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A departure disaster

A momentous withdrawal from Afghanistan went awry for the Biden administration, and politicians aren’t the only ones suffering for it


A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 15. Rahmat Gul/AP

A departure disaster
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Just five weeks before the fall of Afghanistan to Taliban militants, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters in the East Room of the White House, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and running the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Biden insisted there were “zero” parallels between the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nation’s sudden departure from Vietnam in 1975: “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.”

A month later, the U.S. military dispatched helicopters to airlift workers from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. By nightfall on Aug. 15, American C-17 transport planes evacuated hundreds of Americans out of the country as the Taliban took control of the capital city and reclaimed a nation it lost nearly 20 years ago.

U.S. officials acknowledged they were surprised by the Taliban’s speed in advancing on the capital, but it didn’t come without warning: At least 23 American staffers from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul reportedly sent a confidential cable to the U.S. State Department in July, warning that the Taliban was making rapid territorial advances in the country and committing atrocities along the way.

During the same month, the U.S. military vacated the Bagram Airfield it had occupied for nearly 20 years. The airfield included a prison that held some 5,000 prisoners, including many alleged Taliban fighters. It also included two giant runways—a resource that could have proved invaluable in August during frantic evacuations from the single runway at Kabul’s commercial airport.

U.S. troops guide evacuees aboard a C-17 at Kabul’s international airport.

U.S. troops guide evacuees aboard a C-17 at Kabul’s international airport. Senior Airman Brennen Lege/U.S. Air Force via AP

Taliban fighters often beat back Afghans trying to reach the airport— including many who assisted the United States during its tenure in Afghanistan and who held paperwork that should have allowed their departure from the country. As the exit window narrowed, U.S. military servicemen and veterans decried the likely abandonment of many Afghans who risked their lives to help the United States.

U.S. Air Force veteran Sam Lerman told the Associated Press, “This is murder by incompetence.”

Still, Biden defended the withdrawal, noting former President Donald Trump had started the process. Biden asked how many more generations of Americans should be sent to fight in Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

But Rory Stewart, a British expert on Afghanistan, noted that the United States has maintained a considerable level of security in Afghanistan with only 2,500 American troops and had suffered no American combat fatalities in 18 months. The number of American troops based in South Korea nearly 70 years after the Korean War: more than 28,000.

This is murder by incompetence.

Other critics focused less on the plan to withdraw and more on how the United States executed it. Though Americans were managing to leave at a much faster pace than Afghans, the United States was still scrambling to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens ahead of a self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline.

On Aug. 18, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan issued a security alert to Americans, saying the U.S. government “cannot guarantee safe passage” to the airport. Two days later, Biden said “we have no indication” Americans hadn’t been able to get through to the airport.

The next day, the embassy issued another alert to Americans, urging them not to try to come to the airport because of security threats. ABC News correspondent Ian Pannell reported from Kabul: “It just seems the reality and the rhetoric are miles apart.”

But that was true beyond the chaotic evacuations. Biden also noted the United States went to Afghanistan to get rid of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda there: “And we did.”

The United States did get rid of Osama bin Laden, but even The New York Times reported that while al-Qaeda’s presence was decreased in Afghanistan, “Mr. Biden is wrong to say that the terrorist group is no longer in the country.”

Taliban fighters patrol a Kabul neighborhood.

Taliban fighters patrol a Kabul neighborhood. Rahmat Gul/AP

Indeed, three days before Biden’s remarks, the U.S. Defense Department released a report saying “the Taliban continued to maintain its relationship with al-Qaeda, providing safe haven for the terrorist group in Afghanistan.”

In the United States, some wondered whether the crisis would affect next year’s midterm elections or the presidential elections in 2024. But a much more urgent concern confronted the millions of Afghans suddenly living under Taliban rule after 20 years—and for any Americans remaining in the country: What will life be like for those left behind?

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