The Biden administration’s legacy in attempting to bring the American military, the US Embassy personnel, and friendly Afghans out of Afghanistan was a litany of missteps, failed decision-making, and flawed planning. During a November 15 session, the House Foreign Affairs Committee heard how bad it was from experts. The ineptitude of the Biden administration in extricating the US from Afghanistan has been a persistent theme as the Republican-led subcommittee explores what happened in August 2021.
The purpose of the hearing was to pinpoint the day when everything went wrong. Chairman Brian Mast (R-FL) established the underpinning failure of the Biden administration to look at what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan and instead make decisions based on what it wished the situation were. Mast explained President Biden “was determined to avoid reality and whose only north star was a political future.” With that as an overture, the hearing proceeded along two avenues.
Afghanistan Remains a Dark Shadow Over Biden Administration
First, there was the narrative that former President Trump’s Doha agreement with the Taliban determined the future and ultimately forced Biden to execute his ham-handed withdrawal. The second argument was that the fall of Afghanistan began on a date certain, April 14, 2021. That was the day President Joe Biden gave the “go-to-zero” order reducing the number of American military personnel in Afghanistan.
During his opening statement, Ranking Member Jason Crow (D-CO) presented the case for spreading the blame for the Afghan withdrawal fiasco over four presidents and 20 years. He said,
“Telling the story of Afghanistan, our nation’s longest war 20 years, 100s of billions of dollars, thousands of lives, not just American lives, but tens of thousands or more of Afghan lives requires a broader look. It would be doing a great credit (sic) and disservice to talk about this simply as the story of August of 2021. Because the day it all went wrong includes many days over many, many years.”
He then focused on a poster of a timeline of the Trump administration’s decisions regarding US troop withdrawals starting in February 2020. He emphasized the Fall 2020 Doha agreement, where a phased withdrawal was the beginning of the end for Afghanistan. However, the Doha agreement was a conditions-based agreement where US troops withdrew only if the Taliban met cessation of hostilities conditions.
Senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Bill Roggio, made the point strongly, “There can be no denying that one decision, President Biden’s April 14, 2021, order to withdraw from Afghanistan is directly responsible for the collapse of the Afghan government and its security forces.” From that point forward, the wheels of disaster were in motion. “Despite the mistakes of previous administrations, on April 13, 2021, the government of Afghanistan was still standing, and the Afghan military and police were still fighting the Taliban,” Roggio said. The myth the Biden administration continues to push is that it was “cornered” to execute the Doha agreement; that was not the case.
When Was the “Oh Sh-t” Moment?
No one forced Biden’s national security team to pull out of Bagram Air Base in the dead of night, turning off the electricity. No one forced the Biden Defense Department to cease close air support for the Afghan security forces. Indeed, no one forced Biden to select September 11 as the date certain when all US personnel would be gone. When the US president was highly criticized for the date selection, he changed it to August 31. The point being made was that all these decisions were Biden’s, not former President Trump’s.
Congressman Corey Mills (R-FL) explained US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan was a conditions-based agreement and “it was very clear from the beginning if conditions were not met…that there was a Plan B and an alternative mechanism… President Trump, toward the end of his presidency, had actually reversed his decision at the advice of the generals and was going to maintain troops there (Afghanistan) to continue support.” The number of troops to be left to support the Afghan security forces was 2,500. General Sadat said during his testimony, “Oftentimes politicians do not understand the capability of their own military. Twenty-five hundred trigger-pullers was more than enough to support us.” Then Chairman Mast asked the quintessential question. Looking at the witnesses, he asked, “When did you identify the ‘Oh Sh-t’ moment in that year, when you realized the US was going to lose?” All three witnesses agreed on April 14, 2021, at that moment. Dr. Mukhopadhyay (a global policy professor) did qualify her answer by explaining February 2020, when the US decided to negotiate with the Taliban, was when she considered it “the beginning of the end of the war.”
“Mr. Chairman, I think I agree with you. The bad moment was when the [Biden-ordered withdrawal] announcement came in… I could never believe that when things go wrong, so wrong the Americans will leave us.” But we did. It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration has learned anything. America’s enemies have gone to school on what they perceive as US weakness, seeing Afghanistan as an example. The consequences of the withdrawal debacle remain a shadow over the US as a global power.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.