US president Joe Biden's top advisers concede they were stunned by the rapid collapse of the Afghan army in the face of an aggressive, well-planned offensive by the Taliban that now threatens Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.
The past 20 years show they should not have been. If there is a consistent theme over two decades of war in Afghanistan, it is the overestimation of the results of the $83 billion the United States has spent since 2001 training and equipping the Afghan security forces and an underestimation of the brutal, wily strategy of the Taliban.
The Pentagon issued dire warnings to Biden even before he took office about the potential for the Taliban to overrun the Afghan army, but intelligence estimates, now shown to have badly missed the mark, assessed it might happen in 18 months, not weeks.
Commanders knew that the afflictions of the Afghan forces had never been cured: the deep corruption, the failure by the government to pay many Afghan soldiers and police officers for months, the defections, the soldiers sent to the front without adequate food and water, let alone arms.
In the past several days, the Afghan forces have steadily collapsed as they battled to defend ever-shrinking territory.
Biden’s aides say that the persistence of those problems reinforced his belief that the United States could not prop up the Afghan government and military in perpetuity. In Oval Office meetings this spring, he told aides that staying another year, or even five, would not make a substantial difference and was not worth the risks.
In the end, an Afghan force that did not believe in itself and a US effort that Biden, and most Americans, no longer believed would alter the course of events combined to bring an ignoble close to America’s longest war. The United States kept forces in Afghanistan far longer than the British did in the 19th century, and twice as long as the Soviets – with roughly the same results.
For Biden, the last of four US presidents to face painful choices in Afghanistan but the first to get out, the debate about a final withdrawal and the miscalculations over how to execute it began the moment he took office.
Under former president Donald Trump, "we were one tweet away from complete, precipitous withdrawal", said Douglas Lute, a retired general who directed Afghan strategy at the National Security Council for presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama.
“Under Biden, it was clear to everyone who knew him, who saw him pressing for a vastly reduced force more than a decade ago, that he was determined to end US military involvement,” he added, “but the Pentagon believed its own narrative that we would stay forever.”
“The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning: If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?”
A sceptical president
From the moment that news outlets called Pennsylvania for Biden on November 7th, making him the next commander in chief for 1.4 million active-duty troops, Pentagon officials knew they would face an uphill battle to stop a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
Defence department leaders had already been fending off Trump, who wanted a rapid drawdown. In a Twitter post last year, he declared all US troops would be out by that Christmas.
And while they had publicly voiced support for the agreement Trump reached with the Taliban in February 2020 for a complete withdrawal this May, Pentagon officials said they wanted to talk Biden out of it.
After Biden took office, top defence department officials began a lobbying campaign to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan for a few more years. They told the president that the Taliban had grown stronger under Trump than at any point in the past two decades and pointed to intelligence estimates predicting that in two or three years, al-Qaeda could find a new foothold in Afghanistan.
Shortly after Lloyd Austin was sworn in as defence secretary on January 22nd, he and General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, recommended to Biden that 3,000 to 4,500 troops stay in Afghanistan, nearly double the 2,500 troops there. On February 3rd, a congressionally appointed panel led by a retired four-star marine general, Joseph Dunford, publicly recommended that Biden abandon the exit deadline of May 1st and further reduce US forces only as security conditions improved.
A report by the panel assessed that withdrawing troops on a strict timeline rather than how well the Taliban adhered to the agreement heightened the risk of a potential civil war once international forces left.
But Biden, who had become deeply sceptical of American efforts to remake foreign countries in his years on the Senate foreign relations committee and as vice-president, asked what a few thousand US troops could do if Kabul was attacked.
Aides said he told them that the presence of the US troops would further the Afghan government’s reliance on the United States and delay the day it would take responsibility for its own defence.
The president told his national security team, including secretary of state Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan that he was convinced that no matter what the United States did, Afghanistan was almost certainly headed into another civil war – one Washington could not prevent, but also, in his view, one it could not be drawn into.
By March, Pentagon officials said they realised they were not getting anywhere with Biden. Although he listened to their arguments and asked extensive questions, they said they had a sense that his mind was made up.
