The cases for and against Biden's key decisions on Afghanistan
When President Biden inherited the war in Afghanistan, he faced three broad policy options.
- Comply with Donald Trump’s deal and withdraw all U.S. troops by May 1.
- Modify Trump’s deal by maintaining the commitment to withdraw but extending the timeline and, potentially, making it conditional on some sort of political agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
- Reject Trump’s deal and keep U.S. troops in the country indefinitely.
Biden opted for a combination of options 1 and 2, announcing that all U.S. troops would be leaving Afghanistan no matter what happened on the ground, but extending the timeline by four months to allow more time to execute the withdrawal.
Criticism of Biden's decision to withdraw tended to fall into two buckets.
- Some, like David Petraeus, who commanded the U.S war effort in Afghanistan, argued for a sustained U.S. presence of "a few thousands troops" to maintain some semblance of stability.
- Others criticized the fact that Biden was so definitive about withdrawal — undercutting U.S. leverage in pushing for a political settlement — and set a firm deadline, particularly the symbolic date of Sept. 11.
Biden and his aides have argued that past attempts to put conditions on withdrawal have resulted in no withdrawal at all, and that there was never going to be a "right time" to get out.
- They've also argued that an outright rejection of Trump’s deal would have brought the U.S. back into direct conflict with the Taliban — which had stopped firing at U.S. troops under Trump's deal — and would have ultimately required a much larger U.S. troop presence to sustain a war that was not winnable.
State of play: The swift collapse of Kabul may actually have given ballast to the argument that prolonging the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would only delay the inevitable — but it has also generated a new wave of criticism about the withdrawal strategy. Here’s a breakdown of some of that criticism.
1. The U.S. could and should have recognized that the Afghan security forces — low on both capability and morale with their salaries unpaid and their U.S. partners pulling out — might fold within weeks, not months or years.
- Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday: "There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days."
- Biden has also said that he knew a Taliban takeover was possible, but not so quickly. He blamed a lack of will from Afghanistan's political and military leaders.
- Others have pointed fingers at U.S. intelligence for failing to anticipate the rapid collapse, at successive military leaders for overselling the progress in training the Afghan forces, or at Biden's own rhetoric and tactics around withdrawal for undercutting both the hope and the practical capabilities of the Afghan forces.
2. The U.S. should have moved more quickly to evacuate Americans, Afghans who worked with U.S. troops, and potentially Afghans who could now be in danger due to their activism, professions (women in media or politics, for example), or work with Western governments and organizations.
- The scenes of chaos at Kabul’s international airport have amplified claims of a mismanaged withdrawal, but Biden told ABC that chaos was always the inevitable result of a U.S. exit. He has also said that Afghan leaders, fearing mass panic, urged him not to conduct a large-scale evacuation earlier.
- Still, the U.S. is now reliant on the Taliban to ensure safe passage for Americans to the airport, which the administration says the group is providing. Afghans currently have no such protections, and some have been stopped and even beaten at Taliban checkpoints.
- Further complicating efforts to evacuate Afghans is the massive backlog of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications. Two senior administration officials tell Axios that the SIV process had stagnated under Trump and they'd been working since February to expedite the process, but those efforts had only just begun to bear fruit by the time Kabul fell.
3. Biden should have kept Bagram Air Base open to conduct a more secure and efficient evacuation.
- The U.S. abandoned the base near Kabul that had been the hub of its operations in Afghanistan six weeks ago. It was taken over by Afghan forces and then, on Sunday, by the Taliban.
- Milley contended that securing Bagram would have required more forces. So did securing the civilian airport, though, and Milley actually left open the possibility of retaking Bagram to expedite the evacuation process.
What to watch: Biden told ABC that U.S. troops would stay as long as it takes to get all stranded Americans out of the country, including beyond his Aug. 31 deadline if necessary.