The collapse of Afghanistan is nearly complete, with Taliban fighters now encircling the national capital, Kabul, after capturing every other major city in the country in barely more than a week. The U.S. intelligence assessment from June that warned of a total Taliban victory within six to 12 months of the withdrawal of American troops has been revised sharply downward: first to one to three months, then to as little as 72 hours. Given the shocking momentum of the Taliban advance, it would not be surprising to see Kabul fall within a day.
Though the Taliban says it has instructed its fighters not to attack Kabul and wait for the Afghan government’s surrender, they have been paying little heed to international calls for a peaceful transition or the preservation of human rights during their offensive thus far. They are already reportedly imposing their draconian rules on the cities they occupy — burqas for women, no education for girls, no smartphones — and threatening those who break them. Meanwhile, Afghan national forces are barely putting up a fight; in city after city, soldiers and officials of the U.S.-backed Afghan government have surrendered to the Taliban after putting up a token resistance at best. The Islamist militants are winning easily, as the one party that could have checked their advance — the U.S. military — is already most of its way out the door.
The spiraling crisis in Afghanistan is becoming politically dicey for President Joe Biden — though just how dicey remains to be seen. Former president Donald Trump and other figures on the right are spinning the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government as a massive failure on the part of the Biden administration. Their fantasy narrative is that Trump would have managed the withdrawal (which his administration negotiated with the Taliban and agreed to last year) more effectively, and somehow Afghanistan would have remained intact in the aftermath.
This is, of course, nonsense. Trump would not have made any greater effort than Biden to protect the Afghan people as he withdrew U.S. forces — if anything, his track record and character suggest he would have been even more indifferent. His withdrawal would not have been “conditions-based,” as Trump claims, because the imagined conditions for an orderly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan have never existed and will never exist. Three successive U.S. presidents attempted to produce those conditions, and they all kept getting sucked back in.
Some commentators have, predictably, bought into the “Biden is losing Afghanistan” narrative. The pathos of Afghans already suffering under the psychotic austerity of Taliban rule, the shuttering of girls’ schools, the prospect of wholesale bloody revenge against anyone who supported the U.S. occupation or resisted the Taliban — all of this makes for gut-wrenching news stories in which the administration comes off looking either incompetent or heartless for allowing it all to happen.
By no means is this to say that Biden has managed this process perfectly, or even well. His eagerness to pull American troops out completely by the symbolic deadline of September 11, no matter what, has left insufficient time for ensuring the evacuation of Afghans who assisted the U.S. and have good reason to fear they’ll be imprisoned or executed because of that once the Taliban gets hold of them. Those who are not far enough along in the process of applying for special immigrant visas (SIVs), or stuck in Taliban-controlled territory or otherwise unable to travel to Kabul, are “shit out of luck,” as a congressional aide put it to the Washington Post on Friday. Around 19,000 Afghans who qualify for SIVs are still in the queue. Along with their families, that’s about 88,000 hopeful evacuees — and that’s not counting all the journalists, activists, and other highly vulnerable people who qualify for refugee status or asylum under other visa programs.
The Biden administration also does not appear to have accounted for the speed at which the Taliban would advance as U.S. soldiers withdrew, nor for the refugee crisis that would spawn as hundreds of thousands of desperate Afghans attempted to flee both the offensive and country. Biden has already been forced to backtrack on his plan for a speedy withdrawal by redeploying up to 8,000 combat troops to Kabul to protect and assist in the evacuation of embassy staff. Had the administration planned better and devoted more resources to protecting and evacuating U.S. diplomats and Afghan allies, the withdrawal might not have been so fraught with danger.
Still, there is really no conceivable circumstance under which the U.S. could have extracted itself from Afghanistan without the government crumbling and the country falling back into the hands of the Taliban. The Afghan government and its security forces were always dependent on the backstop of a U.S. military presence in their country. The corrupt officials in Kabul took it for granted that we would be there to keep them in power indefinitely. The Taliban has always known this, and they have been waiting and planning for this very series of events for the past 20 years.
The U.S. has always known this, too, but our political and military leadership has always been deeply reluctant to admit it. Every time we tried to draw down, the Taliban quickly filled the void we left. Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump were all ultimately convinced to send in more soldiers and try to stabilize Afghanistan again. Biden, in contrast, has remained resolute in his commitment to the withdrawal and is letting the chips fall where they inevitably would. The speed at which the Taliban has retaken the country over the past week may be shocking, but the fact that they have done so is no surprise at all.
Might things have been different? Perhaps, but most of the decisions that led to this tragedy were made long before Biden entered office. As Mike Jason, a former U.S. Army colonel who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has explained at The Atlantic, the U.S. failed to build the institutions that form the backbone of an effective security force in both countries. No matter how many soldiers we trained, the absence of those institutions ensured that these countries’ armies would never stand on their own feet:
We failed to establish the necessary infrastructure that dealt effectively with military education, training, pay systems, career progression, personnel, accountability — all the things that make a professional security force. Rotating teams through tours of six months to a year, we could not resolve the vexing problems facing Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s armies and police: endemic corruption, plummeting morale, rampant drug use, abysmal maintenance, and inept logistics. We got really good at preparing platoons and companies to conduct raids and operate checkpoints, but little worked behind them.
This fundamental failure helps to explain why the Afghan security forces have fled or surrendered city after city this week, despite having greater numbers, better equipment, and ostensibly better training than the Taliban. Many commentators have compared the events of the past week to the fall of Saigon at the close of the Vietnam War in 1975, but a more apt comparison is to the way the Iraqi security forces shattered in the face of the ISIS advance in 2014. No matter how well-armed they are, soldiers who don’t feel supported by the state they represent, or that it’s worth fighting for, are no match for militant religious fanatics who are just as eager to die for their cause as they are to kill for it.
Republicans now apparently hope (and some Democrats fear) that the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan will become a political disaster for Biden. Yet after two decades in Afghanistan, it is not clear whether Americans care enough about the fate of that war to punish the president who finally ends it. Gallup finds public opinion evenly divided on whether the war was a mistake; other polling over the past few years has found consistently mixed feelings about whether to remain in Afghanistan or withdraw. Considering how low foreign policy ranks on most Americans’ priority lists, let alone in a non-election year, ending the longest war in U.S. history won’t necessarily be a political liability for Biden — though of course, Republicans will try their worst to make it one.
In a statement on Saturday, Biden reiterated his core rationale for proceeding with the withdrawal on schedule, in spite of the potential consequences for Afghanistan: “One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.” Here, he acknowledges two uncomfortable truths: that Afghanistan is in essence a failed state, and that it is no longer enough of a strategic priority for the U.S. to justify an indefinite military presence there. Those are facts, not positions.
Biden’s assessment is consistent with his longstanding skepticism of the Afghanistan war and our nation-building experiment there. His administration has made serious mistakes in managing that experiment’s end, especially its inexcusable mishandling of the evacuation of our Afghan allies and their families. Yet the sad fact is that America’s departure from Afghanistan was always going to be a bloody, chaotic, heartbreaking mess. Biden has chosen to oversee that inevitable tragedy rather than extend the entanglement to yet another president. Americans might debate the wisdom of that decision and how it has been carried out, but after 20 years of war, it was a decision that had to be made.