The Colossal Screw-Up That Was the Afghanistan Withdrawal: A Play-by-Play of How We Totally Botched the Whole Thing
Late Summer of 2021 was full of headlines and news stories about Afghanistan. It’s been hard to keep up with and to keep straight. The short story is that it was an unmitigated disaster of our inept government’s making.
In case you’ve gotten lost in all of the details since this debacle started, here is a list of the events, in chronological order, with plenty of links to sources.
- April 2021: Biden says he’s committed to pulling everyone out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. He apparently thought that choosing the 20 yr. anniversary of 9/11 would be good optics a successful withdrawal. Instead it would end up being a perfect celebration date for the Taliban & other terrorist networks.
- Shortly after this, according to the NY Times, CNN & others, intelligence officers & top military advisors advise Biden that his plan & strategy could prove to be disastrous. The president stubbornly disregards their warnings & insists on proceeding with his ill-fated plan.
- May 2021: The Taliban smells weakness and begins its major military offensive to take back the country.
- July 5, 2021: Americans quietly abandon Bagram Air Base overnight, failing to tell allies or the new Afghan military leaders who were supposed to take it over. Looters take all sorts of equipment, including weapons and laptops with sensitive information, before Afghan forces learned of it. (Note: Bagram was the strategically located, well-fortified headquarters for two decades, the result of millions of dollars. It would have been ideal for a more orderly, protected evacuation.)
- July 8, 2021: Biden reiterates the exit plan, now saying it will be done by Aug. 31. When asked about potential Taliban takeover, Biden assures everyone that there’s no way it becomes like Vietnam, with people being airlifted out. He says the Taliban is not nearly as capable as the Viet Cong had been, and that the Afghan army is well-trained & well-equipped. Nothing to worry about.
- July 23, 2021: A phone call between Biden & Afghan Pres. Ghani. Transcripts later reveal Ghani warning of a “full-scale invasion” by the Taliban & desperately asking for air support to help fight them, while Biden asks Ghani to change the public perception of how thing are going “whether it is true or not.”
Taliban Invasion Begins
- Aug. 13, 2021: Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Kandahar, falls to the Taliban.
- Aug. 14, 2021: Biden sees things getting out of hand & announces that 5,000 troops will be deployed to help with the evacuation (twice the number of the small force that had remained there since Biden took office).
- Aug. 15, 2021: The Taliban takes the capital city of Kabul unopposed. People begin fleeing to the Kabul airport in hopes of getting out of the country. Afghan president Ghani escapes Kabul with a chopper (and a caravan of cars loaded with cash).
- We soon learn that the U.S. left a staggering amount of equipment for the Taliban to take over. The estimated $83 billion worth of planes, choppers, night-vision goggles, guns of all kinds, etc., is enough to create from scratch one of the region’s best equipped armies in a matter of days. This included highly sensitive biometric devices that allow the Taliban to track and find their targets (our allies), which they apparently began doing immediately.
- Military and terrorism experts begin to warn of dire possibilities in the world due to this enormous influx of top military technology and hardware into a terrorist state. Criminal arms dealers see a booming renaissance of business. We later start to see U.S. equipment turning up in places like Iran.
- A later report reveals that Taliban representatives offered U.S. forces the chance to secure Kabul temporarily until troop evacuation was complete. Biden’s officials turned it down & gave Kabul to the Taliban.
- Shortly after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, chaos ensues, with Saigon-like images of choppers on the roof of the U.S. embassy (which had to be abandoned), all routes to the Kabul airport choked with cars & people, mobs at the airport chasing planes, Afghans falling to their deaths from the wheel wells as planes took off, desperate Afghans handing their babies to American soldiers over the razor wire (see image above).
- Most of America’s allies are shocked and enraged by the mismanagement and miscommunication of the Biden plan, putting at risk citizens of multiple other countries helping us in Afghanistan.
- Aug. 17, 2021: Pentagon briefings reveal that the Biden team has negotiated with the Taliban to allow the U.S. military to fly people out of Kabul airport. A massive effort to evacuate Americans & Afghan allies begins, with the goal to get as many as possible out by the Aug. 31 deadline, which Biden refuses to adjust (because the Taliban threatens that they will not allow it), but which nearly everyone estimates will not be enough time.
