Author’s Note: I was never an eyewitness to the Afghan war. But as the CIA’s last intelligence analyst in Saigon, with nearly six years of spy work in-country to answer for, I am cursed with a certain sensitivity to the issues, especially the intelligence ones, surrounding lost causes and worst-case scenarios. It is through this prism that I view the facts set out below.
Just before the midterms, GOP members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee circulated a preliminary “report” about President Biden’s handling of the Afghan evacuation that is likely to be part of the smear book for a Benghazi-style “investigation” in the new Republican-controlled House.
The “charges” against the President boil down to two major barking points. His critics would have us believe that he made a grave mistake in not keeping a residual force in place to protect our friends and preserve our supposed gains. They are equally adamant that he did too little in the end to save all those who fit our definition of the good and worthy Afghan.
These are bum raps any way you parse them. And Democrats should not be shy about calling them out for the distortions they are.
Let’s start at the end, with an assessment of the evacuation itself.
For perspective, please keep in mind that retreat is always the most dangerous of military operations. Crawling out of a country standing up demands more moral flexibility than anyone should have to embrace in a lifetime. No U.S. government agency offers staff instructions on how to play God, which is what you must do if you are trying to hustle an overabundance of the desperate onto the last outbound “fixed-wing” or “chopper.” And executing such an operation under hostile conditions is predestined to be seen as a debacle because not everyone who wants to get out will make it.
That said, by any reasonable measure – and certainly, as compared to the precedent set in Vietnam – the airlift out of Kabul in August 2021 was an astounding success, especially considering these facts:
- The Afghan army disintegrated overnight with barely a visible ripple.
- The entire Kabul regime evaporated in a day — literally.
- Taliban forces were so much in control during the final two weeks that they had to be enlisted to help secure the last key exfil point, Hamid Karzai airbase.
Despite these appalling conditions, the U.S. and its coalition partners evacuated in those same two weeks 123,000 people — twice as many souls as fled Saigon with some sort of official U.S. help during the entire last month of the Vietnam war.
According to the official headcount, U.S. aircraft alone rescued 79,000 civilians from the Kabul airport. Some were third-country nationals; most were Afghan citizens, including consular staff, high-risk individuals and their families and other recipients of special immigrant visas.
A particular moment in the evacuation story provides a perfect rebuke to those who condemn Biden for “pulling out too soon.”
On August 15, with the airlift kicking off, the host government imploding, and the Taliban pouring into Kabul, General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, struck an inspired if inevitable bargain with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, persuading him to commit manpower to guard duty at the airfield in exchange for the U.S. keeping hands off everywhere else. At that point, the U.S. troop contingent, which had just been tripled to service and safeguard the pending evacuation, numbered 6,000 strong.
Eleven days later, despite Taliban checkpoints and American eyes on every approach route, an ISIS suicide bomber managed to plant himself outside the main airport entrance, Abbey Gate, and blow himself up. More than 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service personnel were killed.
Those who insist that by pledging to keep a 2,500-man residual force in Afghanistan indefinitely Biden might have bucked up resolve in Kabul, stabilized the situation, made an emergency airlift unnecessary and reinforced our counter-terror capabilities for the long haul need to consider the implications of the Abbey Gate massacre.
If 6,000 U.S. troops backed by NATO and Afghan personnel were not sufficient to keep one determined zealot from wreaking havoc, how the hell could a 2,500-man residual force do any better? If such a contingent had ever been greenlighted, it would have become the target of choice for every terrorist in-country, with each new American casualty creating an excuse for an open-ended expansion of the U.S. footprint and an ever-escalating never-ending war.
The Abbey Gate attack was final proof that the Commander-in-Chief knew what he was doing.
And for his unrepentant die-hard critics there is this:
In July of this year, two Hellfire missiles launched from a CIA drone during an over-the-horizon kill mission incinerated al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri as he loitered on a balcony in downtown Kabul.
They also delivered a chastening message to any would-be 9/11 copycat who mistakenly believes that Afghanistan is now an inviolate safe haven.
