Behind the Scenes of the Biden Team’s Botched Afghanistan Exit

World Politics Review, 27.08.2021
Candace Rondeaux, académica y profesora (Center on the Future of War-New America/Arizona State University)

Debacle. That is the only right and proper way to describe President Joe Biden’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden lost every point he’s dropped in national polling this week entirely of his own accord, and history will not be any kinder to his foreign policy legacy. Most Americans might agree with the White House decision to exit Afghanistan. Regardless, August 2021 will remain an indelible stain on the United States’ reputation.

That was already the case before yesterday’s horrific suicide bombing outside Kabul’s international airport, which left at least 100 dead, including 13 U.S. service-members, and 150 injured, according to the latest reports. It is even more so today.

How did this happen? Was it an intelligence failure? A military failure? A failure of diplomacy? It was all those things, and more. But the Biden administration’s mishandling of the pullout was above all a failure of leadership. There is no point in second-guessing his decision to honor a flawed agreement made by his predecessor, Donald Trump, with the Taliban. What matters is what happened after Biden announced his decision to end the U.S. military engagement in April.

In theory, scheduling the deadline for completion of the pullout for Sept. 11 gave the White House National Security Council—the tip of the spear on Afghanistan policy—five months to plan and execute the exfiltration of tens of thousands of Americans and Afghan partners still in the country. However, those early months were consumed by something that bedeviled the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan throughout the 20 years of war there: the perennial over-focus on U.S. military force protection. That helped blind West Wing decision-makers to the cold reality that former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s shambolic government had lost its credibility among the Afghan powerbrokers who would decide the country’s fate after the U.S. withdrawal, as well as to the fact that the Afghan security forces had lost their ability to fight absent U.S. logistical support.

That still does not explain why it took the State Department another three months after Biden’s initial announcement in April to stand up the Afghanistan Coordination Task Force, the 25-member organizing committee of diplomats charged with managing the civilian side of the American withdrawal. Headed by Ambassador Tracy Jacobson, a veteran diplomat who has served in neighboring Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as well as in Kosovo, the task force, also known as the ACTF, was brought up short soon after launching in July, when Biden suddenly decided to move the deadline for withdrawal up by two weeks to Aug. 31.

Technically, Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser to the National Security Council, or NSC, was charged with liaising with the task force and ensuring that key agencies like the Defense Department were getting the information they needed to support exfiltration of at-risk Afghan allies. Practically speaking, sources inside the U.S. government told me, few at the working level inside State knew who was in charge. And initially, as the Taliban converged in Kabul late last week, there was a scramble to find someone—anyone—at the Pentagon who could communicate with the U.S. Marines and 82nd Airborne troops on the ground at the Kabul airport managing access to the gates and the flights.

This sorry situation forced hard-working, mid-level U.S. diplomats and civil servants to rely on their own personal networks in the U.S. human rights and veterans community to get information about what was happening on the ground in Kabul. Even though many on the ACTF were working in some cases only a short walk away from the White House, they had to turn to private citizens to put pressure on the Biden administration and U.S. allies in the United Kingdom and Europe to resolve the bottlenecks.

Practically speaking, sources inside the U.S. government told me, few at the working level inside State knew who was in charge.

One of the biggest obstacles that easily could have been anticipated with more forethought by the White House was that the Kabul airport had limited space for incoming and outgoing flights. While dozens of NGOs and individual volunteers managed to secure millions of dollars in charitable donations to pay for chartered flights and support for Afghans fleeing the country early on, there were regular reports of flights leaving with empty seats because a U.S. military order set a one-hour time limit for planes parked on the tarmac. If it were not for the heroic efforts of the hundreds of American, European, British and Canadian civilian and military veterans of America’s longest war who worked and are still working around the clock to get at-risk Afghans out, it is doubtful that the tens of thousands who have left the country since the Taliban seized Kabul would have made it onto the flights.

Instead, the same group of citizen civilian volunteers and veteran soldiers who had spent years trying to support a more stable Afghanistan, and who along with millions of Afghans had borne the brunt of years of losses as well as physical and moral injury, were dumped right back into the nightmarish maw of failed U.S. policy. It was only thanks to the fevered sweat-equity of groups like No One Left Behind, an American nonprofit organization run primarily by American veterans, that these privately organized networks had access to real-time information about the situation at the airport gate, in order to facilitate their efforts to aid the evacuation. This too could have been avoided if Biden had not been in such a rush to meet an arbitrary deadline, and both the ACTF and NSC had taken more direct and urgent action to reach out directly to the NGOs that the State Department, Pentagon and intelligence communities have relied on for years to provide on-the-ground support and analysis of the dynamics of the Afghan conflict.

What would have helped even more would have been for U.S. forces to set a harder perimeter around Bagram Airbase in April so that they could manage the exfiltration of Americans, Afghan and third-country nationals from two locations instead of one. Instead, U.S. military officials in charge of the country’s largest landing area slipped out in the middle of the night in early July, just as the ACTF was being stood up at the State Department.

That was the moment when the full disconnect between the Pentagon and State should have been readily apparent to White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Travers and the rest of the NSC team. But, as usual, the politics of personality appear to have trumped the practicalities of executing on a workable policy, and one personality stands out for his arrogance and negligence: the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.

According to several current and former U.S. government sources I have spoken to, Khalilzad argued right up until the very end that staying the course on the deal Trump made with the Taliban was the only path forward. For reasons that remain a mystery, Khalilzad—who was also the architect of the disastrous 2001 Bonn Agreement that put in place a pyrrhic victor’s peace, including a power-sharing agreement that excluded a much-weakened Taliban from a negotiated settlement—was put in charge of bargaining America’s way out of Afghanistan.

Distrusted by many Afghan elites in Kabul, Khalilzad was quite possibly the absolute worst choice for the job of winding down the war. His toxic relationship with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Ghani’s Cabinet was public knowledge for years. When a State Department colleague sounded me out several years ago on the prospect of putting Khalilzad in charge of negotiations with the Taliban, I expressed my horror at the thought. I am certain I was not alone in that view. When the dust eventually settles on the Biden administration’s failure to honor American commitments to its Afghan allies, the White House will do itself a world of good by making sure that Khalilzad does not darken the doors of the State Department or take up any other U.S government position again. If there is ever a next time around—and let’s hope, there isn’t—the White House just cannot afford to be fooled again.

The thousands of American, British, Canadian and European citizens who long ago learned these hard lessons and now are struggling with reopened wounds will just have to keep on pushing through the hurt and shame. Hopefully there will come a day when we can return to the foothills of the Hindu Kush and be reunited with the Afghans we considered to be brothers and sisters again. Hopefully they will still be there when we do.

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