Stuck at the Airport
- Aug. 18, 2021: Biden gives an interview on ABC in which he says that he doesn’t recall his experts warning and advising him to keep a minimal troop presence (as has been established). He also says, “the idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.” The interviewer asks if that was “priced into the decision” and Biden says, “Yes.” Biden also pledges to get everyone out (including the 50K-65K Afghan allies and their families in his estimate) by the Aug. 31 evac date, and that “if there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”
- Aug. 20, 2021: Biden gives a speech promising that “Any American who wants to come home, we well get you home.” He also promises to evacuate Afghans who helped the U.S. during the war.
- Shortly after this, U.S. officials give the Taliban a list of American citizens, green-card holders and allies that we wished to get out of the country, apparently trusting the Taliban to help us get them out. Many within the country call it a “kill list.”
- Aug. 26, 2021: Two suicide bombers affiliated with ISIS-K blow themselves up at the crowded airport, killing 13 American service members and nearly 100 Afghans seeking to escape, wounding many more. One of the killers had been among those freed from our prison at Bagram when the U.S. bugged out and gave it up.
- Having first told people to come to the airport, Biden officials now tell people NOT to come to the airport, while the Taliban chokes off every road leading to the airport with checkpoints. In a brief press conference, Biden claims that abandoning the Bagram air base had been the generals’ idea. He doesn’t mention that they initially thought this was not a good idea but decided they had to do it after Biden pulled all of their personnel.
Biden’s PR Disasters
- Aug. 29, 2021: Biden’s meetings with the families of the fallen soldiers goes terribly, as he first appears to be checking his watch during the dignified transfer of remains, and later is reported to be disrespectful and annoyed at the families.
- Aug. 29, 2021: On that same day a retaliatory U.S. drone strike hits targets in Afghanistan. Biden would say in his speech two days later (see below) that it was an example of our “over-the-horizon” military capacity: “We’ve shown that capacity just in the last week. We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our service members and dozens of innocent Afghans,” But reports the next day say that the drone actually killed a large civilian family allied with the U.S. The Pentagon at first maintains that it was a “righteous kill,” but is proven wrong when a definitive investigation later proves that they murdered an innocent family, including 10 children.
- Aug. 30, 2021: the last military plane officially departs Kabul airport, marking the end of the evacuation, earlier than the deadline, leaving behind a large but unspecified number of American citizens, Visa-holders, immigrants with special protected status, and allies who helped us for years at risk to themselves. There are reports of anguished military personnel seeing as they left Americans at the gates waving their passports, desperate to leave.
- There were also claims by people on the ground that the U.S. abandoned a large number of service dogs, but government officials denied that report, saying some of the photos were of other dogs or pets not associated with the U.S. military.
Biden Blames Trump
- Aug. 31, 2021: Biden gives a defiant speech on the withdrawal, claiming it was a success due to the thousands of people emergency air-lifted out, but laying blame elsewhere for most of the debacle:
- He blamed Trump for a previous negotiation with the Taliban in 2020 in which Trump initially agreed to a May 2021 withdrawal on certain conditions met by the Taliban. The problem with this is, firstly, that Trump’s desire to see a full withdrawal, going back to the beginning of his term, had been mitigated by advisers who warned him of just such a result as Biden brought about; Trump listened and took their advice, saying “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.” Trump had reduced the troop levels from 13,000 to a minimal force of 2,500, which maintained support of the Afghan military and kept stability. Also, the Taliban had already violated the agreement Trump’s team had made with them, nullifying the May pullout date. And of course we have to remember that Biden felt no obligation to keep any other agreements or policies of Trump, reversing or abolishing many of them on his very first day. Finally we should note that in his Aug. 18 interview on ABC, Biden said that he was determined to withdraw everyone regardless of any deal Trump had made. It was a moot point.
- Biden blamed stranded Americans for not heeding warnings they had been given that they should leave the country. He said the U.S. “reached out to Americans in Afghanistan 19 times with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan, all the way back as far as March.” This claim has been disputed by many within the country, and we have to wonder why they were warning people to get out back in March, when as late as July Biden was saying in speeches (see above) that Afghanistan was stable, in good hands, with a well-trained army, and there was no way we were going to see something like Saigon.
