Written by: David E. Sanger and Helen Cooper
Top advisers to President Joe Biden admitted they were stunned by the rapid collapse of Afghan forces in the face of an aggressive, well-planned offensive by the Taliban that now threatens the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The last 20 years show they shouldn̵7;t have been.
If there is a consistent theme in the two decades of war in Afghanistan, it is the underestimation of the consequences of the $83 billion spent by the United States on training and equipping Afghan security forces since 2001 and the brutal, shrewd The strategy is to underestimate. Taliban. The Pentagon had issued a dire warning to Biden even before he took office about the Taliban’s ability to topple Afghan forces, but intelligence estimates, now badly missed, assessed it could happen in 18 months. Yes, not in weeks.
The commanders knew that the sufferings of the Afghan forces were never quite right: deep corruption, the government’s failure to pay many Afghan soldiers and police officers for months, defections, soldiers sent to the front without enough food and water, let Weapon alone. Over the past several days, the Afghan military has struggled to defend the shrinking region, after losing the country’s economic engine Mazar-i-Sharif to the Taliban.
Biden’s aides say those problems persist have reinforced his belief that the United States cannot forever advance the Afghan government and military. At Oval Office meetings this spring, he told colleagues that staying another year, or five years, wouldn’t make much difference and that it wasn’t worth the risk.
In the end, an Afghan military that did not believe in itself and an American effort that Biden and most Americans no longer believed in, combined to bring an ignorant one closer to America’s longest war, would change the course of events. The United States kept forces in Afghanistan longer than the British in the 19th century, and twice as much as the Soviet Union – with roughly the same results.
For Biden, the last of four US presidents facing painful choices in Afghanistan, but the first to pull out, the debate about eventual withdrawal and how to execute it began from the moment he took office. .
Under former President Donald Trump, “we were a tweet away from a full, early comeback,” said Douglas Lute, a retired general who served as President George W. Bush directed the Afghan strategy for the National Security Council and Barack Obama. “Under Biden, it was clear to everyone who knew him, who had seen him press for much less force more than a decade ago, that he was determined to end American military involvement, He added, “But the Pentagon believed its own statement. That we will be there forever.”
“The puzzle to me is the absence of a contingency plan: if everyone knew we were going to exit, why didn’t we have a plan for the last two years to make this work?”
a suspicious president
From the moment news outlets called for Biden to Pennsylvania on November 7, making him the next commander in chief for 1.4 million active-duty troops, Pentagon officials knew they were going to stop the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. will face an uphill battle. Defense Department leaders were already opposed to Trump, who wanted a swift decline. In a Twitter post last year, he announced that all US troops would be out by that Christmas.
And while they publicly voiced Trump’s deal with the Taliban in February 2020 for a full withdrawal this May, Pentagon officials said they wanted to talk to Biden.
After Biden took over, top Defense Department officials began a lobbying campaign to keep a small counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan for a few more years. He told the president that the Taliban had become stronger under Trump than at any time in the past two decades and pointed to intelligence estimates that predicted that in two or three years, al-Qaeda would find a new foothold in Afghanistan. could.
Shortly after Lloyd Austin was sworn in as Secretary of Defense on January 22, he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, recommended to Biden that 3,000 to 4,500 troops remain in Afghanistan, up from about 2,500 troops there. is doubled. On February 3, a Congress-appointed panel led by Joseph Dunford, a retired four-star Marine general, publicly recommended that Biden skip the May 1 exit deadline and reduce US forces only if security conditions improved. .
The president told his national security team, which includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, that he believed that whatever the United States did, Afghanistan was almost certainly headed for another civil war – One could not stop Washington, but moreover, in his view, one could not pull it off.
By March, Pentagon officials said they realized they were getting nowhere with Biden. Although he listened to their arguments and asked broad questions, he said he felt like his mind was made up.
At the end of March, Austin and Milley made a final effort with the president by predicting dire consequences, with Afghan forces advancing on an offensive by the Taliban. He compared how Iraqi forces were overrun by Islamic State after US combat troops left Iraq in 2014, prompting Obama to send back US forces.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Austin told Biden, according to officials with knowledge of the meetings.
But the president was adamant. If the Afghan government cannot stop the Taliban now, their allies said they asked, when will they be able to? No Pentagon official could answer this question.
On the morning of April 6, Biden told Austin and Milley that he wanted all US troops out by September 11.
Intelligence assessments in Biden’s briefing books gave him some assurance that if there was a bloody debacle in Afghanistan, it would at least be delayed. As recently as the end of June, intelligence agencies estimated that even if the Taliban continued to seize power, it would threaten Kabul at least a year and a half ago; The Afghan army had the advantage of greater numbers and air power, if they could fly their own helicopters and planes.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon moved swiftly to pull out its troops, fearing the dwindling number of Americans in Afghanistan and the risk of leaving service members who died in the war, the United States gave up. Before the weekend of July 4, the United States handed over Bagram Air Base, the military center of the war, to the Afghans, effectively ending all major US military operations in the country.
“The Afghans will have to be able to do it themselves with the air force they have, which we are helping them maintain,” Biden said at the time. A week later, he argued that the Afghans had the “ability” to defend themselves.
“The question is,” he said, “will they do it?”
On Saturday, as the last major city in northern Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban, Biden deployed 1,000 additional troops to the country to help ensure the safe evacuation of American citizens and Afghans working for the US government from Kabul. expedited.
Biden issued a lengthy statement in which he at least blamed Trump for the unfolding disaster. “I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor” that “left the Taliban in the militarily strongest position since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on US forces,” he said.
He said that when he took office, he had a choice: to abide by the agreement or to “increase 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 a US military presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not, and will not, give this war to the fifth.”