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Afghanistan Was a Predictable, Preventable Disaster

On the sad anniversary of the chaotic U.S. pullout, Afghanistan is once again primed for terror.

By , a U.S. senator from Oklahoma.
A flight of British citizens and other eligible personnel are evacuated from Kabul in 2021.
A flight of British citizens and other eligible personnel are evacuated from Kabul in 2021.
A flight of British citizens and other personnel are evacuated from Kabul by the British Armed Forces on Aug. 21, 2021. Ben Shread/British Ministry of Defence Crown Copyright via Getty Images

Today is a deeply sad anniversary. One year ago, the Taliban seized Kabul, the Afghan government collapsed, and U.S. President Joe Biden ordered a hasty and chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan. When the crisis ended two weeks later, 13 U.S. service members had been killed and hundreds or more U.S. citizens had been left behind to fend for themselves under the Taliban’s brutal rule.

Future historians will ask how a global superpower like the United States seemed so unprepared for Afghanistan’s unraveling. Here’s what they should know: Almost everyone who paid any attention to Afghanistan saw it coming—everyone, that is, except Biden and his insular circle of advisors.

The United States went to war in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks for two main reasons: to punish those responsible and to prevent any future attacks from being planned and organized from Afghan soil. The two-decade war was costly, not least to our men and women in uniform: 2,448 U.S. service members were killed and 20,752 service members were wounded during the war. Yet the U.S.-led effort also helped sustain an Afghan government that, for all of its many shortcomings, prevented the Taliban’s resurgence, countered al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and afforded Afghans unprecedented freedoms for nearly two decades.

Today is a deeply sad anniversary. One year ago, the Taliban seized Kabul, the Afghan government collapsed, and U.S. President Joe Biden ordered a hasty and chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan. When the crisis ended two weeks later, 13 U.S. service members had been killed and hundreds or more U.S. citizens had been left behind to fend for themselves under the Taliban’s brutal rule.

Future historians will ask how a global superpower like the United States seemed so unprepared for Afghanistan’s unraveling. Here’s what they should know: Almost everyone who paid any attention to Afghanistan saw it coming—everyone, that is, except Biden and his insular circle of advisors.

The United States went to war in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks for two main reasons: to punish those responsible and to prevent any future attacks from being planned and organized from Afghan soil. The two-decade war was costly, not least to our men and women in uniform: 2,448 U.S. service members were killed and 20,752 service members were wounded during the war. Yet the U.S.-led effort also helped sustain an Afghan government that, for all of its many shortcomings, prevented the Taliban’s resurgence, countered al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and afforded Afghans unprecedented freedoms for nearly two decades.

Nobody wanted a “forever war” in Afghanistan—I certainly didn’t. That’s why I supported then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, which conditioned the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on the Taliban’s implementation of wide-ranging counterterrorism commitments. In the interim, Trump right-sized the U.S. force posture, reducing troop levels from roughly 12,000 service members in February 2020 to 2,500 service members (according to U.S. Defense Department numbers) by the time he left office—a sufficient presence for supporting the Afghan government’s security efforts and ensuring that the Taliban kept their end of the bargain.

After taking office, Biden undertook a superficial review of our Afghanistan policy—one that totally ignored the advice of his top military advisor and his commanders on the ground. On April 14, 2021, he reversed the Trump administration’s conditions-based drawdown policy and announced that all U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 of that year, whether or not the Taliban had met its commitments under the 2020 agreement.

The only thing that has been “decimated” in Afghanistan, to borrow Biden’s term, is everything that U.S. service members sacrificed to build.

Eight days after Biden’s announcement, the commander of U.S. Central Command, U.S. Marines Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was concerned about the “ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground that they’re on now without the support that they have been used to for many years.” He also acknowledged that counterterrorism strikes would be much harder without a U.S. presence.

In May 2021, USA Today reported that Afghan translators, who had worked alongside U.S. personnel for years, feared that the Taliban would take over and kill them once U.S. troops departed. They begged the Biden administration for help—and members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, echoed their pleas to start evacuating U.S. citizens and partners. Meanwhile, the Taliban saw Biden’s unconditional withdrawal as an invitation to ramp up their offensive. Afghan government forces stood down because they saw no chance of winning without U.S. support.

Throughout this period, Biden refused to reexamine his policy. On July 8, 2021, even as the Taliban were on the march, he insisted that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was not yet inevitable. Meanwhile, his administration refused to expedite the evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghan partners because it feared this would signal a lack of confidence in the Afghan government.

