on Shabbos, Biden continued to insist that “One more year, or five more years, of US military presence in the country would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.” He recalled that the US had spent nearly $1 trillion in Afghanistan to train the Afghan security forces and provide them with military equipment over the past 20 years, and that an “endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict is not acceptable to me.”
But by that point, social media around the world was being flooded with heartrending images of desperate Afghans trying to board flights out of the Kabul airport. At the same time, Al Jazeera was broadcasting live footage of jubilant Taliban officials accepting the handover of the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, amid reports of 5,000 al Qaeda and other terrorists being released by the Taliban from the former US prison at the Bagram Air Base.
It was clear that the US-supported Afghan government had collapsed and that the hideously expensive and ill-advised effort to turn Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy had become a lost cause for America and its allies. Even though by early Sunday, Taliban troops had completely surrounded Kabul, cutting off any hope of escape, they initially chose not to penetrate beyond the outskirts of the city. Nevertheless, it was clear that the remaining foreigners in Kabul, as well as any Afghans who had been associated with the US and NATO occupiers over the previous 20 years, were in imminent danger, and should flee for their lives if they didn’t want to face the merciless revenge of the conquering Taliban.
Many Afghans, especially young women, who had bought into the US effort to modernize Afghan culture and society, felt abandoned and bitter. One Afghan university student described feeling betrayed as she watched the evacuation of the US Embassy.
“You failed the younger generation of Afghanistan,” said Aisha Khurram, 22, who is now unsure whether she’ll be able to graduate in two months’ time. “A generation … raised in the modern Afghanistan were hoping to build the country with their own hands. They put blood, efforts, and sweat into whatever we had right now.”
RELIVING THE NIGHTMARE OF SAIGON 1975
At the heavily fortified US Embassy compound in Kabul, American helicopters buzzed overhead early Sunday to evacuate the remaining personnel, recalling that vivid 1975 photograph from Saigon in Vietnam. Smoke rose near the US compound as staff tried to destroy any remaining sensitive documents before their departure.
Families which had been living throughout the country who had previously fled to Kabul in an attempt to escape the Taliban offensive were selling their possessions in an attempt to raise money, amid reports Sunday that the ATMs in the capital city had stopped dispensing cash.
When the last remaining Afghan border crossing Pakistan at the town of Torkham fell under Taliban control Sunday, and Afghan defense forces surrendered the Bagram Air Base to the Taliban, evacuation flights from Kabul’s international airport became the last remaining safe exit route from the county.
PANIC AT THE KABUL AIRPORT
Beginning early Sunday morning, military helicopters carrying American diplomats began shuttling between the embassy compound and the Kabul airport, where they awaited transport by an emergency US airlift out of the country. The final step after the evacuation of the last US personnel from the embassy was completed Sunday afternoon with the lowering of the US flag one last time.
President Biden authorized the Pentagon to send another 1,000 US troops to provide security at the airport, which has been designated as a secure staging point for the remaining members of embassy staff and other foreign civilians desperate to get out of the country. The additional troops came from a group of 3,000 paratroopers belonging to the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division that had previously been sent as a reserve force to a US base in Kuwait.
Upon their arrival, they brought the total number of US soldiers providing cover for the evacuation from the Kabul airport up to 6,000. President Biden’s original withdrawal plan had envisioned no more than 650 troops left in Afghanistan, practically all of whom were to be assigned to provide security for the now-abandoned US Embassy compound in Kabul and at the airport.
Pentagon officials refused to classify the presence of 6,000 troops at the Kabul airport as a combat mission, but they did say that the troops were under orders to use lethal force if necessary to enable the evacuation to proceed. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also said that the troops had been deployed armed with machine guns, mortars, and other heavy weapons with authorization to use them to defend themselves if attacked.
President Biden has also issued a public warning that any moves by the Taliban to threaten American personnel or interests in Afghanistan while the evacuation proceeds would face a “swift and strong” response by the US military.
By Sunday afternoon, US time, administration officials said that about 500 members of the staff from the embassy in Kabul, including American citizens and Afghans, had been airlifted out of the country, out of a total of 4,000, not including the family members of the Afghan embassy employees.
On Sunday, FlyDubai and Emirates airlines canceled all scheduled passenger flights to Kabul airport for the foreseeable future. One Emirates jetliner bound for Kabul actually turned around in mid-flight.
At the Kabul airport, people who had provided help to Western governments were seen on television news footage swarming visa processing centers, seeking a way out of the country. “We served for the American forces …” one person at the airport told a reporter for ABC News. “They have to take care (of) us. It is our turn to be helped.”
On Monday, US embassy personnel instructed all American citizens in Afghanistan who had not already arrived at the airport to stay put, wherever they were in the country. “The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly, including at the airport,” the US diplomats said in a security alert. “There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place.”
More than 1,000 American Embassy workers waiting to be evacuated were operating from a secure military encampment on the northern side of the Kabul airport that U.S. troops call “HKIA,” short for Hamid Karzai International Airport.