In late March, Austin and Milley made a last-ditch effort with the president by forecasting dire outcomes in which the Afghan military folded in an aggressive advance by the Taliban. They drew comparisons to how the Iraqi military was overrun by Islamic State in 2014 after US combat troops left Iraq, prompting Obama to send US forces back.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Austin told Biden, according to officials with knowledge of the meetings.
But the president was unmoved. If the Afghan government could not hold off the Taliban now, aides said he asked, when would they be able to? None of the Pentagon officials could answer the question. On the morning of April 6th, Biden told Austin and Milley he wanted all US troops out by September 11th.
The intelligence assessments in Biden’s briefing books gave him some assurance that if a bloody debacle resulted in Afghanistan, it would at least be delayed. As recently as late June, the intelligence agencies estimated that even if the Taliban continued to gain power, it would be at least a year and a half before Kabul would be threatened; the Afghan forces had the advantages of greater numbers and air power, if they could keep their helicopters and planes flying.
Even so, the Pentagon moved swiftly to get its troops out, fearful of the risks of leaving a dwindling number of Americans in Afghanistan and of service members dying in a war the United States had given up for lost.
Before the July 4th weekend, the United States had handed over Bagram air base, the military hub of the war, to the Afghans, effectively ending all major US military operations in the country.
“Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves with the air force they have, which we’re helping them maintain,” Biden said at the time. A week later, he argued that the Afghans “have the capacity” to defend themselves. “The question is,” he said, “will they do it?”
The will is gone
To critics of the decision, the president underestimated the importance of even a modest presence, and the execution of the withdrawal made the problem far worse.
"We set them up for failure," said David Petraeus, a retired general who commanded the international forces in Afghanistan from 2010 until he was appointed CIA director the next year.
Biden’s team, he argued, “did not recognise the risk incurred by the swift withdrawal” of intelligence and reconnaissance drones and close air support, as well as the withdrawal of thousands of contractors who kept the Afghan air force flying – all in the middle of a particularly intense fighting season.
The result was that Afghan forces on the ground would “fight for a few days, and then realise there are no reinforcements” on the way, he said. The “psychological impact was devastating”.
But administration officials, responding to such critiques, counter that the Afghan military dwarfs the Taliban, some 300,000 troops to 75,000. "They have an air force, a capable air force," something the Taliban does not have, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Friday. "They have modern equipment. They have the benefit of the training that we have provided for the last 20 years. It's time now to use those advantages."
But by the time Kirby noted those advantages, none of them seemed to be making a difference. Feeling abandoned by the United States and commanded by rudderless leaders meant that Afghan troops on the ground "looked at what was in front of them, and what was behind them, and decided it's easier to go off on their own", said retired Gen Joseph Votel, a former commander of US Central Command who oversaw the war in Afghanistan from 2016 to 2019.
Biden, an administration official said, expressed frustration that President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan had not managed to effectively plan and execute what was supposed to be the latest strategy: consolidating forces to protect key cities.
On Wednesday, Ghani fired his army chief, Lt Gen Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, who had only been in place for two months, replacing him with Maj Gen Haibatullah Alizai, a special operations commander. The commandos under Alizai are the only troops who have consistently fought the Taliban these past weeks.
Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, an influential Washington think tank that specialises in national security, wrote that in the end, the 20-year symbiosis between the United States and the Afghan government it stood up, supported and ushered through elections had broken down.
“Those highlighting the Afghan government’s military superiority – in numbers, training, equipment, air power – miss the larger point,” he wrote recently. “Everything depends on the will to fight for the government. And that, it turns out, depended on US presence and support. We’re exhorting the Afghans to show political will when theirs depends on ours. And ours is gone.”
On Saturday, as the last major city in northern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Biden accelerated the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to the country to help ensure the safe evacuation of US citizens and Afghans who worked for the US government from Kabul.
Biden released a lengthy statement in which he blamed Trump for at least part of the unfolding disaster. He said, “I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor” which “left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1st, 2021, deadline on US forces”.
He said when he took office, he had a choice: abide by the deal or “ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict”.
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan – two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.” – New York Times