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White House orders for a speedy military withdrawal put pressure on beleaguered Afghans as the Taliban surged

U.S. troops stand guard as Afghans wait to board a military aircraft to leave Kabul on Aug. 19.
U.S. troops stand guard as Afghans wait to board a military aircraft to leave Kabul on Aug. 19. (Shakib Rahmani/AFP/Getty Images)
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From the moment President Biden decided to end the war in Afghanistan, he made it clear to the Pentagon that his top priority was to keep U.S. fatalities to a minimum, a decision that necessitated a speedy withdrawal, said senior U.S. officials.

On those terms, the mission has so far been a success. There have been zero U.S. civilian or military deaths. But the focus on the safety of U.S. service members made other war goals, such as the long-term survival of the Afghan forces and the evacuation of Afghan interpreters, lower priorities and helped precipitate some of the current problems the United States faces in Afghanistan.

Earlier this summer, senior State Department officials expressed surprise at the speed of Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller’s withdrawal of his forces and headquarters from Afghanistan. Miller was directed to pause very briefly in July before the interagency consensus shifted again and the withdrawal continued, said military and administration officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive planning.

“Miller’s view was let’s get out of here as fast as we can,” said a senior administration official. “We’re at high risk [for U.S. casualties], and every day extra we’re there increases the risk. We’re on borrowed time.”

“We didn’t think it was going to be that fast,” the administration official said.

A defense official acknowledged there was some friction but said Miller and the Pentagon were transparent about their plans for a speedy withdrawal from the outset.

“I think we were crystal clear repeatedly that we were on track for [an] early July [withdrawal], and they didn’t want to believe it,” the defense official said of the State Department. He noted that Miller received praise from the White House and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for the pace of the U.S. departure.

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Senior military commanders — who had recommended against a full withdrawal in favor of leaving a force of about 2,500 troops — did eventually adjust their plans, leaving behind about 650 troops as administration officials realized security in Afghanistan was rapidly deteriorating. But the speed of the pullout didn’t change significantly, and those who stayed behind had a narrow mission of protecting the U.S. Embassy and Kabul airport.

Both Miller, the top commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, backed closing Bagram air base in favor of the harder-to-defend Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

The Pentagon’s focus on pulling out U.S. forces quickly reflects the military’s long-held belief that a withdrawal under threat is “one of the most difficult and deadly operations one can undertake,” said Jonathan Schroden, an Afghanistan analyst and director of the Countering Threats and Challenges Program for CNA, a government-funded think tank.

The focus on speed and minimizing the risk to U.S. troops meant that other important tasks, such as the evacuation of interpreters and ensuring the Afghan military had the capabilities and contractor support to maintain its helicopters and war planes, became of secondary importance. Even if Miller and the Pentagon had slowed things down, the collapse of the Afghan security forces and the government probably still would have taken place.

“But it’s clear that the speed of the withdrawal didn’t help,” Schroden said. “It didn’t give the Afghans a window to prepare effectively, and that became apparent in very short order” as Afghan military forces melted away en masse in the span of just a few days.

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The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The Afghanistan withdrawal also stood in stark contrast to the American departure from Iraq in 2011, which was overseen by Austin, then the general in charge of U.S. forces in the country. A few hours before U.S. troops departed their last air base in Iraq, the American and Iraqi military base commanders met for a signing ceremony. They shook hands and an Iraqi marching band played the two country’s national anthems.

In Afghanistan, Miller and McKenzie conducted a small ceremony in Kabul as Miller departed, but the military left Bagram quietly. Looters swarmed the sprawling air base after the last troops were out in July, and some Afghan officials complained that they were caught off guard by the departure. U.S. military officials responded that senior Afghan officials were informed of the Americans’ timeline, raising questions about whether that was communicated by Afghan leaders to Afghan officers on the ground.

“As you might imagine, they were not equipped to absorb [the base] for a variety of reasons,” said a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the handover.

The Afghans’ failures to hold and defend Bagram — some 35 miles north of Kabul — from looters living outside the base in early July should have been a warning sign to the White House and Pentagon that the country’s military forces were in desperately bad condition. Some lawmakers and military analysts have said that the Pentagon could have prevented the chaos and deaths at the Kabul airport, which was swarmed by desperate Afghans earlier this week, by holding on to Bagram until Afghans who worked for the United States had been evacuated and the mission was complete.

But military officials decided the Kabul airport was a better option. The U.S. Embassy, along with the embassies of U.S. partners, required access to the Kabul airport. U.S. commanders also concluded that Afghan allies who needed to be evacuated quickly following a government collapse would be able to reach the Kabul airport more easily.

If the Taliban used the cover of Kabul’s dense neighborhoods to lob a serious assault with rockets and mortars at the airport, the military had plans to retake Bagram and run evacuation flights from there, the defense official said.

For now, that contingency doesn’t appear necessary, the official added. U.S. officials have been in regular contact with the Taliban about taking down checkpoints that are blocking Afghans’ ability to get to the airport and leave the country.

“Hopefully access to the airport gets a little better every day,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. “The Taliban said they don’t want to stop anyone. . . . That’s what they are claiming. We’ve got to test it.”

Biden administration officials had robust debates throughout the spring about whether to end the war but seem to have spent less time preparing plans for the range of possible negative outcomes after U.S. forces were gone. Both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had vowed to end the war in Afghanistan before they left office, but in both cases they backed off the pledge and the U.S. military and State Department never engaged in a detailed planning effort to prepare for the end, Obama and Trump administration officials said.

“For literally decades, it seemed just baked into military operations that we would always have some presence,” said a former U.S. official who worked on Afghanistan policy for both administrations. “So the military’s planning scenarios never seemed to fully incorporate actual zero options and an actual collapse.”

When Biden announced the withdrawal on April 14, all of that quickly changed. The imperative was no longer waging war and ensuring the survival of the Afghan government and its allies. The overarching mission was to get U.S. troops out.

Publicly, the Pentagon has defended its performance. So, too, has Biden, who in an interview with ABC News said that there was no way for the United States to end the war “without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.”

Defense officials privately conceded that the withdrawal, the sudden Taliban victory and the tragedies at the airfield earlier this week were disheartening.

“Obviously, there was tragedy there,” the defense official said. “Obviously, that was not our best day.”