WASHINGTON — Having underpromised and overdelivered his way to a solid start to his presidency, President Joe Biden inexplicably flipped the script on his Afghanistan withdrawal — to disastrous effect.
The departure from Afghanistan would be done “deliberately,” he promised, not at all like the humiliating exit from Saigon a half-century earlier in Vietnam, and U.S. troops would stay until every American citizen who wanted out had been flown to safety.
In the end, none of those assurances was fulfilled. Even worse, the chaotic exit left 13 American service members and some 200 Afghans dead from a terrorist bombing — precisely the dire consequence Biden was determined to avoid by getting out of the country quickly.
“They raised expectations and then didn’t do the nuts-and-bolts planning. They were hoping for the best and didn’t prepare for these worst-case scenarios,” said Brian Katulis, an alumnus of former President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and now a fellow at the Center for American Progress. “And they ended up with the worst case.”
From his COVID-19 vaccine drive to his stimulus plan to bipartisan progress on his infrastructure proposal, Biden had set modest goals and earned both strong job approval ratings and the air of competence. Much of that success has been undone, new polling shows, as Americans, while still supporting his objective of leaving Afghanistan, are unhappy with how he managed it.
And advocates for the tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the United States’ efforts there over the past two decades are beside themselves with anger and frustration. The majority of those Afghan allies and their families — a pool of some 88,000 earlier this year — remain in Afghanistan, with the new Taliban rulers searching them out and killing them.
“This is chaos of their own creation,” said Matt Zeller, an Afghanistan veteran and co-founder of the group No One Left Behind that works to extract Afghan interpreters and others who helped the U.S. war effort.
They were hoping for the best and didn’t prepare for these worst-case scenarios. And they ended up with the worst case.
Brian Katulis, fellow, Center for American Progress
Exactly why Biden chose the Afghanistan withdrawal — a task over which outside actors like the former government of Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban and rival terror groups like ISIS-K had enormous influence — to make such sweeping promises is unclear. One major factor is that the administration truly believed it had considerably more time to stage an orderly exit than it did, based on what turned out to be a wildly optimistic assessment regarding the stability and strength of Ghani’s government.
Biden himself laid that out in his remarks on Tuesday when he explicitly blamed Ghani for much of the tumult. “The people of Afghanistan watched their own government collapse and the president flee amid the corruption and malfeasance, handing over the country to their enemy, the Taliban, and significantly increasing the risk to U.S. personnel and our allies,” he said.
To the Afghan advocates — most of whom generally support Biden, particularly compared to his predecessor Donald Trump and his anti-refugee policies — the idea that the U.S.-backed government could hang on after the U.S. departure when it had been steadily losing territory to the Taliban for years, and especially after Trump’s February 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, was magical thinking.
“They should have challenged that assumption. They should have been asking: ‘What if, in the end, it all goes to hell?’” said Mark Jacobson, an Afghanistan war veteran who runs Syracuse University’s Maxwell School programs in Washington. “I think the collapse was quite possibly inevitable as soon as Trump signed his surrender.”
Inheriting Trump’s Taliban Deal
Biden and his White House have been keenly aware of the criticism surrounding the U.S. departure, particularly after Kabul fell to the Taliban. The evacuation suddenly took on life-and-death urgency, and the United States was forced to work with Taliban leaders who, not too long ago, it had been trying to kill.
Biden has pointed out several times that he was not the one who negotiated the agreement that essentially gave the Taliban control of Afghanistan upon the United States’ departure. It was Trump who agreed to lift sanctions and effect the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters from prison, all without the involvement of the U.S.-allied Afghan government.
“This is not a preferred relationship or a situation that we would have designed if we had started from scratch,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Aug. 27.
One administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that, while not optimal, American diplomats and armed forces still got 120,000 at-risk people out of the country in a matter of a few weeks — an accomplishment that would not have been possible without the groundwork that began soon after Biden took office.
“The Trump administration had not made any plans to evacuate Afghans at all,” the official said. “Obviously, hindsight is 20/20. It is apparent now that Afghan morale was very shaky. But the operating assumption was that the government of Kabul was not going to fall as quickly as it did.”
Biden pushed that assumption hard, both in his April 14 speech laying out his goal to leave by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as well as his July 8 speech providing a more detailed timeline to leave by the end of August.
“Together, with our NATO allies and partners, we have trained and equipped over 300,000 current serving members of the military — of the Afghan National Security Force,” he said in the later speech.
Indeed, it was following that July speech that Biden complicated matters for himself by promising that the departure from Afghanistan would look nothing like the exit from Saigon 46 years earlier. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” he said.
And on Aug. 18, three days after the fall of Kabul, Biden promised in an ABC interview that, notwithstanding his Aug. 31 deadline, American troops would remain as long as there were American citizens who wanted to leave.
In the end, U.S. diplomats were evacuated from the embassy using helicopters after the Taliban seized Kabul, and as many as 200 American citizens were left behind when the last U.S. military flight left the city’s airport on Aug. 31.