CHAOS ON THE RUNWAY
A US official reported Monday that at least two armed men had been shot and killed by US troops at the Kabul airport. US troops safeguarding the evacuation were also compelled to fire warning shots late Sunday after hundreds of desperate Afghan civilians breached the airport perimeter and rushed an already fully-loaded American C-17 transport on the runway, whose doors were closed with engines running, waiting for clearance to take off.
Other Afghan civilians took up spots around parked planes and at boarding ramps in an effort to position themselves for a last minute rush to board the planes just before takeoff. There were also reports from passengers on the planes which did take off of wholesale looting by Afghan civilians of the shops in the Kabul airport terminal, adding to the general sense of panic.
The US military responded by launching two helicopters to fly low over the runway, using smoke grenades and gunshots into the air in an effort to disperse the civilians who were interfering with airport operations.
Later Monday, hundreds of Afghan civilians ran alongside the wheels of a US military aircraft as it attempted to take off from the tarmac. Others climbed up the sides of the plane as it rolled forward, engines roaring.
In a widely distributed video, a huge Air Force C-17 transport gathered speed as Afghans ran alongside the plane and its jet engines. Some people climbed on and clung to the plane even after it left the ground, with people falling back to the ground. A local Afghan news agency showed images of at least one body having landed on a rooftop in Kabul, and the Associated Press reported that at least seven people at the airport had been confirmed dead.
A second viral video appeared to show two people falling to their deaths from an airborne plane. It is believed that they were Afghans who climbed aboard the landing gear and attempted to stow away as the plane took off. Reportedly the pilots flying the plane declared an emergency when they could not raise their landing gear after takeoff. The flight was diverted and landed in a nearby third country, where human remains were reportedly found upon inspection of the landing gear’s wheel well.
An Air Force C-17 involved in the evacuation landed in Qatar Sunday carrying 640 passengers, some of whom boarded the plane by jumping into the half-open ramp in its tail. A photo of the passengers aboard the flight showed them squashed in, sitting expressionless, numb and fatigued.
TALIBAN TAKES CONTROL
After initially holding back, Taliban fighters moved quickly to take control of Kabul and the other major cities across the country that they seized over the past two weeks.
Just a short distance from the airport, Taliban commanders were sending armed insurgents to direct traffic, prevent looting, encourage fearful Afghans to go back to work and monitor a 9 p.m. curfew, in an apparent effort to demonstrate their governing capabilities and avoid an international backlash, at least until the remaining foreigners depart.
When the Taliban arrived in Kabul on Sunday, with armed fighters suddenly appearing in the streets, some residents panicked, rushing to banks to withdraw their money, shuttering their shops and gathering their families. Others crowded around the insurgents, denouncing the government of Ashraf Ghani and taking selfies.
In provincial towns and cities, there were reports of a return to the brutal ideology of the Taliban of the 1990s, including harsh dictates, shuttered schools, orders to women and girls to stay at home, and worse.
But in much of downtown Kabul, Monday was mostly peaceful, a stark contrast to the chaos at the airport. Stores were largely closed and few people went about their business.
Taliban fighters made their way through the capital in pickup trucks bearing the group’s white flag. Some set up checkpoints, while others posed for pictures at well-known landmarks.
BIDEN ON THE DEFENSIVE IN WASHINGTON
Back in Washington, DC, senior diplomatic and military officials of the Biden administration faced harsh criticism and questions Sunday from alarmed members of both the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike, over whether the sudden collapse of the Afghan government would turn that country once again into a breeding ground for international terrorists threatening US national security.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin argued that the Taliban would have launched attacks on US troops if they had stayed much longer in the country, requiring an even more substantial increase in American forces sent into the country than we are seeing now. But he also admitted during the nearly one hour-long briefing on Afghanistan to members of Congress that the security situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated much more quickly than the administration had anticipated, because Taliban fighters faced very little resistance from the American-trained Afghan defense forces. Austin’s bitter summary remark, which angered some Republicans who were on the conference call, was that all the US money spent on Afghanistan, “can’t buy will and can’t purchase leadership.”
BIDEN’S MISPLACED CONFIDENCE IN A PAPER AFGHAN ARMY
Even as resistance to the Taliban onslaught by Afghan government forces rapidly crumbled, Biden and his administration expressed no regrets about his decision on April 6 to pull the remaining US troops out of the country, regardless of the consequences. Biden stuck with the message that he delivered to the American people about his intentions in Afghanistan on July 8, shortly after the US military withdrew without warning from its main strongpoint, the Bagram Air Base 40 miles north of Kabul. Biden said confidently at that time that the Afghan National Security Forces and federal police were fully capable of maintaining control over the country, despite his admission that the Taliban was “at its strongest militarily” since 2001.
“We have trained and equipped nearly 300,000 current serving members” of the Afghan military…” the president said. “[The United States has] provided our Afghan partners with all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military, [including] advanced weaponry. I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, [which] is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war [than] something like 75,000 Taliban.”
