Some pundits have countered that this is a CYA move by national security elites. Matthew Yglesias tweeted: “What’s happening is that leaving is popular, but it’s unpopular with natsec elites and their allies in the media. So to punish Biden and send a message to future presidents they’ve cooked up this fake middle ground position.” This echoes what President Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos last week: “The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how that happened.”
As someone who articulated that middle ground, it is worth considering whether Biden and Yglesias are correct. There are a lot of former officials who are desperately trying to distance themselves from decisions that ineluctably led to what happened last week. Force withdrawal is a messy business. Given what actually happened, is there any way this could have been less chaotic?
This is not an idle hypothetical. When Biden made the decision to proceed with full withdrawal back in April, he did so after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin explicitly warned the president of “the specter of helicopters evacuating the stranded, as happened in Vietnam in 1975, or American hostages being executed by Islamist militants clad in black, as happened in Syria in 2014. … ‘We’ve seen this movie before,’ Mr. Austin warned the president.”
First, Biden’s decision to withdraw was clearly made over the objections of his military advisers. That was what the reporting in April and August tell us. By maintaining such a small force in the last months, Biden forced the military to protect either Bagram air base or the civilian airport. Lacking the manpower to do both is what has made the past 10 days so chaotic.
Nor did Biden deviate from that course as the situation on the ground in Afghanistan deteriorated. The Times reported that as early as May 6, human rights groups “pleaded with the White House officials for a mass evacuation of Afghans and urged them not to rely on a backlogged special visa program that could keep Afghans waiting for months or years.” A bipartisan group of House representatives made similar noises a month later. The White House appears to have listened politely and then done nothing.
Second, Biden had valid reasons to discount warnings from his national security team. Jonah Blank, Biden’s South Asia policy adviser from his Senate days, told FT’s Ed Luce that “Biden has consistently since at least 2008 believed that the US was throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan.” There is a mountain of evidence to support that assertion in Ignatius’s column. He notes:
The hard truth is that this failure is shared by a generation of military commanders and policymakers, who let occasional tactical successes in a counterterrorism mission become a proxy for a strategy that never was. And it was subtly abetted by journalists who were scratching our heads wondering if it would work, but let the senior officials continue their magical thinking.
This leads to the third and last point, which is that even Biden’s military advisers did not think the house of cards would collapse so quickly. The Politico story makes that plain. Even in early August, after the provincial capital Zaranj had fallen:
Most of America’s top diplomats and generals were still operating under the assumption that they had ample time to prepare for a Taliban takeover of the country — it might even be a couple of years until the group was in position to regain power, many thought. Though some military officials and intelligence agencies had stepped up their warnings about the possibility of a government collapse, officials felt confident in the Afghan security forces’ strategy of consolidating in the cities to defend the urban population centers. …“Email was blowing up left and right [with people saying] ‘Wow, this is actually happening right now,’ ” a defense official said. “This thing just fell apart over the weekend.”Pentagon officials were realizing far too late that the Taliban had waged an effective influence campaign in addition to the physical one, taking advantage of tribal dynamics to build ties with village elders and others who played key roles in the group’s mostly bloodless march across the country.
Biden’s security team was correct about the dangers of a withdrawal, but none of them envisaged what actually happened. No one had gamed out a scenario as kinetic as this one.
Somewhere in the multiverse, Biden’s team, including the theater commanders, succeeded in persuading him to protect both Bagram and the civilian airport, facilitating a more rapid and functional withdrawal of allies and partners. In that corner of the multiverse, however, these advisers would have had to rely on a better track record in Afghanistan over the past 15 years.
In this universe, Biden looked at Afghanistan and saw a problem without a military solution short of endless deployment. This led him to tune out his advisers. Those advisers may have been correct about possible downsides, but their track record was so appalling that it is difficult to blame Biden for ignoring them (stonewalling the NGOs and members of Congress is more problematic). These same advisers subsequently did not see how rapidly the situation would change.
In other words, Biden deserves some blame for what is happening — but Afghanistan is a whole-of-government failure of U.S. policy competency.