The Bigger Picture
The hand that Biden was dealt in Afghanistan could not have been more prejudicial.
At the Doha conference twelve months before, Donald Trump had written the terms of the U.S. troop withdrawal with no regard for our Afghan allies or our own security needs, his main purpose being to remove the “forever war” as a political liability for himself. In essence, he agreed to the dismantling of the remaining U.S. military presence, then about 14,000 strong, with the last troops set to leave in early May 2021. He made no provision for a general ceasefire, much less enforceable Afghan-to-Afghan peace talks. The two sides were left to muddle through on their own.
The Taliban for their part agreed to coldshoulder terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and to suspend their own attacks on U.S. troops so Trump would be spared any flag-draped coffins coming home during election season. But they also committed the U.S. not to mount any preemptive military operations in support of Afghan units.
The Doha deal made Kissinger’s peace settlement for Vietnam look like the return of Prince Metternich. Trump’s one-time national security adviser H.R. McMaster later called it a “surrender agreement.”
That doesn’t let Biden off the hook of course. He could have done better in providing for the most imperiled Afghans.
But here again, a nasty hand-me-down from his predecessor handicapped his options. During Trump’s final two years, his immigration spoiler-in-chief Steven Miller mucked up the issuance of special visas for Afghans (and Iraqis) to preserve the whiteness of MAGA America – this, according to the whistleblower, Olivia Troye who once worked for Vice President Mike Pence as a counterterrorism adviser and witnessed Miller’s depredations first-hand.
Once in charge, Biden tried to accelerate visa processing and used the visa roster to single out Afghans most deserving of our protection. There was no comparable master list to be found anywhere in the U.S. embassy in Saigon even on the last day of that war.
Biden also ordered the discreet drawdown of surplus U.S. embassy officials starting in late April 2021, four months before the end. Nothing like that happened in Saigon until the last minute.
The critics are right about one thing. Biden did resist making any sudden lurch towards the exits. But there was a good cause. President Ashraf Ghani warned him that any such action would destabilize what little stability the Kabul regime still enjoyed — and what little leverage it could bring to bear in the hoped-for negotiations that Biden was trying to broker between the two sides.
Biden also worried that a policy of hurry-up-and-go would require the insertion of substantial security forces to support the evacuation just when he was edging towards a zero headcount.
This isn’t post-facto rationalizing to make Biden look good. It is based on breakthrough reporting by Steve Coll and Adam Entous (“The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan,” The New Yorker, December 10, 2021).
Soon after the inauguration, according to these deeply knowledgeable reporters, Biden extended the troop-bugout deadline set in Doha to buy time for the two Afghan sides to join in a proposed summit in Turkey. The conference would have done what Trump didn’t – work out a power-sharing arrangement to stop the fighting, with the U.S. playing umpire.
Under Biden’s revised timetable, the last U.S. forces, instead of bowing out by May 1, 2021, were to wait until 9/11 to be fully gone. The slippage was designed to keep the strategic balance steady enough to give the envisioned summit a chance.
But the Taliban were already well past any earnest negotiating or any incentive to move in that direction. Under cover of the Doha agreement — and with increasing velocity after Biden’s inauguration — their forces had engineered the quiet collapse of government outposts throughout rural Afghanistan, using bribery, subversion and sub-rosa intimation.
As one Afghan cop later explained to The Washington Post, the departure of the Americans was like on oil on a fire. “Without the United States, there was no fear [among rank-and-file soldiers and police] of being caught for corruption,” he said. “It brought out the traitors from within our military.”
Afghan troops and police units deserted in droves. Security outside a few major cities turned to smoke. According to one estimate, by the time Biden began his summit-lobbying, the strength of Afghan security forces had dropped from a theoretical paper high of 300,000 to 93,000 actual fighters — and that was putting the best face on the numbers.