Biden insisted in July that a swift takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban was not inevitable. But he was wrong. While the Afghan government security forces seemed to be far superior to those of the Taliban on paper, without their American military advisors present in the country to direct and support them, they quickly broke ranks and ran, marking the third time in less than 50 years that an US-armed and trained fighting force had collapsed in the face of local insurgents.
A REPLAY OF PREVIOUS US MILITARY FAILURES
In 2014, ISIS was able to easily conquer and establish a caliphate covering much of the territory of Syria and Iraq due to the power vacuum which was created by President Obama’s premature 2011 withdrawal of all US military forces from Iraq. Despite years of US training and billions of dollars-worth of US military equipment given to the Iraqi army, it broke and ran in face of an ISIS attack on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, creating a major threat to the stability of the region.
Similarly, on the evening of April 28, 1975, President Gerald Ford faced the same scenario which faced President Biden this past Sunday morning. Two years earlier, President Nixon had pulled the last American combat troops out of South Vietnam, but left a small force of US military trainers and advisors to help the South Vietnamese army defend themselves against the insurgent Viet Cong, reinforced by invading troops of the North Vietnamese army. But the US-backed South Vietnamese government, which was a remnant of the French colonial regime which had ruled Indochina, did not command the loyalty of its people, and its long-term survival in the face communist insurgence was always doubtful.
President Ford was told by his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, that Saigon was about to fall to the North Vietnamese army, and that it was time to evacuate the remaining Americans in the country, as well as the South Vietnamese people who had worked with them during the undeclared war for the past 15 years.
Ford ordered the US Air Force to fly them out from the Tan Son Nhut air base near Saigon, using C-130 transport aircraft, but it soon became apparent that the planes would not be able to land there safely. On one side of the airfield, two platoons of North Vietnamese troops were waiting to open fire on the arriving planes, while the main runway itself was clogged with abandoned South Vietnamese military equipment and thousands of desperate South Vietnamese civilians hoping to get a ride to America. Furthermore, the US ambassador to South Vietnam reported that the US Embassy in Saigon was completely surrounded by hostile troops, making it impossible for the Americans still in the compound to reach the air base.
THE FIRST EMERGENCY HELICOPTER AIRLIFT
In response to the situation, President Ford ordered the largest helicopter airlift in history. Over the next 19 hours, more than 80 US helicopters capable of carrying 50 people each ferried Americans and Vietnamese to safety aboard US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. At the rate of one every 10 minutes, helicopters landed in the parking lot of the US Embassy or at the Tan Son Nhut airport to pick up another load of American embassy workers or US-friendly South Vietnamese civilians.
There was even an emergency helicopter pickup from the small roof of an apartment building in Saigon in which a mix of US diplomatic and intelligence embassy employees along with their Vietnamese staff were trapped, A photo of that rescue mission, shot by a UPI photographer from a hotel half a mile away, became the iconic image representing the tragedy of the US involvement in South Vietnam and the inherent limitations on American nation-building far from US shores.
More than 7,000 people had been rescued — 5,500 Vietnamese civilians and about 1,500 Americans. The last helicopters left the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon by 7:53 a.m. on April 30, carrying the last 200 Marines and the ambassador himself. An estimated 450 more South Vietnamese refugees under US protection were left behind. Within hours, the South Vietnamese announced an unconditional surrender. The Vietnam War was over.
LONG TERM FOREIGN POLICY IMPACTS
But the deep sense of national shame left by the American defeat in South Vietnam and the sting imparted by the image of desperate Americans on foreign soil waiting for rescue by US helicopter lingers to this day.
The bitter lessons of the US defeat in South Vietnam had a powerful deterrent effect on American foreign policy for the next 25 years, during which both Republican and Democrat presidents studiously avoided any major open-ended foreign military ground commitments. There were brief, limited US military engagements against much weaker adversaries in Grenada, Panama, as well as the first Persian Gulf War, in which President George H.W. Bush and his European and Arab allies made the still controversial decision to stop short of an invasion of Iraq after crushing Saddam Hussein’s forces and ousting them from Kuwait.
It was only after the 9/11 attack on the US homeland that America’s leaders felt they had a voter mandate to defend this country against its potential enemies more aggressively. The national trauma caused by the 9/11 attack paved the way for the long-term US military involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq, which were supported, at least to some extent, by both Republican and Democrat presidents.
BIDEN ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS STILL IN DENIAL
Back in July of this year, when a reporter asked President Biden whether his order to evacuate US troops from Afghanistan, against the advice of his military advisors, would ultimately result in a repeat of the bitter US evacuation from Saigon in 1975, his answer was an angry denial.
