Six months. That is how long Biden administration had, in theory, stipulated for Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, to fall to the Taliban. According to President Joe Biden, the fall of Kabul was not imminent, as Afghanistan had an army of more than 300,000 men trained, equipped and ready to defend their country thanks to U.S. support for twenty years.
Given that initial scenario, Biden has an excuse to respond to the criticism: the Afghans did not want to fight for their country and, in that sense, the United States has nothing to do in Afghanistan. Basically, that was the argument the president made during his speech last Monday, after leaving behind his brief vacation at Camp David. The president’s speech was ultra-defensive, exculpating himself, criticizing Afghan allies and, of course, pointing to the deal struck by the Trump administration last year as a burden that is hard to let go of.
Now, reality overwhelms the president’s argument. It is not that the Afghans simply did not want to fight for their country —they have, in fact, been doing so for decades— or that the corruption of the ousted U.S. and NATO-backed government limited the development of the military. Certainly, as The Wall Street Journal reviews in an article entitled “How the Taliban Overran the Afghan Army,Built by the U.S. Over 20 Years,” the fall of Kabul is understandable because there are many “built-in flaws of the Afghan military compoundedby strategic blundering of the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.”
“The Taliban, meanwhile, took advantage of the U.S.-sponsored peace talks to deceive Kabul about theirintentions as they prepared and executed a lighting offensive.”
All that is true, but the president made at least two decisions that undoubtedly doomed the Afghan army that the U.S. supported and trained for 20 years. Those two decisions were neither the fault of the Afghans nor the fault of the deal struck by the Trump administration. They were Biden’s unique and exclusive gambles, even going against the decision of his generals.
Cessation of air support: the key to the Afghan army’s downfall
Since May the Taliban have been fighting in their quest to conquer space. Many outposts of the U.S.-backed army were falling like huts knocked down by barbarians. One of the most important districts taken was Imam Sahib, which fell last June.
“The Afghan government outpost in Imam Sahib, a district of northern Kunduzprovince, held out for two months after being surrounded by the Taliban,” reads The Wall Street Journal. “At first, elite commando units would come once a week on a resupply run. Then, these runs becamemore scarce, as did the supplies.”
When the resupplies stopped, the Afghan army had no choice but to withdraw to the capital of Imam Sabih and leave its outpost. It fell in a matter of weeks, similar to what happened to the rest of the Afghan provinces and districts. There was no water, no food, no weapons, Afghan soldiers reported. The reality was staggering, for although many soldiers wanted to fight, morale was extremely low and resources were scarce. Some soldiers had not even been paid.
Bolger, who is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, “commanded the U.S.-led coalition mission to train Afghan forces in 2011-2013.”
The Taliban had everything in their favor, as they could offer money and safe conduct to the soldiers. Most of them accepted, since the United States, in addition to announcing the withdrawal of its troops, also cut off air support. This was the beginning of the end.
“The Afghan army fighting alongside American troops was molded to match the way the Americans operate. The U.S. military, the world’s most advanced, relies heavily oncombining ground operations with air power, using aircraft to resupply outposts, striketargets, ferry the wounded, and collect reconnaissance and intelligence,” the newspaper report explained. “Following President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support,intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters. That meantthe Afghan military simply couldn’t operate anymore.”
According to retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who spoke to the WSJ, this happened in the 1970s in Vietnam, generating similar results. “There’s always a tendency to use the model you know, which is your own model (…) When you build lan army like that, and it’s meant to be a partner with a sophisticated force like the Americans, you can’t pull the Americans out all of a sudden, because then they lose theday-to-day assistance that they need.”
The results are plain to see: the Afghan army suffered humiliating defeats, one after another, and the Taliban simply took Kabul in record time. Shattering any kind of wrong prognosis made by the Biden administration and the intelligence services.
Another problem, it is worth noting, is that the previous Afghan government headed by former President Ashraf Ghani was simply mistaken in believing that Joe Biden would reconsider the deal struck by Trump. Biden not only kept it, but doubled down, seeking the return of troops as quickly as possible. Ghani, with no military experience, made many mistakes, including not adapting his army to operate without American support.
The Doha agreement also strengthened the Taliban, as it led to the cessation of bombing against insurgents, allowing the Taliban “were able to regroup, plan, strengthen their supply lines, have freedom of movement, without fear of American bombardment,” according to Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group.
In short, there was a combined perfect storm of Afghan incapacity, problems with the Doha deal and Joe Biden’s final decision that allowed the fall of Kabul and all of Afghanistan in just weeks.
Could the fall of Kabul have been avoided or prolonged?
Today the criticism of Joe Biden is not the withdrawal of troops, it is not what he did, but how he did it. The thunderous fall of Kabul is leaving a very serious humanitarian toll and generating problems for national interests. Today there are American citizens, and many Afghans who supported the United States for years, trapped and at the mercy of the Taliban.
This is where the question arises: could such a disastrous exit have been avoided, could the fall of Kabul have been avoided or prolonged to get Americans and potentially life-threatened people out of Afghanistan?
Certainly, Biden did not inherit an optimal situation with the Afghanistan issue, yet one of his virtues as a presidential candidate was his supposed foreign policy skills and experience. The president could, but would not, renegotiate the terms reached in Doha in 2020, and to do so he went against several of his generals.
“In contrast to the numerous Trump policies he reversed, he opted to carry out Mr. Trump’s deal with the Taliban instead of trying to renegotiate it. Biden’s Afghanistan exit raises questions about his foreign-policy record.”
“In so doing, he overruled his top military commanders: Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Gen. Austin Scott Miller, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan; and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Citing the risks of removing American forces to Afghan security and the U.S. Embassy, they recommended that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan while stepping up diplomacy to try to cement a peace agreement.”
This is where Biden’s excuses during his speech have no compatibility with the facts. The president criticized Trump’s deal, but kept it unchallenged in practical terms. He could have heeded his generals and kept the modest 2,500 troops trying to configure a cleaner withdrawal. None of that happened and the only thing clear, so far, is that the collapse of the Afghan government was not foreseen by intelligence; miscalculations are now unleashing a political crisis abroad with very few precedents in American history.
General Milley commiserated before the news media and said that the fall of Kabul was not at all foreseen. “There are not reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days.”
Yet, Milley himself asked Biden to keep soldiers in Afghanistan, according to the WSJ. Moreover, the president knew the risks of leaving Afghanistan, including the fall of Kabul.
Today the situation is chaotic, there are no official figures, but some 15,000 Americans are stranded in Afghanistan and the government has no rescue plan that does not depend on the participation and collaboration of the Taliban. In short, the president has a large share of responsibility and must assume it.