A cost-free exit from Afghanistan may have never been possible. The war itself had been a debacle for two decades, and the US had very much failed.
Days after Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban in August 2021, a senior Biden administration official told me that the entire administration had let the president down. President Joe Biden had made a politically brave decision, the official said, but the policy plans were not there to back it up. “There’s blame to go around,” they told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t know why we have to wait until something is a total crisis in order for people to act with the kind of energy that we should have been starting in April,” when Biden first announced all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by September.
The massive, successful airlift of more than 120,000 Americans and Afghan partners only came after the bottleneck of the Kabul airport, a chaotic scene that created the conditions for the terrorist group ISIS-K airport bombing on August 26, 2021, killing 170 Afghan and 13 US service-members. Later that week, a US drone strike killed 10 Afghans.
The US government, it seemed, had failed to anticipate how quickly the Taliban would overthrow the Afghan government and the undoing of the little progress made during two decades of America’s war. “At minimum, the administration should have started looking around and saying, ‘Well, who’s responsible for this?’” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who had advised four US presidents. “Is it Jake [Sullivan, the national security adviser]? Is it the secretary of defense? Who was responsible for this mess? And yet there was no accountability at all. That produces a culture in which poor ideas are allowed to circulate.”
Now, a year to the day after the fall of the US-backed government in Afghanistan, it’s unclear who, if anyone, has been held accountable.
There was a bureaucratic failure and a strategic failure. Trump had pledged to draw down US forces to zero in Afghanistan, with a May 1, 2021, timeline, but his team had not created a plan for it. As president, he had hollowed out the State Department and left Biden to rebuild the visa program.
So it was a failure of White House coordination, of urgency on the State Department’s part to get Afghan partners out, of the Defense Department and intelligence agencies and military contractors, and of regional powers like Pakistan, and of course of Afghanistan’s own government. The cascade of blunders and the absence of accountability during America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan have repeated the same systemic failures during its two-decade invasion and occupation.
The catastrophic failure of the withdrawal was “so general that there was no point in seeking a scapegoat,” James Dobbins, a retired diplomat who served as the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014, told me. “Is that enough culprits for you?”
Biden took responsibility, but no one was held accountable
In August 2021, the lack of coordination among federal agencies was fully on display: Intelligence agencies didn’t say loud enough that the Kabul government would fall, no single supervisor initially managed the chaotic evacuation of Afghan partners, and the Biden administration was too slow to launch visa waiver programs for fleeing Afghans.
Amid the withdrawal and its fallout, Biden made more than five separate statements from the White House. “I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me,” he said in the Oval Office on August 16, the day after the Taliban took control of Kabul.
But even as he took responsibility, Biden obfuscated. He blamed Afghans (“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”). He also blamed his predecessor for making a bad deal with the Taliban. Yes, the Afghan army did disintegrate. And Trump, who signed the Doha Agreement in 2020 with the Taliban that committed to withdrawing US troops by May 2021, laid few plans to follow through on it.
But Biden’s team had eight months in office to plot a responsible drawdown. (In April 2021, Biden said the US wouldn’t meet the May deadline, but committed to having all troops out by September 11.)
“Probably the worst thing he said was when he basically blamed it all on Trump,” noted Ryan Crocker, a career ambassador who served twice in Afghanistan. “For the sitting president of the United States to say, ‘Well, it’s all the fault of my predecessor, he forced my hand,’ is not the kind of leadership you want.”
The internal and independent reviews are only beginning. Crocker is one of the 16 members of the Afghanistan War Commission mandated by Congress to pursue a three-plus-year study of what went wrong. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sent back an initial draft of a Pentagon assessment because he found its insight too limited, and a now-complete draft is under review, according to Reuters. The State Department is also conducting an after-action review, and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is studying where $146 billion of aid went. Earlier this year, an Army investigation blamed the White House and the State Department for poorly coordinating the withdrawal (criticisms that the State Department has dismissed).
Throughout, national security adviser Jake Sullivan has said the president stands by the decision. “This idea that we could just sustainably stay there indefinitely at basically no cost is the kind of counterfactual that people can sit around and talk about, but at the end of the day, it was not the reality that the president confronted when he had to make this very hard decision,” he said last month at the Aspen Security Forum. But the interviewer, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, didn’t press Sullivan about who bore responsibility for how that withdrawal played out.
And there are a lot of people who might.
Biden “did almost everything wrong that he could possibly do wrong in Afghanistan,” Crocker told me. The central mistake, according to the retired career ambassador, was leaving with haste. Like many former diplomats and military officers I spoke with, he argues that Biden should have maintained a small force as well as military contractors there, that the deadline for withdrawal could have been pushed, and that a plan was needed for the Afghan partners left behind.
As Crocker put it, “Our abandonment of those we promised to take care of is a moral stain on this administration.”
Glancing across the government at who’s accountable
There are many other players who had a hand in the withdrawal.
Former Obama official Brett Bruen last year wrote a provocative USA Today op-ed titled “Why Biden must fire his national security adviser for Afghanistan failure.” Beyond the single article, Sullivan has largely eluded scrutiny, despite the fact that the National Security Council manages the interagency processes, which would include coordinating special immigrant visas and safe passage for Afghans who partnered with the US.
