Rarely in modern presidential history have words come back to bite an American commander in chief as swiftly as these from President Biden a little more than five weeks ago: “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan.”
Then, digging the hole deeper, he added, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
On Sunday, the scramble to evacuate American civilians and embassy employees from Kabul — the very image that Mr. Biden and his aides agreed they had to avoid during recent meetings in the Oval Office — unfolded live on television, not from the U.S. Embassy roof but from the landing pad next to the building. And now that the Afghan government has collapsed with astonishing speed, the Taliban seem certain to be back in full control of the country when the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is commemorated less than a month from today — exactly as they were 20 summers ago.
Mr. Biden will go down in history, fairly or unfairly, as the president who presided over a long-brewing, humiliating final act in the American experiment in Afghanistan. After seven months in which his administration seemed to exude much-need competence — getting more than 70 percent of the country’s adults vaccinated, engineering surging job growth and making progress toward a bipartisan infrastructure bill — everything about America’s last days in Afghanistan shattered the imagery.
Even many of Mr. Biden’s allies who believe he made the right decision to finally exit a war that the United States could not win and that was no longer in its national interest concede he made a series of major mistakes in executing the withdrawal. The only question is how politically damaging those will prove to be, or whether Americans who cheered at 2020 campaign rallies when both President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Biden promised to get out of Afghanistan will shrug their shoulders and say that it had to end, even if it ended badly.
Mr. Biden knew the risks. He has often noted that he came to office with more foreign policy experience than any president in recent memory, arguably since Dwight D. Eisenhower. In meetings this spring about the coming U.S. withdrawal, Mr. Biden told aides that it was crucial they avoid the kind of scene that yielded the iconic photographs of Americans and Vietnamese scrambling up a ladder to a helicopter on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon when it was frantically evacuated in 1975, as the Vietcong swept into the city.
Yet having decided in April to set the Sept. 11 anniversary as the date for the final American withdrawal, he and his aides failed to get the interpreters and others who helped American forces out of the country fast enough, and they were mired in immigration paperwork. There was no reliable mechanism in place for contractors to keep the Afghan Air Force flying as Americans packed up. The plan Mr. Biden talked about in late June to create what he called an “over-the-horizon capability” to bolster the Afghan forces in case Kabul was threatened was only half-baked before those Afghan forces collapsed.
By their own account, Mr. Biden’s aides thought they had the luxury of time, maybe 18 months or so, because of intelligence assessments that wildly overestimated the capabilities of an Afghan Army that disintegrated, often before shots were even fired. On July 8, the same day he said there was no need to worry about an imminent Taliban takeover, Mr. Biden said that “relative to the training and capacity” of the Afghan security forces, the Taliban are “not even close in terms of their capacity.” He now knows that what they lacked in capacity they made up for in strategy, determination and drive.
“There are lessons to be learned on how each administration handled Afghanistan from start to finish, and we owe it to the members of the military and other Americans who put their lives in harm’s way to plumb these lessons to inform future decision making,” said Michèle Flournoy, who served as the No. 3 official in the Pentagon in the Obama administration and was a leading contender to become Mr. Biden’s secretary of defense.
“For the Biden administration the question will be whether enough contingency planning was done to sustain critical counterterrorism operations,” and whether we “meet our obligations to the Afghans who helped us, reduce the risks associated with withdrawal, and enable some continued support to keep the Afghan military viable.”
Even the most seasoned hands in the politics of South Asia, like Ryan Crocker, a retired career diplomat who served as an ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama and to Iraq under President George W. Bush, thought there was more time.
“A prolonged civil war is a more likely outcome, frankly,” he said seven days ago on ABC’s “This Week,” “than a swift Taliban takeover of the entire country.” But he went on to say that Mr. Biden had “now taken complete ownership of President Trump’s” commitments to exit the country. “He owns it,” Mr. Crocker said. “And I think it is already an indelible stain on his presidency.”
On Sunday, Mr. Biden was publicly silent. The White House released a photograph of him in a video briefing at Camp David. He appeared alone in the photo, his aides beaming in. And it was left to them to explain why he thought, in July, that the Afghan forces would put up a tough fight.
Republicans, including some of those who applauded Mr. Trump when he declared he was getting America out of Afghanistan by Christmas 2020, leapt on the images of Americans being evacuated, and of Ashraf Ghani, the country’s president, fleeing without a succession plan, without a deal with the Taliban about the future of the country and without support.
“I think it’s an unmitigated disaster,” Representative Michael McCaul of Texas said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, contending that Afghanistan will return to “a pre-9/11 state — a breeding ground for terrorism.” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken countered that the U.S. ability to detect, track and kill terrorists was far greater than it was two decades ago.
But Mr. McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, seemed to be trying out themes for the next election season when he said of Mr. Biden: “He could have planned for it. He could have had a strategy for this.”
Now, he said, “there is still no strategy other than race to the airport and evacuate as many people as you can.”
In fact, there is a strategy, but not one that Mr. Biden can easily sell amid the images of chaos in Kabul. To his mind, years of refashioning American foreign policy in reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks gave China room to rise, Russia room to disrupt, Iran and North Korea room to focus on their nuclear ambitions. Getting out of Afghanistan is part of a broader effort to refocus on core strategic challenges, and new threats from cyberspace to outer space. But this weekend was evidence that the past is never really in the past.
The administration’s defense against the criticism of its failure to move fast enough in Afghanistan has been to acknowledge it was taken by surprise by the speed of the collapse, but to insist there were plans in place. The Pentagon press secretary, John F. Kirby, said that a rehearsal of the evacuation effort “was held as far back as May,” and that Marines based on Iwo Jima were positioned to fly to Kabul.
“The reason why we have responded quickly in the past few days is because we were ready for this contingency,” Mr. Kirby said.
But Mr. Biden’s own words make clear he was confident this day would not come for a long time, if ever. He repeatedly said he had “no regrets” about his decision, and would bear no responsibility if the Taliban took over, in part because Mr. Trump had signed the deal in February 2020 that set a May 1, 2021, date for complete American withdrawal. (Although Mr. Biden extended the withdrawal date to Sept. 11, almost all American troops were gone by early July.)
The result of the Trump-Taliban accord, Mr. Biden said Saturday, was that he was left facing a Taliban force “in the strongest position militarily since 2001,” and a date by which all American forces had to be out.
Mr. Blinken stepped around questions on Sunday about why more was not done earlier to get Afghan interpreters for the U.S. military and other allies at risk of Taliban retaliation out of the country. He was also asked why more Americans were not moved earlier out of the embassy in Kabul, as many at the Pentagon had urged, before the scale of the collapse became apparent.
“The inability of Afghan security forces to defend their country has played a very powerful role,” Mr. Blinken said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
All true. But it is Mr. Biden who may be remembered for his role in wildly overestimating the strength of the Afghan forces, and not moving fast enough when it became clear the scenarios he had been presented with were wrong.