The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The administration’s confidence on Afghanistan is building. But the result is what matters.

Jake Sullivan, President Biden's national security adviser, during a news conference at the White House on Aug. 23. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg News)

It’s becoming clear from Defense Department and White House briefings that the Biden administration is building a sense of confidence and calm on the situation in Afghanistan. The reason is obvious: The vast numbers of Americans, special immigrant visa applicants, other at-risk Afghans and third-country nationals being evacuated from the country puts a damper on the favored media narrative that this was a “disaster” or “failure.”

Instead of responding solely to scenes of panic and misery, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby and White House press secretary Jen Psaki made the case on Monday that the evacuation operation shows a level of organizational competence, military discipline and international diplomacy that no other country is capable of pulling off.

Sullivan stressed the intricacies of the operation but argued, “No operation like this, no evacuation from a capital that has fallen into a civil war could unfold without those images [of chaos].” He added, “All told, 26 countries on four continents are contributing to this effort.” The message was clear: No isolated country that has lost the faith of its allies could do that. He displayed some cautious optimism. “The question is, are we on track to fulfill our objectives of this operation, to bring out our people, so many of those Afghans who helped us, and so many of those Afghans at risk, and we believe we are,” he told reporters, who were noticeably less aggressive than they had been just days earlier.

At the Pentagon, Kirby and Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor added details on the operation. “As of this morning, within the last 24 hours, 25 U.S. military C-17s, three U.S. military C-130s and then a combination of 61 charter commercial and other military flights departed Kabul,” Taylor announced. “The total passenger count for those flights was approximately 16,000.” He made sure to underscore that America is not pulling this off by itself. “The use of temporary safe haven locations across Europe and the Middle East in areas that include U.S. installations in Qatar, [United Arab Emirates], Kuwait, Bahrain, Italy, Spain and Germany. We deeply appreciate the support from these countries. This is truly a testament to the importance of our alliances and our partnerships,” he declared.

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In contrast to reports of a couple thousand evacuees in 24-hour increments last week, Kirby could highlight that the administration exceeded the original goal of 5,000 to 9,000 evacuees per day. While the Aug. 31 date still looms, Kirby’s promise to “get as many people out as fast as possible” did not sound so weak as it did last week.

Kirby also shared a key detail to knock down the criticism that the administration had no evacuation plan. “Even as recently as three weeks ago, before we actually had to conduct a noncombatant evacuation operation, the leaders in this building ran a tabletop exercise on what it would be like to run an effective [evacuation operation] out of Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we’re actually running that play.” Had they not, it is questionable they could have put together a military operation as complicated as this in such a short time frame.

Perhaps most importantly, the image of U.S. forces pinned down at the airport at the mercy of the Taliban began to recede. Kirby reports:

The commanders on the ground have the wherewithal to move their forces as they see fit to, again, do essentially three things: make sure the airport is secure and can be defended; make sure that air operations can continue to carry on at the clip we need them to carry on; and — this is an important one — to make sure that American citizens at risk Afghans or [special immigrant visa] applicants can get access to the gates to get entry process and entry to the field.

The administration will face a reckoning when the evacuation ends, when the number of rescued Afghans and Americans are tabulated and when we can assess the counterterrorism strategy that relies on “over the horizon” intelligence capabilities. That last point is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the unexpected collapse of the Afghan military sheds doubt on the notion that eyes and ears on the ground have a firm grasp on dramatic developments. On the other, the administration is making a calculation that it can sustain a 20-year record in which there have been no foreign Islamist terrorist attacks on the United States (as opposed to homegrown terrorists, cyberattacks from major powers and right-wing White nationalists).

We will never know if a shorter war in Afghanistan and a decision not to invade Iraq would have achieved the same level of protection without the immense cost and lost of life that coincided with two fruitless wars. Biden is betting that going forward, the United States will enjoy the same level of security minus a costly, endless war.

While critics say they want to separate an assessment of the way Biden withdrew and the results thereof, that is simply not the way most Americans will judge these events. If the administration rescues thousands of Americans and at-risk Afghans and if we do not suffer another attack from terrorist groups, the earlier “takes” that this was a debacle will look bizarre. But if Americans are left behind, if our allies cease to act in lock-step or if terrorists are able to project firepower beyond the borders of failed states, no amount of American ingenuity in organizing an airlift will save the administration from history’s verdict.