“There’s going to be no circumstance for you to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” Biden declared. “It is not at all comparable.” The president also pledged to relocate thousands of Afghan interpreters and their families who had served alongside US troops for the past 20 years, but now the Pentagon admits that effort is still mired in bureaucratic red tape and far behind schedule, leaving the fate of those US friends still in Afghanistan very much in doubt after the Taliban takeover.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday morning, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also in denial, attempting to push back, as the US Embassy in Kabul was being evacuated, against any comparison between the Afghan withdrawal and the fiasco at the end of the Vietnam War. “This is not Saigon,” Blinken insisted.
He also denied that the Biden administration had been caught flat-footed by the rapid Taliban advances. “The president was prepared for every contingency as this moved forward,” Blinken said. “We had those forces on hand and they were able to deploy very quickly again to make sure that we could move out safely.”
However, Blinken did acknowledge the “hollowness” of the Afghan security forces and its devastating consequences. “The fact of the matter is we’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country, and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated,” Blinken admitted.
On a video conference call with members of the House of Representatives that same morning, Blinken said that the US is prioritizing evacuation of groups including US citizens, local staffers, and Afghan special-visa holders, while admitting that many others who have applied for such visas but not yet received them are now potential targets of Taliban retribution, especially including advocates for better education for Afghan women.
Yet the secretary of state still made the argument that it was time for the US to leave Afghanistan, no matter how painful. “From the perspective of our strategic competitors around the world, there’s nothing they would like more than see us in Afghanistan for another five, 10, 20 years,” Blinken said. “It’s simply not in the national interest. . .
“The fact of the matter is, had the president decided to keep [US] forces in Afghanistan. . . attacks would have resumed on our forces. The Taliban had not been attacking our forces or NATO during the period from which the agreement was reached [with the Trump administration last year,]” the secretary of state said. “The offensive you are seeing across the country now to take the provincial capitals would have commenced. We would have been back at war with the Taliban.”
RECENT AMERICAN HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF
Nevertheless, American history is repeating itself. US troops and diplomatic personnel are now fleeing from Kabul in exactly the same way they fled from Saigon, leaving a significant number of their local friends behind to face the wrath of their enemies.
Managing a safe and successful withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan was clearly President Biden’s first major foreign policy initiative since he took office in January. But the intelligence and planning behind the withdrawal were so obviously inadequate that even Biden’s supporters have been forced to agree that it was a fiasco, coming at considerable cost to Biden’s international prestige at an early stage of his presidency.
For example, Democrat Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a former Marine who served four tours of duty in Iraq, said in a statement Sunday, “The time to debate whether we stay in Afghanistan has passed, but there is still time to debate how we manage our retreat. For months, I have been calling on the administration to evacuate our allies immediately. The fact that, at this hour, we have not even secured the civilian half of the Kabul airport is testament to our moral and operational failure.”
Ever since Biden first announced his intentions in April to remove the last US military personnel from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, coming up next month, White House officials have emphasized that public opinion polls show that Americans had grown tired of the war there and wanted to bring the troops home. They also noted that last year, President Trump had negotiated an agreement with the Taliban to do just that, without the agreement of the Afghan government.
Trump pushed back at this criticism over the weekend, blasting Biden for not “following the plan” which he had left to his successor for executing a successful troop withdrawal. “He [Biden] ran out of Afghanistan instead of following the plan our Administration left for him,” Trump declared in a statement, “a plan that protected our people and our property, and ensured the Taliban would never dream of taking our Embassy or providing a base for new attacks against America. The withdrawal would be guided by facts on the ground.”
Trump then added: “After I took out ISIS, I established a credible deterrent. That deterrent is now gone. The Taliban no longer has fear or respect for America, or America’s power.”
In a separate fundraising letter to his political supporters, Trump wrote last week, “I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable. It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that better than anyone.”
Regardless of whether the decision to withdraw was justified from a national security perspective or not, the main political problem with it from the Biden administration’s point of view has been the careless haste with which it has been executed.
Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), who came to this country as an infant with her parents as refugees from South Vietnam, said that her heart breaks for the Afghan allies that the US is leaving behind and expressed her deep disapproval of the way in which the withdrawal took place. “I also worked at the Department of Defense, I know what a planned drawdown looks like. I know what an orderly departure looks like. I’m disappointed that this is the way in which we are withdrawing.”
With regard to Biden’s claim that President Trump, by drawing down US troop strength in Afghanistan by the time he left office, gave his successor no choice but to complete the withdrawal, Congresswoman Murphy said, “The question is, did the Biden administration execute in the best way possible, given the circumstances they were given? I think that question is for the history books.”
However, most observers agree that the current answer to Murphy’s question would have to be “no.”
As political analyst Brian Klaas, who teaches at the University College in London, told Politico, “The White House was clearly blindsided and unprepared for the speed of Afghanistan’s collapse. Even Biden allies will not try to claim this as a job well done or say this is what they had planned. After all, nobody would have planned for a last-minute evacuation that was just thrown together out of necessity. . . Whether the policy [of withdrawal] was right or wrong,” Klaas added, “the execution was clearly botched.”
