The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion One year’s hindsight on Afghanistan: A good decision, horribly executed

U.S. soldiers secure an evacuation flight at Kabul’s airport on Aug. 17, 2021. (Susannah George/The Washington Post)
6 min

A year after the fall of Kabul, the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan looks better as a pragmatic decision to end a costly war. But haunting images remain from an unnecessarily chaotic exit that reflected a chain of policy misjudgments.

“The last year has borne out the wisdom of getting out,” argues a senior White House official. Though I was skeptical at the time, his judgment seems correct. Imagine if we were still fighting the Taliban when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, or as China threatened Taiwan. As for the terrorism threat, last month’s drone killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri suggests it might be manageable from a distance, as the administration has argued.

What’s still agonizing, though, is the decision-making process, in which different parts of the administration pursued what amounted to contradictory policies. The Pentagon wanted to get out as fast as possible once President Biden decided in April 2021 to withdraw. But the State Department sought to maintain its embassy and diplomatic presence in Kabul, even as the country was crumbling.

The Pentagon and State timetables didn’t match, and nobody ever forced a reconciliation. As a result, State pressed ahead with a diplomatic mission for which it didn’t have adequate time or resources. The military, which had opposed Biden’s withdrawal decision, opted to protect its troops. “Speed is safety” was the Pentagon mantra, while at State it was something closer to “stay the course.”

Follow David Ignatius's opinionsFollow

“They wanted an elegant solution while we were withdrawing, and sometimes those things don’t go together,” says retired Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who as commander of the U.S. Central Command was in charge of U.S. forces during the withdrawal.

The war in Afghanistan from the beginning was a story of overly optimistic assumptions about our Afghan partners’ ability to contain the Taliban, and that continued to the end. Nobody predicted that a panicked President Ashraf Ghani would flee the country and that the Afghan army would suddenly collapse — and perhaps nobody could have. But the Biden administration could have hedged better against the possibility of such “black swan” disasters — and, indeed, some officials tried, unsuccessfully, to do just that.

U.S. officials began developing plans for an emergency evacuation in March 2021, knowing that Biden, long a critic of the war, might want a rapid departure. All the senior Pentagon leaders argued against complete withdrawal, proposing instead to keep 2,500 troops in Kabul as a “term insurance policy” against a terrorist resurgence, as retired Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. put it in a recent interview.

When Biden decided in April that he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops by the end of August, despite Pentagon objections, the generals grudgingly saluted. Commanders wouldn’t ask troops to die for a mission that the president had decided wasn’t worthwhile. But State resisted open discussion of U.S. evacuation. “That would have been a profound sign of lack of confidence in the Kabul government,” a senior State Department official told me.

The Pentagon completed its speedy removal of troops and equipment in July, leaving only a small force of 650 U.S. troops to protect the Kabul embassy and airport. By then, the Taliban was rapidly seizing provincial capitals. National security adviser Jake Sullivan called a meeting in early July to ask whether the United States should try to retain control of Bagram airbase, long the center of American power about 40 miles north of the capital, as an alternative escape route.

Pentagon officials argued that maintaining Bagram after withdrawal of the main 2,500 U.S. troops wasn’t realistic. The Afghan military was no longer capable of providing perimeter security there, the generals explained, and the United States would have to send 3,000 troops back to Afghanistan to keep the base open, McKenzie recalls. Kabul airport would be a better exit point, the administration decided.

Fareed Zakaria: Kabul fell one year ago. Here are the lessons we should learn.

Looking back, the failure to plan earlier and better for possible civilian evacuation was a critical mistake. As the situation deteriorated over the summer, administration officials should have tried to “extend the timetable for withdrawal” or called a temporary “timeout,” argued Carter Malkasian, a former State Department official, in a recent interview. Malkasian served extensively in Afghanistan and wrote a superb history of the war, published last year.

The Taliban surge accelerated in late July and early August. But still, officials resisted issuing a “NEO,” the term for a “noncombatant evacuation operation.” The National Security Council held deputies and principals meetings on Aug. 8 and 9 to urge consideration of the NEO, and the consensus at those meetings was against issuing the order — and that the Afghan army could hold Kabul, according to one participant. Days later, senior leadership of multiple agencies came around to believing the NEO was necessary.

The pyramid of illusions crumbled on Aug. 15. Ghani fled the presidential palace at midday, as Taliban fighters streamed into the capital unopposed. The unthinkable had happened. The State Department had quit the embassy two days before and regrouped at the airport. An emergency evacuation was finally inescapable.

McKenzie traveled to Doha, Qatar, that day to meet Abdul Ghani Baradar, the most senior Taliban official in contact with America. McKenzie carried a map that showed a 30-kilometer circle around Kabul. He planned to ask the Taliban to withdraw to that line until the evacuation was complete. But on his way to Baradar’s suite on the 23rd floor of the Ritz-Carlton in Doha, McKenzie was told that Ashraf Ghani was gone and the Taliban was in downtown Kabul.

McKenzie altered his pitch. If Taliban fighters let the evacuation proceed safely, then U.S. military forces gathered at the airport wouldn’t attack them. Baradar threw a wild card: “Why don’t you secure the city?” McKenzie, knowing that retaking Kabul might require tens of thousands of U.S. troops, demurred. His mission was to secure the evacuation.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh: A year after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Afghan girls stay unsinkable

The Taliban agreed, and the chaotic final airlift began, with U.S. forces eventually evacuating more than 80,000 civilians — at a cost of 13 American troops killed in a terrorist attack by an Islamic State bomber.

Writing an epitaph for a failed 20-year war — and its chaotic last months — is difficult. But McKenzie, the last commander of American troops in this too-long conflict, offers this: “We wanted out. We got out. We subordinated everything to the desire to leave.”

And a year later, for all the mistaken judgements that were part of leaving, it’s good that America’s longest war is over.