Feb 16, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Biden defends deadly Afghanistan withdrawal — doesn't think anyone made a mistake

Troops stand guard near the site of a suicide bombing attack at Kabul's airport in 2021.

Troops stand guard near the site of a suicide bombing attack at Kabul's airport in 2021. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon, Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President Biden is privately defiant that he made the right calls on Afghanistan in 2021 despite the U.S. military's chaotic exit, according to an upcoming book obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: Biden believes history will look kindly on his decision to end the two-decade war — America's longest — even though it came at an enormous political cost to Biden, whose polling numbers have never recovered from the fallout.

  • 13 U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing outside Kabul's airport as the U.S. evacuated. In all, more than 2,400 U.S. service members died in Afghanistan during the war, and more than 20,000 were wounded.

Driving the news: After Afghanistan, "no one offered to resign, in large part because the president didn't believe anyone had made a mistake. Ending the war was always going to be messy," Politico's Alexander Ward writes in "The Internationalists: The Fight to Restore Foreign Policy After Trump."

  • "Biden told his top aides, [National Security Advisor Jake] Sullivan included, that he stood by them and they had done their best during a tough situation."
  • "There wasn't even a real possibility of a shake-up," a White House official told Ward.

The intrigue: The book provides fresh reporting and vivid scenes on the Biden team's decisions to exit Afghanistan — and the internal fights along the way.

  • Ward captures the subtle and not-so-subtle tensions between the State and Defense Departments in the run-up to the withdrawal.
  • Biden was wary of the Defense Department — something Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was focused on remedying.
  • Biden was partial to the State Department, given his time chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
  • His skepticism of the Pentagon grew after the Obama administration's debate in 2009 about a troop surge in Afghanistan. Biden felt the Pentagon boxed Obama in politically, Ward writes.

Zoom in: The Pentagon's leaders pushed the hardest to keep troops in Afghanistan, and after Biden's withdrawal order in April 2021 the sides feuded about how to get out.

  • On May 8, 2021, during a rehearsal for the evacuation operation with Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and others, the Pentagon and the State Department feuded over whether they had to close the U.S. embassy in Kabul as troops withdrew.
  • The Defense Department argued that the country would be too dangerous to have the embassy try to do business as usual.

Brian McKeon, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, jumped in and said their diplomats would be fine: "We at the State Department have a much higher risk tolerance than you guys," he told the uniformed personnel.

  • Ward writes that "Milley nearly jumped out of his chair, but restrained himself from shouting how he and many serving in the armed forces had lost friends in war. Austin showed no signs of anger, but he later told colleagues that he was offended by McKeon's remark."

Reality check: During the chaotic scenes that unfolded around Kabul's airport as Taliban-aligned forces began taking over the capital, White House officials knew the president was making promises he couldn't keep to get people out of the country, Ward writes.

  • Biden told ABC News on Aug. 18, 2021, that he was committed to having troops stay in Afghanistan until every U.S. citizen who wanted to leave could do so.
  • A senior White House official told Ward at the time: "There's no one here who thinks we can meet that promise."

Ultimately, Biden withdrew the last U.S. troops there two weeks later, but left more than 800 American citizens in Afghanistan.

  • Also left behind: Tens of thousands of Afghans who allied with the U.S. and had been promised refuge in the U.S.
Go deeper