Should the defense secretary be held responsible for how quickly the Afghan army collapsed? Senior military leaders said while they did not want to fully leave Afghanistan, they did carry out the withdrawal. But there were also possible tactical missteps along the way: When troops departed Bagram Air Base, the US military’s nerve center in the country, they did so in a hurry. Partially that was to protect US service people, but it also created the atmosphere of tipping dominoes.
Asked last week who bears responsibility, retired Gen. Frank MacKenzie, who served last year as the commander overseeing Afghanistan, told NPR, “Ultimately, the chain of command does. That was a national decision made by the president, and we executed that decision.”
The State Department’s role in the withdrawal cannot be understated. Many former officials point to Zalmay Khalilzad, its most senior Trump holdover. He had brokered the Doha Agreement, which some have called a poor deal because it excluded the Afghan government and thus disempowered it. “That was the moment we lost the whole so-called peace process, since it was not a peace process at all,” said Qayoom Soroush, a former adviser to the Afghan government.
In the agreement, the Taliban agreed “not to cooperate with or permit international terrorist groups or individuals to recruit, train, raise funds,” which it has now apparently violated by hosting an al-Qaeda leader that Biden ordered the assassination of last month. The deal did not require the Taliban to break from al-Qaeda, emphasized Lisa Curtis, a senior director on Trump’s National Security Council from 2017 to 2021. “It was a badly negotiated agreement that gave the Taliban far too many concessions and did not make enough demands of the Taliban,” she told me.
The Biden administration stuck with Khalilzad’s agreement, and the White House has defended that decision. Sullivan recently argued that Biden’s choice was “to go back to war with the Taliban … or draw down, follow through on the agreement the previous administration made,” though Trump officials have disputed the extent to which the deal constricted Biden.
Less attention has been paid to why there was not a senior coordinator within the diplomatic corps to ensure a smooth withdrawal — that is, until late August 2021. Former ambassadors told me that the buck stops with the secretary, who received an alarming July dissent memo from diplomats in the US Embassy in Kabul warning of the country’s collapse, but apparently didn’t share it with the White House.
As Kabul collapsed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on vacation in the Hamptons.
There are also the intelligence agencies, which either did not offer clear enough warnings or weren’t heeded. The CIA, according to an interview with director Bill Burns on NPR in July 2021, predicted such scenarios of collapse. But as the senior administration official told me last year, the intelligence agencies’ documentation of the Taliban’s resurgence had been, in essence, buried in footnotes.
Congress, too, bears responsibility, with its oversight powers over the Pentagon, State Department, and intelligence agencies, with the vast military budgets it had approved each year that enabled the forever war, with its intimate knowledge of the shape of the Doha Agreement with the Taliban, with its repeated failures to allocate sufficient funds to the visa programs for Afghans who helped the US.
And none of this should excuse Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose corruption had long been reported and who fled the country to the United Arab Emirates in the midst of the withdrawal, further toppling his own government. The Taliban deserve blame, too, as does Pakistan, whose intelligence services for years harbored known terrorists like Osama bin Laden and gave safe haven to the Taliban over many years.
“I would cast the blame for our Afghan policy writ large on the strategic decisions that were made — so, continuing the war well past its expiration date in terms of meeting our security needs,” William Ruger, who was then-President Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, told me. “Oftentimes, we want to look to the particular moments when we cast blame without looking at the deeper structures and decisions that are at play.”
The broader picture of responsibility
Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump missed opportunities to end the war, as the narrow, time-bound policing action to target al-Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11 became the giant ideological struggle of the war on terrorism.
“In retrospect, I think we really lacked a sound Afghanistan policy for years,” James Warlick, a retired ambassador who worked as deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2012 to 2013, told me. “We realized that our efforts at nation-building couldn’t be successful, at least for years and years to come, and we weren’t prepared to engage with the kind of forces to ensure a military victory, if that was even possible.”
Parsing the mistakes requires looking inward. Too often, US officials, journalists, and military leaders have eagerly portrayed Afghanistan as the good war, glossing over the atrocities the US committed there, as journalist Emran Feroz has documented.
But the US government spent years telling the American people that there was progress even as military leaders admitted privately that, as Obama’s Afghan czar Douglas Lute put it, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
But there hasn’t been self-reflection yet in the US media, as the generals who lost the war are still among the loudest voices. “There’s been no accountability or reckoning for any of them,” said Christine Fair, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, who has closely tracked the war’s bungled policies. “In fact, they continue to get posh jobs in the private sector and continue to get called onto talk shows.”
Now the US continues to hold responsibility for Afghan suffering even after troops have left, with the country facing economic collapse.
“Afghanistan didn’t fail because of one or two tactical events. It was the overall strategy that was faulty,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who advised the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 and 2011. “So both Republicans and Democrats, Bush and Hillary Clinton, they’re responsible — as well as everybody in the American establishment and American media, for making the war on terror and the fight against the Taliban into this existential thing that it was.
“Everybody’s responsible for not stopping the war after removing the Taliban [in late 2001]. Everybody’s responsible for viewing any kind of a reconciliation with the Taliban as taboo, just like everybody’s responsible for why Afghan people are suffering under sanctions.”
As Nasr told me, “We have to take responsibility as a nation.”