The Taliban, given their edge, quickly nixed the summit idea. President Ghani wasn’t any more receptive. Biden advanced the date for the military shutdown, pegging it to August 31, and most remaining combat troops were packed out by early July, leading to closure of Bagram airbase.
Ah, Bagram, now there’s a sidebar that explains so much.
Once the “nerve center” of all US military and intelligence operations, the huge compound had two major runways to Kabul’s one, hardened perimeters, and a cellblock full of 5,000 of the most dangerous ISIS and Al Qaeda operatives anywhere.
Crouched within spitting distance of the Hindu Kush mountains, it was the ideal springboard for a second airlift to supplement a major hard pull out of Hamid Karzai airfield roughly thirty-five miles to the south.
Why didn’t we hold onto it?
In the judgment of Politico’s Pentagon reporter Lara Seligman, Bagram fell prey to a newly altered mindset on the part of top U.S. commanders. She described it in a post-evacuation article as a combination of peevishness and risk-aversion arising from Biden’s decision to overrule them on the troop withdrawal issue.
“Once that happened, the Pentagon embraced as quick a withdrawal as possible, including from Bagram,” Seligman wrote. “And the Pentagon stuck to that approach through the beginning of July regardless of conditions on the ground.”
“Speed equals safety” was now the generals’ mantra, she reported.
“They just decided they lost the [withdrawal] argument and [said] ‘OK, fine, let’s get the heck out of Dodge’,” one ex-defense official told her.
And get the heck out they did. Overnight on July 1, resident U.S. forces packed up and snuck out of Bagram, without emptying the cellblock or alerting the local Afghan commander — all for the alleged purpose of keeping the Taliban in the dark about their departure. Whatever the rationale, the sudden pullout “spooked” the Afghan government and military, ended our control of the “main U.S. military airbase before the pullout was complete and appeared to accelerate the collapse,” Seligman concluded.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, later explained that it was simply a matter of prioritizing Kabul’s safety. “If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had,” he maintained. “So, we had to collapse one or the other and a decision was made.”
The Intelligence Failure
Meanwhile, at the U.S. embassy and in Washington, contingency evacuation planning kept chugging along, and private American citizens were urged to leave the war zone. But there was no shared sense among topsiders that the balloon was about to burst.
Indeed, up through mid-summer, even as Biden began pressing President Ghani to trade land for time and extend a concessionary hand to the enemy, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that Afghan forces could hold their own for a year to 18 months after the departure of the last U.S. troops.
Some jarring notes did seep into this soundtrack from time to time. According to the public record, there was a brief flurry of intelligence alarms immediately after Biden’s announcement on April 14 that all troops would be out by 9/11.
Moreover, in the lead-up to that announcement, every top general responsible for Afghanistan had complained “within channels” that such a decision, the elimination of all boots on the ground, would lead to the rapid collapse of Afghan forces. General Milley would later testify that he had warned both Trump and Biden that 2,500 to 3,500 troops were needed to maintain some version of the status quo and to prevent the country from becoming host to a new generation of foreign terrorists. His concerns were echoed by Centcom chief, General McKenzie, and the last US supreme commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller.
But as Biden would later confirm, there was a disagreement, a split” he would call it, among his military advisers over the number of “residual” forces required, the appropriate timeline for their removal and whether any of this would lead to stability. In the end he had followed his instincts and the advice of his Secretary of State, Tony Blinkin, and opted for a total troop shutdown (albeit under an extended deadline), coupled with efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution.
The generals had then shifted from protest mode to grudging cooperation and had hastened withdrawal of remaining forces (the Bagram-related “speed-equals-safety” decision). They had also become remarkably accepting of inter-agency assessments that gave our allies a respectable reprieve from sudden and imminent collapse.
According to a later New York Times report, one such “upbeat” projection, which was delivered to the President on April 24, 2021, held that that Afghan forces could fend off the enemy for “one to two years.” Five days later, General Milley told reporters government troops were “reasonably” well led, well equipped and well trained, even if their ability to operate effectively without a US military backstop was still to be tested. The Times reported that a high-ranking spook, though increasingly uneasy about the strategic picture, “still predicted that a complete Taliban takeover was not likely for at least 18 months.” Another insider, identified as a “senior administration official,” advised the newspaper “there was no sense that the Taliban were on the march.”
