As the Boeing C-17 US air force transport plane sped along the runway at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai airport, it was chased by dozens of Afghans seeking to leave with it. Among them were journalists, translators, activists — many of whom had worked with the Americans over the last two decades in some capacity — and others who felt their life was in danger now that the Taliban had suddenly regained control of the country. In desperation, a handful of people had clung to the engine of the plane, which took off regardless. As it rose from the tarmac and up hundreds of feet into the air, some could be seen falling to the ground, and to their death.
It was a grim and fitting illustration of the “America First” thinking championed by former president Donald Trump, but it was happening under his successor, Joe Biden, a man who came to power promising to exemplify a different way of doing things and a more humane foreign policy.
The scenes of chaos in Kabul and the rapid takeover by the Taliban have drawn comparisons to some of the worst foreign policy crises in US history, from the fall of Saigon to Jimmy Carter’s disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages from the Iranian embassy in Tehran in 1980. So how did it come to this?
The final days of America’s longest war may have fallen under Biden’s tenure, but the chaos of the withdrawal does not belong to him alone. There were long-term, fundamental failures which led to the collapse of the US-backed Afghan government and army it had spent billions of dollars building: rampant corruption, a fighting force that systematically denied the resources they needed to stand a chance, the quick withdrawal of US air and technical support, to name a few. Still, none of that made such an ignoble exit inevitable.
After more than 20 years of fighting, and facing an American public that had soured on long-running overseas conflicts, both Biden and Trump campaigned on a promise to extricate US forces from Afghanistan. That the US would leave was not in question — it was simply a matter of how, and when.
The timeline for the withdrawal was set into motion by the Trump administration in the final year of his presidency. Keen to meet a key campaign promise to “end endless wars,” the White House signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 to reduce the number of US troops in the country from 13,000 to 8,600 by July that same year, followed by a full withdrawal by May 2021. The agreement also included a swap of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners. As part of the deal, the Taliban would not attack American forces in the country while the drawdown took place and would guarantee its territory would not be used for international terrorism.
The Taliban largely met its commitment not to attack US forces, but it continued to attack Afghan government forces and carried out assassinations against activists, journalists and judges across the country. It was able to plan and position itself favourably for the day when the US military left. As it happened, it didn’t wait for that day.
Many, including Mr Biden, have blamed that deal for the chaos of the withdrawal. The president defended his decision even as the Taliban marched into Kabul in a statement issued over the weekend.
“When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor — which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019 — that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001,” the statement said.
“Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice — follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our Forces and our allies’ Forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict.
He added: “I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
Mr Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, responded that the agreement was for a "a conditions-based withdrawal" that allowed for the US to take action if the Taliban reneged on the deal.
"We made abundantly clear that if they did not live up to that piece of paper … we weren’t going to allow them to just walk away from any deal that they struck, we were going to go crush them," Mr Pompeo said, without providing details about which conditions the Taliban had violated.
But while Mr Biden’s explanation covered the “why” of the withdrawal, it failed to address the “how” — how did it go so wrong? A little over a month ago, he expressly assured Americans that the withdrawal would not descend into chaos, that there was a plan.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan,” he said.
“The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” he added.
He was wrong on both counts.
There were other questions, too: How did the most powerful military in the world fail to process visas for the thousands of Afghans who worked alongside it throughout the last two decades? How did it get caught so off guard by the Taliban’s rapid advance? How did it misjudge the strength of the Afghan army?
They were left largely unanswered by the president as he spoke publicly on Monday for the first time since the Taliban’s entry into Kabul.
Instead of accounting for that failure, Mr Biden blamed the Afghan army for failing to put up a fight against the Taliban, and the government for fleeing.
“The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision,” he said.
He did not address the massive casualties suffered by the Afghan military — more than 60,000 deaths since 2001.
President Biden announced Operation Allies Refuge last month to evacuate the thousands of Afghans who worked with the US and whose applications have been stuck in a backlog for years, and whose lives were now at serious risk from the Taliban.
The US has evacuated some 2,000 applicants and their families for the special visa programme, although up to 50,000 who would qualify for the resettlement had not had their application processed by the time the Taliban took over. Those people now face an agonising wait while the US processes the applications and oversees the evacuation of its own citizens and soldiers.
Mr Biden has been most comfortable defending the decision to withdraw, but he will not be able to avoid answering tough questions about the way in which it was done forever.
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