The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden administration scrambled as its orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan unraveled

Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the provincial governor's office in the Afghan city of Herat on Aug. 14, 2021.
Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the provincial governor's office in the Afghan city of Herat on Aug. 14, 2021. (AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

By the middle of the week, as cities across Afghanistan were falling like dominoes to the Taliban and U.S. diplomats appeared increasingly at risk, President Biden’s plan for an orderly end to the United States’ longest war was quickly falling apart.

On Wednesday evening, Biden convened his top advisers to assess the ominous turn of events. One by one, in the cramped Situation Room in the White House basement, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the administration’s options for ensuring the security of U.S. personnel. Biden asked them to return with recommendations.

When the aides reconvened early the next morning, things had gotten worse. The Taliban was taking control of more and more of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, most of them seized without a major fight, and the militants were bearing down on Kabul, the national capital. After being briefed by Sullivan and Austin, Biden gave the order to activate a plan deploying troops to secure the Kabul airport and create an evacuation route for Americans on the ground.

On Aug. 14, President Biden approved additional military forces to help safely draw down the American embassy and remove personnel from Afghanistan. (Video: Reuters)

Blinken called Kabul, where the U.S. Embassy’s top diplomat was already presiding over packing and document destruction, and told him most embassy personnel would move to the airport. At U.S. Central Command in Tampa, military leaders ordered intensified airstrikes on militants driving toward Kabul, hoping to slow their advance as U.S. personnel and their allies scrambled to get out.

The urgency bordering on panic laid bare how the president’s strategy for ending the 20-year U.S. military effort — leaving Afghan forces to hold off the Taliban for months as negotiators redoubled efforts to hammer out a peace deal — has undergone a rapid dismantling.

Taliban assault imperils slow-building effort to evacuate U.S. allies

The lightning collapse is rooted in misplaced assumptions — including a failure to account for how the U.S. departure would catalyze a crisis of confidence in Afghan leaders and security forces, enabling the Taliban blitz — from the moment Biden announced the withdrawal this spring. It is equally the product of two decades of miscalculations about transforming Afghanistan and overly optimistic assessments of progress that have plagued the war from its start.

After receiving a video briefing from aides while at Camp David on Saturday, Biden issued a statement defending the administration’s response, saying an endless U.S. presence in another country’s civil conflict was unacceptable.

“One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” he said.

Laurel Miller, who served as a top official for Afghanistan during the Obama and Trump administrations, said a swift Taliban takeover was among the scenarios that analysts in and outside of government had warned could occur after a U.S. withdrawal, even though few expected it to happen so fast.

“My takeaway is that they priced this into the decision,” she said of the Biden administration. “It’s regrettable, but it was priced in as a tolerable outcome.”

The disintegration of the hoped-for withdrawal scenario has left the administration racing to protect U.S. diplomats and struggling to respond to criticism from Republicans and advocates alike. It has also deepened questions about how Biden will reconcile his realpolitik, including the abandonment of women and human rights defenders, with promises to restore core values to U.S. foreign policy.

This account of how the Biden administration has grappled in recent weeks with the unraveling of its Afghanistan plans is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

Officials say the administration, despite a decision to send 4,000 troops back to Afghanistan to help evacuate embassy staffers and Afghan allies, is not contemplating a reversal of its withdrawal decision, as some former military leaders have advocated, or an extension of the Aug. 31 deadline for ending air support to Afghan forces.

For some critics, including those with deep experience in Afghanistan, the situation is not only disheartening but also offers a troubling message as the Biden administration seeks to turn around the United States’ global image after four years of erratic foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

“If Trump undermined the confidence of the world, Biden’s actions, pulling out and leaving a mess in Afghanistan, may simply be chapter two in undercutting fundamental assumptions about America,” said Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who serves as the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

'Zero responsibility'

The administration’s decision to withdraw, announced in April, was guided by Biden’s conviction, dating back more than a decade, that the military mission in Afghanistan had little chance of success. The former senator initially supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but by the time he became President Barack Obama’s vice president in 2009, he saw the Afghanistan project as futile.

After trillions of dollars and more than 2,000 U.S. combat deaths, as well as the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, Biden thought the United States had little chance of transforming a largely tribal, undeveloped nation. For all their differences, Biden’s instincts coincided with those of Trump, whose desire to withdraw was repeatedly deflected by his top security aides.

As a candidate in early 2020, Biden was asked whether the United States had a responsibility to Afghan women and girls in light of a possible Taliban takeover. “No, I don’t!” Biden said. “Do I bear responsibility? Zero responsibility.”

“The idea of us being able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists in the world is just not within our capacity,” he continued. “The question is, is America’s vital self-interest at stake or the self-interest of one of our allies at stake?”

As the war approached its 20th anniversary, the public seemed to agree. A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that 70 percent of Americans back withdrawing from Afghanistan, though support is stronger among Democrats than Republicans.

Taliban pushes closer to Kabul as U.S. seeks to avoid battle with its fighters

Months before Biden unveiled his withdrawal decision, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, then the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned that a rapid government collapse was not just possible but was the most likely result of a quick exit, according to one person familiar with his analysis.

In weeks of intensive deliberations in Washington, Austin and Gen. Mark. A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, privately advised Biden against a full withdrawal, officials said.

“It came down to where the assessment they were receiving from the military in Afghanistan did not support the preferred policy decision that the administration and certainly the State Department wished to pursue,” one of the officials said. “The bottom line was that DOD was not the loudest voice in the room when it came to stating their candid assessment of likely outcomes.”