Some fear that President Biden’s willingness to abandon the US-supported Afghan government will be read by hostile powers as an indication of a lack of will to defend other allies around the world. This could encourage the hostile leaders of Russia, China, and Iran to test Biden’s resolve to defend US allies currently under threat in Eastern Europe, along the Western Pacific rim, and in the Middle East. It also raises questions about the credibility of Biden’s claims during his recent visits to US allies in Europe that “America is back” as a reliable and responsible international alliance partner, in contrast to the previous four years of internationally unpopular US policies under President Donald Trump.
Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the Democrats’ favorite Republican since she publicly broke with former President Trump over the results of the November election, said that the withdrawal from Afghanistan amounts to an invitation for terrorists to attack the US homeland once again.
EVERYONE WAS WARNED THAT THIS WOULD HAPPEN
“It’s not just that people predicted that this would happen,” Cheney said Sunday in an ABC television interview. “Everyone was warned that this would happen. We’ve now created a situation whereas we get to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are surrendering Afghanistan to the terrorist organization that housed al Qaeda when they plotted and planned the attacks against us.”
Cheney insisted that both Biden and Trump bear responsibility for “the catastrophe” unfolding across Afghanistan. “President Biden bears responsibility for making this decision, but there is no question that President Trump, his administration, Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo, they also bear very significant responsibility for this. They walk down this path of legitimizing the Taliban, of perpetuating this fantasy, telling the American people that the Taliban were a partner for peace. .
“What we’re seeing now is actually the opposite of ending the war [in Afghanistan]. What we’re seeing now is a policy that will ensure that we will, in fact, have to have our children and grandchildren continuing to fight this war at a much higher cost,” Cheney added.
Other GOP members of Congress place much more of the blame on Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops without heeding the warnings from his military advisors that it would likely result in dramatic advances by the Taliban — but even those advisors had failed to foresee the rapidity with which the Afghan defense forces would crumble.
AN AVOIDABLE DISASTER
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday that the “botched exit from Afghanistan, including the frantic evacuation of Americans and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul, is a shameful failure of American leadership. Everyone saw this coming except the president, who publicly and confidently dismissed these threats just a few weeks ago. . .
“This debacle was not only foreseeable, it was foreseen. The president and his team actively decided against a far more responsible approach to preserving our national security interests and protecting our Afghan partners. . . The United States had the capacity to avoid this disaster. We still have the capacity to dampen its effects, but without a presence on the ground or local partners, defending the homeland from a resurgent al Qaeda will be far more difficult.”
During a hastily arranged Sunday video briefing for members of Congress with senior Biden cabinet officials and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy blasted the administration for mishandling the Afghan exit strategy. He insisted that US planning for the troop drawdown was inadequate, that the tragic outcome was foreseeable, and that it has damaged America’s reputation overseas.
Florida Congresswoman Murphy, who also participated in that briefing with Blinken, Austin, and Milley, later said, “I think General Milley’s silence on the White House call when questioned about the ‘how’ [the withdrawal was taking place] is a reflection of [the fact that] he gave his best military advice and it wasn’t heeded by the politicians.”
EMBOLDENING AMERICA’S ENEMIES
Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking GOP member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, predicted on CNN that America’s foreign adversaries will be emboldened by the withdrawal. “This is going to be a stain on this president and his presidency. And I think he’s gonna have blood on his hands from what they did. They totally blew this one. They completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban. . . It’s going to be worse than Saigon [in 1975]. When they raise the black flag of the Taliban over the United States embassy, think of that visual.”
Rejecting Biden’s prior claim that his hands were tied by a peace agreement calling for an American withdrawal that then-President Trump negotiated with the Taliban last year, McCaul insisted, ““[Biden] owns this. Absolutely, 100 percent, he owns it. He made the decision, and what’s worse, is. . . once he made the decision, he could have done certain things. He could have planned for it. He could have had a strategy for this — but instead, they had no strategy.”
For example, McCaul said, Biden could have done the same thing in Afghanistan that President Trump did in Syria, by keeping a small residual military in the country, with “a very light footprint,” to serve as an “insurance policy for stability in the region.”
McCaul also blasted Secretary of State Blinken, saying, “I think the secretary has been devoid of reality this whole time since the decision was made in May. I think it’s an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions.”
The Texas Republican also said that, “The consequences from a national security standpoint are severe because now they [the Taliban] can say they defeated the United States . . . the infidel, just like they defeated the Soviet Union. This will have long-term ramifications.”
Chris Murphy, the Democrat senator from Connecticut, reportedly described the Taliban’s takeover as heartbreaking and privately called to ask administration officials what it would have taken for US forces to have remained in Afghanistan.
One of the few Democrats defending Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan was Maryland Senator Ben Cardin.
“President Joe Biden is cleaning up a mess left by three presidents before him,” Cardin said in a statement. “George W. Bush failed to complete the mission in Afghanistan and diverted resources to a new mission in Iraq unrelated to 9/11. President Barack Obama wanted to pull troops out, but couldn’t find a way.”