On July 8, just after a quickie meeting with President Ghani in Washington, Biden famously declared, “There’s going to be no circumstances where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”
By August 3, according to the Times, top administration officials had received an updated intelligence estimate that reeked of ambivalence. They were told that “district capitals across Afghanistan were falling rapidly to the Taliban and the Afghan government could collapse in days or weeks.” But they were also assured that while this was an increasingly plausible outcome, it was “not the most likely” one.
Only on August 12, three days before the fall of Kabul and initiation of the emergency evacuation, did the U.S. intelligence community clock to the fact that no predictions were possible about the shelf life of the Afghan army – none at all. Despite everything we thought we knew or pretended to believe, we had been blindsided.
Shortly after the evacuation, Generals Milley, McKenzie and Miller, the “three Afghan cage fighters,” appeared before two congressional committees to do a little scapegoating. They tried to pin blame for all recent humiliations on Biden and others in the administration who had ignored their advice and zeroed out our troop presence in Afghanistan.
A subtext to their postering was the presumption that the drawdown had robbed us of vital intelligence capabilities and made it impossible to predict what was coming.
General Milley fleshed out this argument in a Senate hearing on September 28, with an assist from Biden’s own Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, who neatly summarized what he thought we had missed in our intelligence reporting.
“[W]e did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks,” Austin said of our allies. “We didn’t grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders. We did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders.”
Asked to explain such errors, Milley linked them directly to shrinkage of our military footprint. “We pulled our [troop] advisers off three years ago,” he said. “And when you pull the advisers out of the units, you no longer can assess things like leadership. And we can count all the planes, trucks, and automobiles, and cars, and machine guns, and everything else, but you can’t measure the human heart with a machine. You’ve got to be there.”
The generals’ venting, dramatic though it was, didn’t compute. None of them bothered to address the seeming paradox that even with a 2,500-man contingent in place through much of the past half year, the worst had happened anyway. Nor could they rid themselves of the stigma of having missed all the final warning signals.
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.” Milley told reporters shortly before the last C-17 left Kabul airport.
McKenzie later admitted to Congress that he too had been caught off guard by the sudden toppling of the regime. “I did not foresee it to be days [away],” he said. “I thought it would take months.”
The True Source of Our Myopia
During the hinge years of the “American war,” 2014-2018, the special U.S. inspector general for Afghan reconstruction queried key decision makers, military and civilian, about lessons to be learned from our involvement. The results were classified, but a Washington Post reporter, Craig Whitlock, used the Freedom of Information Act to access many of the interviews. In a subsequent book, The Afghanistan Papers, he quoted from select confessors, from Generals Milley and Michael Flynn to diplomats like Ryan Crocker, to provide what is probably the most concise explanation available of why we failed to see what was coming.
What emerged was evidence of a chronic unwillingness on the part of our Best and Brightest to acknowledge that after all the infusions of manpower, blood, money, and arms, America’s Afghan stepchild just wasn’t up to our illusions.
It was the very enormity of our investment and our sacrifice that had made the enormity of our folly impossible to admit out loud.
The same thing had happened in Vietnam. The simple term for such willful blindness is hubris.
Most of the principals questioned by the IG were fully aware that our Afghan allies suffered from terminal corruption. But these same insiders, by their own admission, often kept the truth from their superiors and everybody else for fear of shaming themselves and all those who had suffered or died for our objectives.
When it came to vital development projects, like opium suppression, the retraining of Afghan farmers or the delivery of finance loans to Afghan women, official progress reports about them were always too upbeat, the IG learned.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Colonel Bob Crowley, a senior counter-intelligence adviser, told him. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced [the idea that] everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
By Crowley’s account, “bad news was often stifled” at the command level, and “when we tried to air larger strategic concerns about the willingness, capacity or corruption of the Afghan government, it is clear it wasn’t welcome.”