- Biden also reiterated rhetoric about the “forever war” as if Americans were dying, asking “How many more of our sons and daughters will we send into danger?” But the problem is that it was not a ‘hot’ war for American forces. The last American combat death there had been Feb. 2020. Casualty numbers show minimal fatalities for the last several years. Meanwhile, the Afghan military that Biden blamed for failing to fight (after we took away their air support and maintenance contractors) had been doing the ugliest fighting and taking huge losses. Over the course of the 20 years of American presence, the Afghan army lost nearly 69,000 troops, with civilian deaths even higher than that, and with an estimated 2.7 million Afghans displaced or forced to flee the country.
Civilian Rescue Attempts
- After the pullout of the final troops, the State Dept. shrinks the estimated number of Americans remaining to around 200, but numerous people and organizations on the ground deny this, saying the number is off by several hundred American citizens, not to mention thousands of green-card holders and allies with special status who are in grave danger of retaliation.
- As private rescue organizations raise money for flights to get stranded Americans out, reports emerge that the Biden administration is impeding their operations and in some cases stopping them from carrying out their evacuations.
- Throughout the entire debacle, disturbing reports emerge of ghastly Taliban abuses, including hunting house to house for those on their target lists of people who helped Americans, mass executions of former Afghan military fighters, oppressive abuses of women, reinstatement of barbaric punishments like amputations, and the formation of a new government that includes terrorists on our wanted list.
- We learn that the Biden scramble to evacuate thousands before his self-inflicted deadline was so hasty that we likely left a lot of qualified people and took a lot who were unqualified. The vetting has been questioned by some, said to be non-existent by others. The administration has yet to offer answers about who exactly was hauled out in those desperate, packed flights. Was it indiscriminate crowds of people? We can brag on the sheer numbers, but it is possible that many of the ‘right’ people did not get out and some of the ‘wrong’ people did.
Secretary Blinken’s Admission
- Sept. 13, 2021: Sec. of State Blinken goes to Congress to be grilled by the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the Afghanistan disaster. Even some Democrats on the committee are highly critical of the failures of the evacuation. In his testimony, Blinken continues to tow the line and defend Biden’s plan. He again blames the prior Trump negotiations and deadline, though it is an excuse with no merit (see above). But Blinken does make some stark admissions in the hearing:
- He admits that the Taliban had previously violated the terms of the agreement with Trump’s team, making it moot.
- He admits that, contrary to Biden’s claims, the Taliban had not barred Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups from Afghanistan, but had continued to give them harbor and even placed some of their high-ranking members in their new government.
- He admits that there are “several thousand green-card holders” still trapped in Afghanistan. These are people with permanent legal status in the U.S., with the promise of all of the protections of full citizens.
The results of all of this can’t be overstated. It is not hyperbole to call this the worst foreign policy decision and execution in U.S. history. The rest of the world continues too look on in disbelief and disappointment at how bad this was. Stories will continue to trickle out of some who managed to escape, of some who were executed, and of some who have disappeared into hiding or mysterious circumstances.
The American government and much of the public has moved on to new issues and stories. But untold misery still awaits hundreds of thousands of people – essentially hostages, some of whom are citizens of the U.S., some of whom spent years as friends and translators for our soldiers and contractors, all of whom were made promises by the American government, but have now been thrown to the wolves.
And we may well be looking back at these lowlights in future days in the aftermath of (God forbid) terrorist attacks made possible by our creation of an incredibly well-armed jihadist state with no oversight and intelligence as to what they will be doing.
It would not be a surprise to see the Taliban in the future using subtle threats against Americans in their custody to get things they want, like recognition and legitimacy on the world stage or so-called foreign aid, both of which the Biden administration has already given indication it might be willing to grant.
The horribly botched evacuation from Afghanistan will go down as one of the most dishonorable episodes in American political and military history.
Clint Roberts has spent many years teaching courses in philosophy, ethics and religion for various universities, including the University of Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene University.
Originally published at substack.com. Reprinted with permission.