“President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal, invited the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary and cut secret deals with them leading directly to what we are seeing in Afghanistan today,” Cardin added.
Meanwhile the magnitude of the waste in the trillion dollar U.S. investment in Afghanistan over the past 20 years was illustrated by the latest report, issued Tuesday, by a Congressional agency tasked to monitor the effort. Written by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or Sigar, before the Taliban takeover of the country, it depicts the chronic Afghan corruption, unsustainable projects and the American failure “to understand the Afghan context” after decades of war.
“If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak,” Sopko wrote.
Part of the problem, the report concluded, was that “by spending money “faster than it could be accounted for, the U.S. government ultimately achieved the opposite of what it intended: it fueled corruption, delegitimized the Afghan government, and increased insecurity. Perversely, because it was the easiest thing to monitor, the amount of money spent by a program often became the most important measure of success.”
US ALLIES QUIETLY FURIOUS WITH BIDEN
Several other Western diplomatic missions in Kabul also scrambled Sunday to pull their people out before the Taliban took over. Canada, France, and Denmark announced they were suspending embassy operations or moving them to the Kabul airport.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was no doubt speaking for other US allies who participated in the effort to pacify Afghanistan when he criticized the way in which the US carried out its troop withdrawal. Johnson told Sky News that it was “fair to say the US decision to pull out has accelerated things, but this has in many ways been a chronicle of an event foretold. . .
“I think it is very important that the West should work collectively to get over to that new government — be it by the Taliban or anybody else — that nobody wants Afghanistan once again to be a breeding ground for terror and we don’t think it is in the interests of the people of Afghanistan that it should lapse back into that pre-2001 status.”
Leaders of US allies complained that they were not fully consulted by the Biden White House on the US troop withdrawal decision that potentially put their own national security interests at risk. Others were quietly wondering whether they could continue to rely on the United States to fulfill its long-standing security commitments stretching from Europe to East Asia.
Other British leaders who have voiced some of the bluntest criticisms of Biden’s pullout, feel justified in speaking out, because Britain made the biggest contribution to the US-led war in Afghanistan and suffered the second highest number of casualties after the United States.
“Whatever happened to ‘America is back’?” said Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Defense Committee in the British Parliament, citing Biden’s promises to rebuild the international alliances and restore the US prestige “damaged” during the Trump administration.
“People are bewildered that after two decades of this big, high-tech power intervening, they are withdrawing and effectively handing the country back to the people we went in to defeat,” Ellwood said. “This is the irony. How can you say America is back when we’re being defeated by an insurgency armed with no more than RPGs, land mines and AK-47s?”
Former Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who is also a former British minister for international development, said that Biden’s Afghan withdrawal fiasco has put in jeopardy America’s decades-old role as the foremost defender of democracies and freedoms around the world. “The Western democracy that seemed to be the inspiration for the world, the beacon for the world, is turning its back,” Stewart said.
CAN US ALLIES TRUST BIDEN’S WORD?
Gideon Rachman, a columnist for Britain’s Financial Times, is unsparing in his criticism of Biden’s botched troop withdrawal. “The US failure makes it much harder for Biden to push his core message that ‘America is back.’” Rachman writes. “By contrast, it fits perfectly with two key messages pushed by the Chinese (and Russian) governments. First, that US power is in decline. Second, that American security guarantees cannot be relied upon.
“If the US will not commit to a fight against the Taliban, there will be a question mark over whether America would really be willing to go to war with China or Russia. Yet America’s global network of alliances is based on the idea that, in the last resort, US troops would indeed be deployed to defend their allies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “We’ve been constantly monitoring the rapidly evolving situation. We are heartbroken at the situation the Afghan people find themselves in today.” Trudeau said that the “security and safety” of Canadian citizens still in Afghanistan was his top priority, as Canada suspended diplomatic operations in Afghanistan and shuttered its embassy in Kabul.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that his government would “redouble” its efforts to evacuate people in Afghanistan that have aided the Australian effort in the country. “Our focus now is to ensure that we continue to support those who have aided us and ensuring that 400 people have already been brought to Australia as we have been working on this quite rapidly in recent months as the situation continues to deteriorate.”
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the unfolding drama at the Kabul airport, “ an extremely bitter development. Bitter, dramatic and terrifying.” Her party’s leader, Armin Laschet, said the withdrawal was “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding.”
Danish, Norwegian, and Iranian officials also announced that they were suspending operations at their embassies in Kabul and evacuating their diplomatic personnel from the country.
According to Cathryn Clüver-Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, officials of the German government — which withdrew its last troops from the NATO presence in Afghanistan in June — have refrained from publicly criticizing the US withdrawal, but are privately furious with Biden for failing to consult in advance with his NATO coalition partners over the decision.
German leaders are particularly concerned about the potential for a new wave of Afghan refugees seeking entry into Germany, following the precedent set in 2015 when more than one million migrants, spurred by the civil war in Syria, surged into Europe, with most intending to seek asylum and resettlement in Germany.
