Biden Wanted to Leave Afghanistan. He Knew the Risks.
In his Monday speech defending America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden said he would not shrink from his share of responsibility.
That would include his decision to bring home U.S. troops, which was made against the recommendations of his top military generals and many diplomats, who warned that a hasty withdrawal would undermine security in Afghanistan, several administration and defense officials said.
The president’s top generals, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, urged Mr. Biden to keep a force of about 2,500 troops, the size he inherited, while seeking a peace agreement between warring Afghan factions, to help maintain stability. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who previously served as a military commander in the region, said a full withdrawal wouldn’t provide any insurance against instability.
In a series of meetings leading up to his decision, military and intelligence officials told Mr. Biden that security was deteriorating in Afghanistan, and they expressed concerns both about the capabilities of the Afghan military and the Taliban’s ability to take over major Afghan cities.
Other advisers, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, raised the possibility of Taliban attacks on U.S. forces and diplomats as well as the Afghans who for two decades worked alongside them. Ultimately, neither disagreed with the president knowing where he stood.
Mr. Biden, however, was committed to ending the U.S. military role in the country. The president told his policy advisers the U.S. was providing life support for the Afghan government, which in his view, was corrupt and had squandered billions of dollars in American assistance, according to current and former administration officials. He wanted to reorient American foreign policy onto what he sees as more pressing international matters, including competition with China and domestic issues including infrastructure and battling Covid.
“I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face, but I do not regret my decision,” he said Monday.
The Taliban on Sunday rolled into Kabul having barely fired a shot. The onslaught triggered a chaotic evacuation of almost all U.S. diplomats, helped by thousands of American soldiers who were sent back to assist in the mission, sending shock waves around the world.
The swift takeover, punctuated by images of desperate Afghans gripping onto moving U.S. Air Force planes, raises the stakes of Mr. Biden’s decision and the way it was implemented, for him personally as well as for the administration’s foreign policy and for America’s standing in the world.
His team’s failure so far to mitigate the fallout of the withdrawal, including the fate of thousands of pro-Western Afghans marooned in the capital, have some countries expressing concern about the U.S. as a partner, including on some of the very issues Mr. Biden wants to address.
America’s allies were beginning to warm to the Biden administration until this weekend, said Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary and CIA director during the Obama administration. “I’m sure that those events are raising questions about our credibility and President Biden is absolutely going to have to deal with that,” he said.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (ret.), former President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, who previously served in Afghanistan, listed potential consequences including assassination campaigns, summary executions and the razing of girls’ schools. “This is what power-sharing with the Taliban looks like,” he said.
Majorities of Americans support ending the war in Afghanistan. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released in July found that 55% approved of Mr. Biden’s withdrawal from the country. It isn’t yet known how the mess of the withdrawal has affected that support.
Mr. Biden as a senator supported the Afghanistan intervention after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, before souring on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as President Barack Obama’s vice president. Now came one of the first major foreign policy moves of his presidency: Mr. Biden had to decide how to carry out the 2020 agreement signed by Mr. Trump with the Taliban, which called for a May 2021 withdrawal of U.S. troops.
White House aides have said Mr. Trump’s deal limited their options and risked the possibility that Mr. Biden would need to deploy more troops if he ignored the agreement and delayed the withdrawal.
Yet the Biden team was blindsided by the pace at which the Taliban marched across the country. The White House miscalculated the willingness of the Afghan army to fight. U.S. intelligence agencies predicted Kabul might fall to the Taliban in 30 to 90 days. The president himself last month said the Taliban takeover was “not inevitable.”
Administration officials who have served in Afghanistan said the past few weeks have been a disaster, both with respect to policy planning as well as the outcome, which many believe was predictable.
“Anytime you’ve got a situation like this, that’s so volatile, so unpredictable, so dangerous, you’ve got to plan for the worst and I don’t think they did that,” said Chuck Hagel, a former defense secretary under Mr. Obama who traveled to Afghanistan with Mr. Biden in 2008, when both served in the Senate.
Senior administration officials said they planned for a range of outcomes, including through three dozen interagency meetings throughout the summer that prepared for many situations, including a number of “bad-case scenarios.”
The administration had been holding meetings for months on the withdrawal but lost time reviewing policy planning for what came next, an administration official said, including the plight of the Afghan translators who assisted U.S. forces and diplomats. From January to April, there was little instruction to various government agencies on how to prepare for the transition of power to the Afghan government and military.
Mr. Biden and his top advisers hoped the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani would find its own way once there was a concrete exit date, though some military advisers said Mr. Ghani wasn’t up to the task—correctly as it turned out.
Over the weekend, Mr. Ghani fled Afghanistan when the Taliban reached Kabul. On Monday, Mr. Biden said that Afghanistan’s leaders had failed to “come together for the good of their people.”
Mr. Biden had initially been a supporter of the George W. Bush administration’s decision to launch the war in October 2001. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Biden was among the first senators to visit the country in early 2002, meeting with the then-chairman of the country’s interim administration, Hamid Karzai.
“History is going to judge us very harshly, I believe, if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we are fearful of the phrase, ‘nation-building,’ or we do not stay the course,” he said in a February 2002 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. Biden grew uneasy with Mr. Bush’s handling of the war in Afghanistan, which he felt was undercut by that administration’s decision to launch a war against Iraq. The focus on Iraq diverted resources from Afghanistan for years and worsened the security situation, Mr. Biden said at the time. He initially supported both military actions.
After Mr. Obama’s election, Mr. Biden, as the vice president-elect, traveled to Afghanistan, Kuwait, Pakistan and Iraq. He left that trip concerned about the deterioration of the conditions in Afghanistan and cited the need to rebuild the country’s political institutions. White House aides said the visit served as an inflection point for the future president.
“The truth is that things are going to get tougher in Afghanistan before they get better,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the Obama transition office following the trip, joined by Mr. Obama and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who traveled with Mr. Biden.
Mr. Biden grew skeptical of military leaders’ advice on Afghanistan during the early years of the Obama administration when the Pentagon urged a troop surge to try to seize the initiative in the war.
Mr. Biden cautioned Mr. Obama against sending tens of thousands of additional troops into a conflict he viewed as a “dangerous quagmire,” Mr. Obama wrote in his memoir. Gripping Mr. Obama by the arm after one National Security Council meeting, Mr. Biden warned that the military might try to shrink the new president’s options. “Don’t let them jam you,” Mr. Obama quoted Mr. Biden as saying.
Ben Rhodes, a former Obama national security aide, recalled in his memoir that Mr. Biden was the “only senior official who consistently opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan.”
During meetings in the White House Situation Room, Mr. Biden “would go on long discourses about why it was foolish to think we could do anything more than kill terrorists in Afghanistan, and he solicited military advice outside the chain of command that prepared requests for more troops.”
Officials who have worked with Mr. Biden over the years said that as a military parent—his late son Beau served in Iraq—he is also reluctant to send other people’s children to war, a view that was informed by his policy assessments.
U.S. troop levels reached about 100,000 during Mr. Obama’s presidency before falling to about 9,800 at the end of his second term.
By the time Mr. Biden became his party’s leading contender to challenge Mr. Trump in the 2020 election, most of the Democratic presidential field supported pulling out of Afghanistan.
In a February 2020 interview with CBS News, Mr. Biden said he would bear “zero responsibility” if the Taliban eventually returned to power.
“The responsibility I have is to protect America’s national self-interest and not put our women and men in harm’s way to try to solve every single problem in the world by use of force,” he said. “That’s my responsibility as president and that’s what I’ll do as president.”