The details of the Biden administration's inner planning prior to the pullout from Afghanistan are beginning to emerge, and they are not comforting. "Failure is an orphan," as the old saying goes, but a paternity test is in order to explain a failed effort that will haunt the administration for years to come. Pictured: President Joe Biden (L) meets with his national security team on August 22, 2021 at the White House -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R), Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (3rd L), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (4th L), National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (2nd L), DNI Avril Haines and CIA Director William J. Burns. (Photo by the White House via Getty Images)
The details of the Biden administration's inner planning prior to the pullout from Afghanistan are beginning to emerge, and they are not comforting. "Failure is an orphan," as the old saying goes, but a paternity test is in order to explain a failed effort that will haunt the administration for years to come.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, appearing before congressional panel recently, tried to defend the rationale for the hasty withdrawal, claiming, "We made the right decision in ending America's longest war." This, of course, dodges the question of how the withdrawal was conducted.
There were extraordinary failures in intelligence assessments, stacked alongside conflicting agendas between the departments of State and Defense, the National Security Advisor, and the president's closest political minders. As is so often true of foreign affairs policy in the U.S., domestic political goals and campaign promises interfered with common sense and sound military planning. The price of incompetence was the deaths of 13 American servicemen and hundreds of Afghan civilians hoping to be rescued from vengeful Taliban gunmen.
There was also a misreading of our obligations under the Doha Agreement, signed with the Taliban in February 2020 by the Trump administration and cited by Biden as one reason his hands were tied in drawing down American forces in Afghanistan.
Biden campaigned on ending America's 20-year involvement in Afghanistan, and pledged in a national address, broadcast in April, that the last 2,500 troops would leave the country before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Most Democrats and even some Republicans welcomed his announcement. While Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that "precipitously withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake," his colleague Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said, "I'm glad the troops are coming home." A few Senate Democrats, such as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) also cautioned, "The U.S. has sacrificed too much to bring stability to Afghanistan to leave without verifiable assurances of a secure future."
Yet, while there was criticism of what the withdrawal would mean for the Afghans, no one expected the execution of it to be botched so badly. What led to the disaster?
One answer may be a fateful decision made by Blinken shortly after Biden's April announcement, when Blinken pledged to retain the full "diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian toolkit" to support the Afghan government, even after American forces left. The security of the U.S. embassy in Kabul was thereby made the priority. This had spillover effects on planners at both State and the DoD to protect the 4,000 American, foreign and Afghan staff during the drawdown. State and Defense officials settled on a plan to retain 650 troops to guard the embassy and secure Hamid Karzai International Airport, which the White House approved.
Yet in his opening statement before the House Foreign Affairs committee in September, Blinken asserted, "There's no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining," Blinken said. "If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, and training did not suffice, why would another year, or five, or ten, make a difference?"
While Blinken's pledge back in April may have been an honorable gesture, he was either misinformed or overly optimistic about the stability of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. Either possibility made no sense given the worsening intelligence assessments at the time of the Taliban's ability to surround and threaten Kabul. Why did no one, in particular Joe Biden himself, challenge Blinken's rosy scenario for maintaining a functioning U.S. embassy in the face of obvious direct threats to it? Instead, this became the tent-pole around which the planners of the drawdown based their timeline and priorities. Blinken's statement to the House suggests he finally understands this.
Had Blinken's hopeful gesture been overruled, the withdrawal might instead have prioritized covering the removal of American citizens and Afghan civilians, under protection by sufficient U.S. military presence and air support from Bagram Air Base. As we now know, the loss of U.S. air support for the Afghan army led to the Taliban's military victory. Once intelligence reports finally caught up to the reality in the field, this should have led the decision makers to a complete re-think of how the drawdown was being conducted. Instead, the administration's senior leaders went along with the rushed schedule demanded by Biden, and Blinken's naïve attempt to maintain the embassy presence.
Then there is the Biden administration's claim to have been forced into its hasty withdrawal because of the Doha Agreement, negotiated by the Trump administration in 2020. Journalist and author Lee Smith has covered the conflict for several years. Interviewed recently for the podcast of the Government Accountability Institute, Smith said that there was no chance the Taliban were ever not going to play host to terrorists like Al Qaeda once U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan. "The whole country is more or less ungovernable space, a place where no one will check on them and no one cares if they are there," he said.
Trump's Doha Agreement only bound the United States to "complete withdrawal of all remaining forces" with the "commitment and action" of the Taliban on its obligations, as laid out in the accord. Those terms bound the Taliban not to "allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies," as well as "not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies," and to "prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies."
Even before the final assaults on Kabul and the suicide bombings at Hamid Karzai International Airport, it was clear the Taliban was neck-deep in a proxy relationship with al-Qaeda via its relationship with the Haqqani network. Once again, the information that should have led to a pause and a hard-nosed assessment of how to complete the withdrawal in an orderly, safe way was ignored to meet a political deadline.
Put together, these two failures have been enough to enrage not just those who believed our presence in Afghanistan should have continued, but those on the political Left and Right who supported getting out, provided it was done with dignity and left a stable government behind.
Instead, the Afghan men who helped the U.S., the women who breathed freedom for the first time, the military veterans from the U.S. and its allies who fought and died there all feel a sense of abandonment and frustration at this endgame incompetence. Those in the government who continue to hunt terrorist jihadis have lost their sources, bases of operation, and ability to quick-strike military targets that a resurgent al-Qaeda will now present there.
Author Lee Smith recently shared a comment from a journalist friend of his who is also a veteran of the Afghanistan War. His friend wrote him in frustration over the withdrawal and told him, "You don't spend two decades pumping trillions of dollars into a money pit and funding all manner of transparent fantasies one year at a time with no real continuity or long-range planning, then all of a sudden develop the ability as you're running out the door at half past midnight to make prudent decisions to secure your material interests."
Peter Schweizer, President of the Governmental Accountability Institute, is a Gatestone Institute Distinguished Senior Fellow and author of the best-selling books Profiles in Corruption, Secret Empires and Clinton Cash, among others.