The New York Times is doing some good reporting on how decisions and preparations were made for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, but I still don’t like the tone of their coverage. On one level there were clear intelligence failures, especially about the strength of the Taliban and the weakness of the central government. But, on another level, it was precisely these factors that Biden understood and that led him to conclude that our mission had failed.
An example is the request made by then-president Ashraf Ghani on June 25 in the White House that Biden be very low-key about evacuating non-military Americans lest it cause a panic and collapse in morale among Afghan troops. This was obviously a very real concern, but in the end it was not one that would matter. Morale was catastrophically low irrespective of how obvious it was that westerners were fleeing the country.
Biden tried to honor President Ghani’s request, and his reward was a bigger problem when the government collapsed in days and Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates. A little less concern for optics in July would have facilitated fewer people stuck in Afghanistan now.
Another example comes from a request Biden made to Ghani in that June 25 meeting.
Mr. Biden had his own request for Mr. Ghani. The Afghan forces were stretched too thin, Mr. Biden told him, and should not try to fight everywhere. He repeated American advice that Mr. Ghani consolidate Afghan forces around key locations, but Mr. Ghani never took it.
So, yes, while it’s true that the intelligence community did not predict that the Taliban would take over Kabul before we even reached the official August 31 withdrawal date, one of the reasons that outcome came about is that Ghani did not consolidate his forces to protect the capital.
One thing that’s obvious is that the weakness of the central government led the Americans to take actions that look stupid in retrospect but which were actually decisions based on accounting for that weakness.
Another lazy criticism involves the decision to move troops out before evacuating civilians. This was done to avoid a military rout and at the Pentagon’s request, and had Biden instead ramped up the military for a civilian exodus he’d be receiving a different and possibly more damning set of critiques now.
It’s fine to point out that there were a lot of faulty assumptions that went into the withdrawal plans, but it’s important to also report on how hamstrung Biden was by conflicting demands. He knew the Afghan government was too weak to stand alone but he didn’t want to make things more difficult for them. For one, he needed them to hold turf which they ultimately could not hold. Had he spoken candidly and taken the appropriately panicked steps to get everyone out, it would have ramped up the odds of chaos and failure.
This isn’t to say that the planning went as well as could be expected, but a balanced picture requires more than just pointing to what went wrong and who made bad predictions. In the end, we can now see that we were defending something that could not stand on its own. That’s the reason we had to leave, not a reason why we should have stayed.