When the Taliban finally entered Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, they took the Afghan capital without a fight. Even with many thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghan partners still in the country, the Biden administration stuck to its new, self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline for completing the withdrawal. The result was utter chaos: Thousands of U.S. service members were suddenly deployed to Kabul’s international airport to assist the evacuation effort and contend with masses of ordinary Afghans desperate to escape Taliban rule.

Our service members rose to the occasion, as they always do, and helped evacuate around 124,000 people under incredibly difficult circumstances. But the Islamic State still found a way to exploit the havoc, killing 13 U.S. service members near an airport gate on Aug. 26, 2021. Nearly one year later, the Biden administration has failed to hold the perpetrators accountable because the withdrawal has severely diminished U.S. counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan.

In the end, despite his commitment that all U.S. citizens would be evacuated, Biden left hundreds of people and possibly more behind. The rushed process also meant that the Biden administration did not properly vet Afghan evacuees. According to the U.S. Defense Department’s inspector general, there are “50 Afghan personnel in the United States with information in [Defense Department] records that would indicate potentially significant security concerns.”

Biden’s decision effectively turned Afghanistan, a country roughly the size of Texas, over to the Taliban, a ruthless terrorist organization that continues to house and collaborate with al Qaeda, the organization responsible for planning and carrying out the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Unfortunately, Biden hasn’t reckoned with any of this. His national security team appears to believe it can talk past the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal by touting the number of people withdrawn or talking about a U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan when only a single operation against terrorists has occurred there since the Taliban’s takeover.

That one operation—the strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri two weeks ago—reflects the immense professionalism and competence of the U.S. personnel that continue to track terrorist activities, and we are grateful for their tireless work keeping Americans safe. But as a result of Biden’s decision to unconditionally withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the work of our counterterrorism personnel has become significantly harder. As McKenzie, then serving as U.S. Central Command commander, said in December 2021, “We’re probably at about 1 or 2 percent of the capabilities we once had to look into Afghanistan.”

We now know for certain that one of Biden’s core justifications for last year’s withdrawal—that al Qaeda had been “decimated”—was not true, just as top military advisors have been saying all along. Zawahiri had been living for months in downtown Kabul next door to a house owned by Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. Instead of keeping its commitments under the 2020 Doha agreement to counter al Qaeda, the Taliban were knowingly hosting the terrorist group’s top official, which the White House now acknowledges. Meanwhile, al Qaeda will be capable of attacking the U.S. homeland within one to two years, according to public estimates by the Defense Department.

In June, Biden again helped strengthen Afghanistan’s terrorists when his administration released a longtime Guantánamo Bay detainee, Asadullah Haroon Gul, to the Taliban. According to publicly available court documents, Gul was a member of a militant organization associated with al Qaeda that helped its leader, Osama bin Laden, hide in Afghanistan in 2002. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban celebrated his return as yet another victory.

Indeed, the only thing that has been “decimated” in Afghanistan, to borrow Biden’s preferred term, is everything that U.S. service members sacrificed to build over the previous two decades. The Afghan government, National Army, Air Force, and police no longer exist. Despite Taliban assurances, foolishly accepted by the Biden administration, scores of former Afghan officials and likely hundreds of former security personnel have been killed since the U.S. withdrawal. Shamefully, many thousands of former U.S. partners have been left to the terrorists’ mercy.

Meanwhile, despite the Biden administration’s overly generous acknowledgement of Taliban statements supporting women’s education, the Taliban closed classrooms from sixth grade and above to all girls in March. In May, the Taliban decreed that all women must wear head-to-toe coverings in public, just like the last time they ruled Afghanistan, and should leave their homes only when necessary.

Nobody should be surprised by any of this. Without any pressure from the United States following Biden’s decision to unconditionally withdraw U.S. forces, the Taliban are acting exactly as they always have.

Another approach was not only possible but recommended at the time by congressional Republicans (including myself) and Democrats as well as the president’s own military advisors: Leave a small contingent of troops behind until the conditions outlined in the February 2020 agreement were fully implemented. It was never an exclusive choice between a forever war and total withdrawal.

But Biden chose not to listen. The result was a disastrous and deadly withdrawal one year ago and a growing terrorist threat under Taliban rule that has left Afghans, Americans, and the world worse off than they were before.

Jim Inhofe is a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. He serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Twitter: @JimInhofe

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