But a senior U.S. official involved in White House deliberations defended the process and the Pentagon’s part in it.

“First of all, the military voice was heard,” the official said. “It was heard, it was loud, it was clear, and it was in writing and verbally, and it was unambiguous.”

The official said that no senior U.S. leader predicted that a collapse of the Afghan state could come in August. Generals did warn, however, that they were concerned that a collapse could occur before the end of the year, two officials said.

Once the decision was made, Pentagon leaders, especially cautious after years of civil-military strains under Trump, pivoted to executing Biden’s plan. Concerned about the safety of military personnel, commanders felt the need to quickly pull out the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops, four officials said.

In justifying the decision, Biden’s aides argued that the president’s hands were tied by Trump’s February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, which committed the United States to withdrawing in 2021. If Washington reneged, they argued, the Taliban would resume attacks on American troops.

By July, as the Taliban intensified its march across rural Afghanistan and captured successive district centers, U.S. officials expected that local forces would block the militants from seizing provincial capitals, whose survival was seen as a key indicator of Afghan government strength, according to people familiar with Biden administration deliberations.

When the Taliban began taking some of the country’s more lightly defended provincial capitals in early August, officials recalculated to assume that Afghan forces, bolstered by two decades of foreign training and support, would prevent the Taliban from commandeering the country’s more strategic cities.

But when the fighters rolled into the northern city of Kunduz the following week, making it the first major provincial capital to fall, U.S. officials realized that their scenarios were illusory.

“Kunduz was a wake-up call,” one military official said.

The Pentagon swung into action with plans it had rehearsed months before, just in case, said one senior defense official. Austin also instituted a daily synchronization meeting with senior defense officials on the crisis and spoke separately numerous times per day with the top officer overseeing the region, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, and the senior officer on the ground, Rear Adm. Peter Vasely.

The negotiated capitulations illustrated the extent to which the U.S. withdrawal had set in motion a crisis of confidence among local political and military leaders that, in some cases, led to an unwillingness to fight.

“What we’re seeing is a tsunami of individual decisions to abandon the Afghan government, and all of those individual decisions have added up to a collapse,” Laurel Miller said.

One intelligence official said some provincial Afghan officials probably cut deals with the Taliban weeks ago. Current and former officials have resisted claims that intelligence agencies failed to forecast the government’s potential quick fall. Privately, some have expressed dismay at Biden’s withdrawal decision, made, they said, despite numerous warnings of a likely unraveling of government forces.

As conditions worsened, officials briefly debated keeping Bagram air base, the country’s most significant military airfield, open longer than initially planned to facilitate airstrikes in support of Afghan forces, four officials said. It was ultimately decided to shut the base down as planned in early July.

Eventually, the military revised its intelligence assessment of Kabul’s fate. Although it had said the city might fall as soon as six months after the withdrawal of troops was complete, it updated that to say it could come within 90 days. That was quickly revised to say it could come even sooner, perhaps within weeks.


At the State Department, where many diplomats had worked on Afghanistan or served in Kabul, the mood in the past few days has been grim as televisions in the background displayed images of Taliban triumphs. One official described the emotions as “wrenching.”

Senior officials canvassed the department for volunteers to serve on several crisis task forces, including one dedicated to processing asylum applications and another to support embassy operations in Kabul.

Weeks earlier, Biden had authorized the pre-positioning in the region of thousands of troops who could go into Afghanistan, and he began receiving daily battlefield assessments and updates on contingency planning for the evacuation.

At the same time, the president approved the provision of close air support through the end of August and the sustainment of contractors at Kabul’s airport to keep the Afghan air force flying.

In early August, even before the major Taliban push began, the White House convened a tabletop exercise on the planning for an emergency exit. At the embassy in Kabul, the Emergency Action Committee had taken evacuation plans off the shelf and was refining them, virtually on a day-to-day basis, officials said.

As Taliban widens its grip, Afghans reckon with life under militant rule

Senior U.S. officials continued to hold talks with Taliban representatives in Doha, the Qatari capital, where on-and-off peace consultations have taken place for several months. They warned Taliban representatives that a violent takeover and the imposition of the harsh rule that had characterized the militants’ government in the late 1990s would not be accepted by the United States or the global community. They said the group would again be international pariahs if it did not halt its offensive.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and other diplomats repeated that message in a massive gathering in recent days in Doha, where representatives from neighboring countries, as well as China and Russia met with Taliban and Afghan government negotiators. On Thursday evening, the countries released a communique reiterating those warnings and called for an end to violence and a political settlement.

By Friday morning, however, the entire exercise seemed irrelevant in light of what was happening on the ground.

Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government’s chief negotiator, returned to Kabul to try to convince President Ashraf Ghani that it was over and that he needed to fashion some kind of deal to offer the militants that would preserve at least the possibility of non-Taliban participation in a new or transition government.

As the Taliban continued to draw nearer to Kabul, Khalilzad told the militants it was not in their interest to seize the capital immediately. Thousands of U.S. troops were already landing there and would fight if they had to, Khalilzad warned, according to people familiar with the discussions. If the militants would delay the move on Kabul, he told them, they would be in a much better position to achieve their fundamental goals.

The Biden administration, however, has less and less ability to shape events as the Taliban grip grows stronger.

Carter Malkasian, who served as a senior Pentagon adviser and has written several books on Afghanistan, said that the United States can really focus only on blunting the Taliban’s momentum.

“We can try to slow them down from crashing right into Kabul, and try to use our remaining leverage to prevent atrocities,” he said.

Shane Harris and John Hudson contributed to this report.