Both were off-the-cuff comments by Biden personally, not part of workshopped remarks, and wound up creating problems for him and his staff.
One longtime former aide said such freelance excursions are simply one of Biden’s traits. “That is just the nature of working for Joe Biden,” he said on condition of anonymity.
He added, though, that Biden has opposed the Afghanistan War since 2009 when he was Barack Obama’s vice president, and even more so after the death of his son, Beau, following his diagnosis of brain cancer, which Biden believes was linked to the toxins he was exposed to during his deployment in Iraq.
More than anything else, Biden wanted to bring American troops back and never again have to comfort parents grieving the loss of a child there, the former aide said, which was apparent in the latter half of the speech Biden delivered on Tuesday.
“Which is clearly the speech he has wanted to give for a decade,” the former aide added.
Saving Too Few Afghans, Too Late
To supporters of the United States’ Afghan allies, the roots of today’s problems go back not just one decade, but two, from the moment the United States decided to remain in Afghanistan after removing the Taliban from power for providing a safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists to plan and train for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Staying and standing up a new government and security force meant enlisting the help of locals as interpreters, translators, logistical staff for the military occupation, clerical and custodial staff at the embassy, and countless others. That should have led, way back then, to planning for the day U.S. forces left, when some or all of those local allies would need evacuating to protect them from reprisals, advocates said.
No such planning, however, happened then. It wasn’t until 2009 that Congress passed a law providing for “special immigrant visas” for such Afghans, and it wasn’t until a tweaking of the language in Obama’s second term that the State Department implemented a system that began to work passably well.
All that ground to a halt during Trump’s administration, as his anti-immigrant, anti-refugee views set the tone throughout his executive branch, including the State Department. Trump and his top immigration policy adviser, Stephen Miller, had no interest in bringing Afghan allies into the United States at all — a sentiment they continue to express today — even after Trump announced publicly he was negotiating with the Taliban to withdraw all American forces.
“That marks another time that plans not just should have been drawn up, but taken off the shelves and operationalized,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director with the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Which meant that when Biden took office in January with a goal of leaving Afghanistan, he needed to have come up with a plan to immediately ramp up SIV processing, create a new visa for those ineligible for the SIV but whose lives would still be at risk, and start moving those people out as soon as possible, Varghese and other Afghan advocates said.
Biden administration officials point out that they did increase staffing in the Kabul embassy to process visas not long after taking office, and that flights out of the country for SIV-holders and their families began at the end of July, with more than 2,000 flown out of the country by the time Kabul fell to the Taliban two weeks later.
To advocates, though, those numbers are laughably inadequate when the total number of Afghans who needed evacuation was well over 100,000.
No One Left Behind’s Zeller said that his group and others began pushing the Biden administration in early February to start moving vulnerable Afghans out of the provinces that winter, while the mountain passes into the Taliban winter camps in Pakistan were still snowbound.
“This could have been done quietly. Methodically. When we still controlled all these air bases with 2,500 troops. When the Taliban couldn’t have fielded an army. In the middle of winter, they’re all sitting at home freezing their asses off,” he said. “No one was listening. I can’t begin to explain why.”
What’s more, a detailed plan for the evacuation should have been drawn up and implemented right then, not created at the last minute with the Taliban bearing down on Kabul.
“We should not be trying to build the aircraft while we’re flying it over the Pacific,” he said.
A Much More Difficult Mission
Biden and his team have publicly moved on from Afghanistan. He has not spoken of it since his speech marking the end of the war last week, and on Friday, he resumed the official and personal travel he had put on hold during the Kabul airlift, with a trip to see hurricane damage in New Orleans followed by a holiday weekend at home in Delaware.
For those pushing the case of America’s Afghan allies, though, the work is far from over.
At most risk are those who worked directly with the United States or NATO, those eligible for SIVs — the majority of whom could not make it safely to the airport after Kabul fell, Varghese said.
“It was complete confusion as to if you go to the airport, how do you get inside. As far as I can tell, there was no organized plan, at least for Afghans,” he said.
Now, those people will need diplomatic help to get them out of the country.
“People are in hiding. The Taliban are going door to door looking for collaborators. Women who are out are being told to stay home,” he said. “The United States was able to evacuate thousands of people, and we’re grateful for that. … As to the remaining people, I just have to trust that the administration has a plan.”
The Center for American Progress’ Katulis said he still cannot understand what happened and why. “We haven’t had a complete accounting of what went wrong here,” he said, adding that it seemed that the process was more reflective of a domestic policy debate than one centered around national security. “There didn’t seem to be an action plan there.”
Zeller said he will continue trying to get Afghan allies out, but understands full well that the United States is now limited to diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. “That will all have to be at the Taliban’s discretion,” he said. “They’re not a reformed group. They’re just as evil as they were in the ’90s. They’re just better armed this time.”
He said that he also doesn’t understand why the departure was not better-planned but assumes that coming congressional inquiries could help answer that question. “Congress is going to formally ask in a couple of weeks,” he said. “And I can’t wait to testify.”
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