Aug 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Behind the scenes of the Biden administration as the U.S. ditches Kabul

Taliban fighters in Herat

Taliban fighters stand guard today along a roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Many in the U.S. military see the race out of Afghanistan as a dishonorable withdrawal, and some State Department officials fear the U.S. may have to close the embassy in Kabul.

Driving the news: Those were some of the dire soundings Axios heard in Washington yesterday, as the Pentagon made the shocking announcement that 3,000 U.S. troops will head into Afghanistan to help evacuate Americans.

It got worse overnight: The Taliban overran the capital of Helmand province after years of blood spilled by American, British and NATO forces.

  • The Taliban has also captured the country’s second and third-largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, in a lightning advance that's encircling the government in the capital, Kabul, AP reports.

How we got here: It wasn't crazy for President Biden and his national security team, including the Pentagon, to have imagined that the Afghan forces — with superior technology and manpower — could have done a much better job holding the Taliban at bay.

  • But senior U.S. officials are privately acknowledging that the Afghans appear psychologically defeated — and there was insufficient accounting for the psychological consequences of the long war.
  • The fact that U.S. officials are drawing down so soon to a skeleton staff suggests they harbor grave doubts about the embassy's viability.

Senior Pentagon officials expressed deep distress:

  • One source said we shouldn’t underestimate the effect it has on the U.S. military's morale to carry out a mission — withdrawal and evacuation — that many view as dishonorable.

The U.S. is playing it extremely safe with the evacuation.

  • "All of the top people in the Biden administration lived through the pain of Benghazi," said William Wechsler, the director of Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, and a Pentagon counterterrorism official in the Obama administration.
  • Wechsler said they "understand how damaging such a situation can be, not only to our interests abroad but also politically at home."
What Biden's thinking
Afghan mother and children
In Kabul yesterday, Farzia, 28, who lost her husband a week ago to Taliban fighting, sits with her children — Subhan, 5, and Ismael, 2 — in a tent in a makeshift camp. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

President Biden's senior national security team briefed him Wednesday night on the deteriorating battlefield situation in Afghanistan — and plans to dispatch forces to evacuate American personnel, Afghan translators and others who helped with the war effort.

  • At 7:30 Thursday morning, Biden's top national security advisers met to review the president's questions from the previous night.

There was unanimous agreement on the order that Biden later gave Defense Secretary Austin: Thousands of Marines are being dispatched to Kabul and surrounding areas.

  • At the same time, Biden's diplomatic team in Doha, Qatar, was trying to talk sense into the Taliban. But events on the ground have made a mockery of the peace process.

The White House is the most self-assured group of the national-security teams:

  • Biden's key aides aren't second-guessing his decision to withdraw.
  • They derive comfort from the fact that the American public is behind them — an overwhelming majority support withdrawal from Afghanistan — and they bet they won’t be punished politically for executing a withdrawal.

West Wing officials reject the notion that they could keep Afghanistan stable indefinitely with a small force of around 3,000 that they inherited from Trump.

  • The Biden team's line is that the only reason the Taliban wasn’t killing Americans last year was because Trump had agreed to leave on May 1 this year. When that deadline passed, they contend, there would be no way to guarantee peace and stability with such a small force.

Republicans, led by hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are zeroing in on the larger consequences of a chaotic and dangerous withdrawal.

  • Graham sent a letter to Biden’s Pentagon leaders on Tuesday asking whether they wanted to review their June assessment to Congress that the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would bring a medium risk of terrorist organizations re-emerging to threaten our homeland within two years.
  • The Pentagon didn't respond to a request for comment on whether they’ve amended this timeline in light of the Taliban’s recent conquests.

"The ripple effect of what’s going on in Afghanistan is devastating," Graham told Axios in a phone interview Thursday. "To lose in one place hurts you in every place."

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