General Flynn, who served as military intelligence chief in Kabul during the Obama years, groused to the IG about the fake optimism of his colleagues. “From the ambassadors down to the low level, [the consensus was] we are doing a great job,” he said. “Really? So, if we are doing such a great job, why does it feel like we are losing?”
The IG himself, John Sopko, advised Congress in early 2020 that “an odor of mendacity” clung to official U.S. assessments of the war.
Whitlock, in his own account, describes a revealing episode involving General Milley that dated back to his tour in Afghanistan as deputy to the top U.S. commander there. Appearing at a joint military ceremony in May 2013, Milley assured Afghan troops they were “on the road to victory, on the road to winning, on the road to creating a stable Afghanistan.”
Is it any wonder that he and similarly invested architects of the war were unable to comprehend in 2021 that the game was up?
The Failed Ideological Mission
The devil is in the details of course, but much of what foredoomed the U.S. mission in Afghanistan – and much of what complicates any assessment of Biden’s own performance — falls under the smudged rubric of “nation-building.”
Biden was always a minimalist on Afghanistan, just as he had been on Vietnam. As Obama’s Vice President, he once declared that Afghanistan mattered far less in our strategic calculations than neighboring, nuclear Pakistan. In a public statement justifying his decision to follow through on a complete troop withdrawal, Biden emphasized that the key U.S. mission in Afghanistan had been accomplished with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and that our war on terror had since shifted to battlegrounds elsewhere.
In none of his relevant pronouncements did Biden express enthusiasm for pacification or counterinsurgency strategies that included a messianic impulse to indoctrinate the populace in western values.
It is therefore ironic that much of the negative coverage of his Afghan policies focuses on the plight of people there who had little or no direct role in our counter-terror mission and whose current vulnerabilities owe to a playbook Biden never endorsed.
Indeed, many of the most vociferous critics of his decision not to maintain a residual troop presence in-country cite the ongoing suffering of Afghan women who grew up during the height of the U.S. involvement, became hooked on western concepts of equality and modernity, and are now being persecuted by Taliban clerics and tribal chiefs bent on returning them to medieval servitude.
I have the most profound sympathy for these women and all other Afghans who are suffering because they identified with American values and could not make it onto an evacuation flight.
But if you insist on condemning Biden for not pursuing policies – or maintaining a troop presence — sufficient to protect them, then be honest: you are faulting him for not committing us to open-ended “nation-building.”
Remaking a stone age culture into an inclusive modern society is nation- building by any name. You can fault various administrations for fueling false expectations among Afghan women and men now yearning to cast off the constraints of their own heritage.
But Biden was right. Our own interests in Afghanistan – more importantly our capabilities — could never have accommodated what was required to recast the country into our ideal image of a modern state.
Nor were the successive Kabul regimes competent enough, or corruption-free enough, to abet such an effort.
As General Mackenzie has suggested, our original sin in Afghanistan was mission creep on steroids, allowing ourselves to be drawn away from our initial small-bore objectives into an ambitious crusade to bring the 21st Century to a defiantly feudal, patriarchal, tribal society. Throwing more American lives and treasure into such an enterprise would have been one more illogical, futile and therefore immoral policy choice.
Unless the client/host government to which you are committed is free of enemy spies and systemic rot, unless you are willing to make American lives forever hostage to a presumed moral imperative and pay the price in blood, the best you can do in a place like Afghanistan (or Vietnam for that matter) is to keep your objectives fact-based, mission-specific and non-evangelical, and to remember your own limitations and those of your ally.
That last admonition is not the least. One of the great unlearned lessons of Vietnam as I see it boils down to this: For God’s sake, get to know your friends, their strengths and deficiencies, every bit as well as you presume to know your enemy. Then own that knowledge without any sugarcoating. Biden picked up on that wisdom and tried to act on it, if not always successfully, in Afghanistan. Would that others had taken the cue.