As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan became even more chaotic this weekend and the Taliban quickly took control of the capital, Kabul, top Biden administration officials stuck to their guns. Withdrawing was still the right thing to do, they said, regardless of the increasingly ugly outcome.
The question in Afghanistan, though, wasn’t really about whether withdrawing was the right thing to do. It was about how this long-planned and long-sought withdrawal was carried out.
And the receipts are brutal for the Biden administration. Its commentary in recent months on how this would play out has proved excessively optimistic and, in some cases, flat-out wrong. Even if you believe this was never going to go smoothly, it raises huge questions about just how in tune the administration was with the situation on the ground and how prepared it was for a situation such as this.
Let’s recap a few examples.
No ‘Saigon’ moment
If there’s one comment that drives home the wayward predictions and lack of appreciation for how this might play out, it came July 8 from President Biden.
Biden has warned repeatedly over the years of U.S. policy in Iraq leading to a repeat of Saigon, when a chaotic withdrawal from Vietnam resulted in helicopters evacuating U.S. personnel from the embassy. And Biden promised no reprise of that.
“There’s going to be no circumstance when you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy,” Biden said. “It is not at all comparable.”
On Sunday, helicopters were indeed forced to evacuate people not from the roof, but from a landing pad on the U.S. Embassy grounds in Kabul.
Perhaps an even more striking scene involved another aircraft. People surrounded and in some cases clung to a U.S. military airplane as it attempted to depart Monday from the airport in Kabul. At least seven people were killed at Kabul’s international airport, the Associated Press reported Monday.
Biden continued in his July 8 event: “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
One month and one week later, that’s essentially what has happened.
The timeline of the Taliban takeover
Despite Biden’s display of confidence, the possibility of a Taliban takeover has always been very real; the administration and intelligence community just seemed to have no idea how quickly it could happen.
As recently as June, Biden’s intelligence briefings suggested it would be at least a year and a half before Kabul was threatened, according to the New York Times. The Washington Post reported around the same time that Kabul could be overrun in six to 12 months. By last week, the intelligence assessment shifted to within 90 days and possibly as few as 30. Within five days of that media report, the Taliban took Kabul.
And it wasn’t just the intelligence community. In a June hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he “would not necessarily equate the departure of forces in July, August, or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation.”
Blinken made clear that things could take a turn for the worse, but he suggested it wouldn’t happen nearly so quickly.
“And whatever happens in Afghanistan, if there is a significant deterioration in security — that could well happen, we have discussed this before — I do not think it is going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday,” Blinken said.
Back in April, Blinken predicted a Taliban advance was unlikely because military action didn’t suit its goals and would require a “long war."
“No one, starting with the Taliban, has an interest in going back to a civil war, because I think what everyone recognizes is, there’s no military resolution to the conflict," Blinken said. "So, if they start something up again, we’re -- they’re going to be in a long war. That’s not in their interests either.”
Despite the clearly worsening situation over the past week, the administration clung to the hope that a Taliban takeover would not happen that fast.
“So the idea that the continued Taliban advance is unstoppable, that there’s nothing that can stand in the way, that we’ll just have to watch it unfold — that is not the reality on the ground,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday, six days ago.
The capacity of the Afghan military
While casting doubt on the inevitability and imminence of the Taliban’s takeover, top Biden administration officials and even Biden himself repeatedly argued that the Afghan military the United States had propped up over the past 20 years had the capability to defend the country.
Asked July 8 whether a Taliban takeover was inevitable, Biden responded that it wasn’t.
“Because … the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force, against something like 75,000 Taliban,” Biden said. “It is not inevitable.
“Relative to the training and capacity of the [Afghan National Security Forces] and the training of the federal police, [the Taliban is] not even close in terms of their capacity.”
Administration officials repeatedly cited that 300,000 number and suggested the Afghan military was ready.
“I think, you know, Afghan leaders understand that, too,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said in July. “They know how to defend their country, and they know the advantages that they have. It’s really now about using those advantages — taking advantage of those advantages.”
The Biden administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, testified in May that he didn’t believe the Afghan military would succumb nearly as quickly as it eventually did.
“I personally believe that the statements that their forces will disintegrate and the Talibs will take over in short order are mistaken,” Khalilzad said.
As with the Price quote above, perhaps the administration will argue that this was less a matter of capability and more about having the will to defend the country. (Blinken made such a defense Sunday.)
But as The Post’s Craig Whitlock wrote Monday, the writing has been on the wall for a long time when it comes to the Afghan government’s inability to defend itself. The administration invested plenty of rhetoric in the prospect of Afghanistan’s leaders and the military potentially rising to the occasion. If there had actually been much of a fight, perhaps that would have been justified. The rapid collapse points in a very different direction.