BIDEN’S BROKEN PROMISES
“The Biden administration came to office promising an open exchange, a transparent exchange with its allies. They said the transatlantic relationship would be pivotal,” Cluver-Ashbrook said. “As it is, they’re playing lip service to the transatlantic relationship and still believe European allies should fall into line with US priorities.”
“We’re back to the transatlantic relationship of old, where the Americans dictate everything. … ‘Yes we want to partner with you,’ [the Americans say,] ‘but in reality, we want to be able to tell you what to do and when,’” the German foreign policy analyst added. She also said that the absence of a significant American military presence in Central Asia following the withdrawal from Afghanistan also raises doubts about the US ability to counter the growing influence of China and Russia over that part of the world.
China and Russia have also lost no time in making overtures to the Taliban in hopes of being able to move into the power vacuum that Biden’s withdrawal has now created.
An editorial in the Chinese government newspaper Global Time suggested that the US abandonment of its longtime allies in Afghanistan should serve as a warning to Taiwan and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to take American promises to “stand by” them with a grain of salt.
Similarly, Fyodor Lukyanov, the chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and editor-in-chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, suggests that the current American debacle in Afghanistan, ending 20 years of futile nation building, dwarfs even the disastrous decade-long Soviet military occupation of that country which ended in 1989.
America’s Arab allies in the Middle East, who have long counted on the US military to come to their aid in the event of an attack by Iran, are also concerned about the diplomatic message that the Biden administration has just sent.
“What’s happening in Afghanistan is raising alarm bells everywhere,” said Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Inegma security consultancy in the United Arab Emirates, which hosts America’s single largest military contingent in the Middle East. “The US’s credibility as an ally has been in question for a while. We see Russia fighting all the way to protect the Assad regime [in Syria], and now the Americans are pulling out and leaving a big chaos in Afghanistan.”
QUESTIONING BIDEN’S COMPETENCE TO GOVERN
Washington Post commentator Daniel Drezner writes that the biggest problem with US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was that it raises fundamental questions about the basic foreign policy and security competence of the Biden administration.
Drezner predicts that our “long-standing allies are not going to fret about US resolve in the face of Afghanistan. They are going to worry about whether the Biden administration will mess up other policy initiatives as badly as it messed up in Kabul.”
The conventional explanation of the dismal failure of Biden’s withdrawal plan from Afghanistan is based on the assumption that White House policy makers failed to account for how the impact of the sudden US departure would create a crisis of confidence in Afghan leaders and security forces, paralyzing their ability to respond to the Taliban blitz. It is also blamed on two decades of over-optimistic US military assumptions about its ability to transform the notoriously corrupt Afghan army into an efficient fighting machine against a much more highly motivated Taliban force.
But Laurel Miller, who served as a US official for Afghanistan during the Obama and Trump administrations, said a swift Taliban takeover was among the scenarios that analysts in and outside of government had warned from the beginning could occur after a US withdrawal, even though few expected it to happen so fast.
“My takeaway is that they priced this [possibility] into the [withdrawal] decision,” Miller said of the Biden administration. “It’s regrettable, but it was priced in as a tolerable outcome.”
HOW BIDEN FINALLY GOT HIS WAY
It is also clear that ever since he began serving as Barack Obama’s vice president in 2009, Biden has been eager to remove the US military entirely from Afghanistan, regardless of the short-term costs.
At that time, Biden argued against requests by Pentagon leaders for major troop increases in Afghanistan and recommended that the US military pursue a much smaller counterterrorism mission in that country instead. But President Obama rejected Biden’s advice and ordered the Pentagon to mount a surge in the US troop level to conduct a short-lived and ultimately failed attempt to crush the Taliban insurgency.
As a presidential candidate in early 2020, Biden was still strongly opposed to the continued presence of US troops in Afghanistan. When asked whether he thought the United States had a responsibility to protect the advances in women’s rights made over the past 20 years, he responded, “No, I don’t! Do I bear responsibility? Zero responsibility.”
He explained, “The idea of us being able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists in the world is just not within our capacity. The question is, is America’s vital self-interest at stake or the self-interest of one of our allies at stake?”
Once he became president, Biden was free to turn his doubts about a continued military presence in Afghanistan into US policy. Upon first entering the White House, Biden ordered a brief pause to consult with his Pentagon military advisers, but he had already made up his mind to reject any reasons they would give him to extend the US military presence in Afghanistan any further.
General Austin “Scott” Miller, then the top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both privately warned Biden against the dangers of a full withdrawal. But according to one unnamed Biden White House official quoted by the Washington Post, “It came down to where the assessment they were receiving from the military in Afghanistan did not support the preferred policy decision that the administration and certainly the State Department wished to pursue. The bottom line was that [the Department of Defense] was not the loudest voice in the room when it came to stating their candid assessment of likely outcomes.”
Biden had finally gotten his way. On April 6, he publicly announced his intention to pull out the last American troops from Afghanistan into a firm policy to be carried out, regardless of the consequences.
THE AFGHAN WAKE-UP CALL CAME TOO LATE
According to Laurel Miller, not only did Pentagon officials fail to foresee and warn Biden about the likelihood of a rapid collapse of resistance by the Afghan army, but once that collapse was already in progress, they were slow to realize what was happening.
The wake-up call for US military planners was the fall of the northern city of Kunduz in late July. The Pentagon then activated a contingency plan which it had prepared to reinforce Afghan army resistance — but by that point, it was already too late.
“What we were seeing was a tsunami of individual decisions to abandon the Afghan government, and all of those individual decisions have added up to a collapse,” Miller said.
Senior Biden administration officials began to reduce their estimates for the life expectancy of the Afghan government from six months to a year to just 90 days or less. Then they began to scramble in the face of the grim reality that they had much less time than they had ever imagined to get US troops and Afghan allies and their family members safely from the country before President Ghani’s regime collapsed completely. But Biden was still determined to go forward with the withdrawal. He still says that he does not regret the decision.
By last Friday, it became clear that time had run out, with thousands of Americans and their Afghan allies trapped in Kabul as the Taliban took over the city and the country.
LIBERAL MEDIA CONDEMNS BIDEN’S GREATEST BLUNDER
After more than two years of covering up for Biden’s incompetence in a coordinated effort to defeat Donald Trump’s bid for a second term, the national embarrassment from the Afghan withdrawal fiasco finally forced the mainstream liberal media to expose and condemn the president’s greatest policy blunder so far. New York Times writer David Sanger noted that Biden “came to office with more foreign policy experience than any president in recent memory,” but still managed to stain his legacy and America’s reputation with its allies.
“Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a long-brewing, humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan,” Sanger wrote. “Even many of Mr. Biden’s allies who believe he made the right decision to finally exit a war that the United States could not win and that was no longer in its national interest concede he made a series of major mistakes in executing the withdrawal.”
CNN reporter Jake Tapper opened this week’s edition of his Sunday news show by calling the collapse of the Afghan government a “tragic foreign policy disaster” that caught the White House “flat-footed.” He concluded that, “Now, as American diplomats rush to shred embassy documents and escape, it seems shocking that President Biden could have been so wrong.”
CNN presidential historian Tim Naftali called the fall of Kabul “the Saigon moment for President Biden,” while the Atlantic published a story headlined, “Biden’s Betrayal of Afghans Will Live in Infamy.”
BIDEN’S UNBROKEN RECORD OF FOREIGN POLICY MISTAKES
Washington Post commentator Max Boot recalled a comment about Biden by Obama-era Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had previously been director of the CIA for President George H.W. Bush. Gates said that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” and according to Boot, that record of mistaken policy positions remains unbroken by Biden’s Afghan withdrawal decision.
Biden blames what happens on former president Trump, saying that he was faced with a choice of either “follow through on the deal” that Trump made with the Taliban last year to remove the last of the US troops, or send “more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict.”
In fact, Biden was not obligated to keep the withdrawal commitment that Trump negotiated last year, because the Taliban had already broken their promise — as part of that same agreement — to cut their ties with al Qaeda. Trump’s deal has definite markers and he had warned repeatedly that if things were going according to plan or if the Taliban would not hold up their end of the bargain, he would not pullout the remaining troops.
Furthermore, Biden has prided himself on breaking every promise that Trump ever made, from securing the southern border with Mexico to keeping up the US sanctions pressure on Iran. Now that his decision led to a disaster, Biden proclaims to be concerned about the promise that Trump made in the broken deal with the Taliban. Biden didn’t care about the Trump promise to the Taliban either. He is now trying to hide behind it only to evade the political responsibility for the biggest foreign policy blunder he has made so far in his presidency.
Biden said on July 8 that, “The Taliban is not the … North Vietnamese army. 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 (an) embassy … from Afghanistan.”
Just 38 days later, Biden was forced to order a fleet of giant US helicopters to evacuate the US Embassy in Kabul, in an easily avoidable fiasco whose likely impact on US foreign policy during the remainder of Biden’s presidency is now of deep concern to US friends and allies around the world.
A BLUNDER OF HISTORIC PROPORTIONS
Perhaps the most telling criticism of Biden’s decision making process is Ryan Crocker, a long time former US ambassador to Afghanistan as well as to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon for a succession of Republican and Democrat US presidents — going all the way back to George H.W. Bush.
“Of course, the Republicans will have a field day with [the Afghan withdrawal],” Crocker said. “But for a whole lot of other Americans, you have to look at what’s happening and think, ‘This is the commander-in-chief; this is the guy who’s responsible for the security of the nation, and what an incredible mess he’s made of it in his first time out of the blocks.’”
Crocker also predicts that the massive political and diplomatic fallout from Biden’s foreign policy blunder in Afghanistan is only beginning. “This may make [the 1975 US withdrawal from] Saigon look good,” the veteran diplomat warned.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.