The political battle over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to rage for some time (although the events of the last 18 months suggest it’s equally likely that the battle will fade from the headlines when some new crisis erupts).
It’s not to shortchange the acute moral sorrow at the human cost of this atrociously ill-executed task that I offer the following preview. Nor is it to suggest that we don’t need a reckoning on the matter. We absolutely require one. If there’s any way to root it out, we need to know what motive could possibly have driven senior professionals with careers spanning decades to manage a withdrawal as if they were a gang of randos from the Circle-K parking lot on a Friday night. (The gang of randos would probably have done a better job.)
But I’m here to clarify why my focus will be shifting.
I expect the conclusion I’ve reached already to stand the test of time. The extraordinary crisis that didn’t have to happen is a failure of execution, not intelligence. It’s ultimately a failure of policy, but although I was never happy with Trump’s withdrawal plan, the policy vector itself isn’t what this is about.
I think Trump could have gotten us out in a more orderly manner and the Taliban would have overrun Afghanistan afterward. That doesn’t mean I would have been satisfied with leaving Afghanistan on the basis Trump proposed to.
Biden wanted to withdraw too. He didn’t use Trump’s plan; he chucked it overboard. But Biden could also have altered Trump’s plan without producing a disaster. It didn’t have to be disastrous to change the plan. Nevertheless, it has been.
And that point still doesn’t mean I’d be satisfied with leaving on a basis Biden might have preferred, if we had ever known what it was.
But what actually happened here is that the execution was unfathomably awful, once Biden altered the plan. That’s on the Biden administration: State, Defense, the NSC, and the White House. Nothing is going to come along to change that assessment.
Especially not anything about intelligence. We’ll see a good case for that below. So a big reason I don’t plan to spend a lot of time rehashing this with a forensic probe is that no matter what we find, the bottom line isn’t going to change. A debatable policy move (withdrawing from Afghanistan without kneecapping the Taliban – the deficiency for which four presidents are accountable); Biden throwing out the plan and doing something else; the execution – of what, we’re not even sure; there was no clear outline of a new plan – being appallingly bad.
That said, the lodestar-reason for shifting my focus is that rehashing the already outdated isn’t my calling. Rather, it’s looking around the next corner and scanning the horizon ahead.
So this will be a summary in pictures of why it was absurd to run the Afghanistan withdrawal the way it’s been run – a summary that doesn’t require information with any classified intelligence markings at all, not even “Confidential.”
This map from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shows the situation in May 2020, after the Trump administration had concluded the (somewhat problematic) Doha Agreement with the Taliban and the Afghan government. Observe that it reflects about 19% of Afghan territory being under the firm control of the Taliban.
The next map, also from RFERL, shows what the Taliban had full control of in early April 2021, before Biden announced he was changing the Trump plan solidified in the February 2020 Doha Agreement. You can see that the fully-controlled territory (in the dark gray) is a bit less than in May 2020.
That map doesn’t show districts the Taliban claimed to control, but where their control wasn’t confirmed; nor does it distinguish districts where Taliban pressure put control in dispute (between the Taliban and the government in Kabul), although the Taliban hadn’t proclaimed control in them. A number of the districts seen in the lighter gray in this presentation (which is from 14 August) fell into those categories. For a more detailed view of those distinctions, see the map videos prepared by Bill Roggio at Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Long War Journal. They are copyrighted so please visit them at the link.
When you visit the Roggio maps, note that prior to April 2021, the situation of Taliban control had basically not changed since at least July of 2020.
This next map, from 13 April 2021, depicts territorial control the day before Biden made his announcement that the target completion date for the U.S. withdrawal would be 11 September 2021. (He had already signaled in January that the withdrawal would not be completed by the Trump plan date of 1 May.)
Observe the distinction between controlled territory and disputed, or contested territory. This map, from the Council or Foreign Relations, shows how Taliban claims of control (included in the dark red districts) exceeded the verified-control districts depicted in the RFERL map above. Compare the dark gray on the RFERL map to the dark red on the CFR map.
Now, with that orientation, we’re off to the races.
Note on the next map, from the New York Times, the substantial similarity between 13 April and 5 May. The 2021 Taliban offensive began on 1 May, a little over two weeks after Biden’s 14 April announcement about our pullout date.
But the offensive was gathering momentum. Bill Roggio has a good account of that here, posted on 29 June 2021. I urge you to read his article, because you will encounter everything in it we’ve been hearing about for five days now: the Taliban taking countryside and then rapidly overrunning provincial capitals; the Afghan National Army abandoning positions (some after putting up a good fight); U.S.-provided equipment being left behind and the Taliban scooping it up, taking selfies with it and posting video; the Taliban abusing and executing surrendering ANA soldiers and local villagers.
That was an account seven weeks ago of developments from even earlier, and it’s why a map posted for 9 July looked like this:
Notice what’s changed on this map from the ones for 13 April and 5 May. A lot more territory is depicted as under Taliban control. It’s gone from “contested” to “Taliban.” Roggio’s 29 June article reflects that: he observes that at that point, the Taliban had more than doubled the number of districts under their control since 1 May, going from 73 to 157. By 9 July, as the map indicates, the Taliban had increased their control to 204 districts.
The date 9 July also fell a week after the U.S. executed our abrupt, reportedly furtive pullout from Bagram air base northeast of Kabul. That move will be recorded by history as the gravest error we made in the withdrawal saga, and an unrecoverable one. Not having Bagram now, and a secure corridor from Bagram to Kabul, is what makes it impossible to execute the evacuation without chaos and constant mortal risk.
Forgoing the options Bagram would have given us is also why the map didn’t change a lot between 9 July and 31 July. The Taliban held their rapid gains, even where territory was still contested.
The ANA was able to push back a little in July, turning small amounts of “Taliban” territory to contested status.
But it was more than a month ago that the Taliban offensive had already positioned the Taliban for their final push. They didn’t just suddenly, last week, gain control of and operating space in the Afghan hinterlands. They were working on it since 1 May and had their final attack posture substantially set by mid-July.
And before that, anyone who wanted to already knew what their campaign and our withdrawal looked like, from unclassified sources available to expert analysts like Bill Roggio as well as to you, me, and mainstream news outlets like NBC and the New York Times.
Between 31 July and 16 August, the map came to look like this.
The Taliban’s final overruns of provincial capitals, and formal proclamations of control of territory, took place between 12 and 16 August. But they were being set up starting on 1 May, and progress that was fully visible from open, unclassified sources was quite evident. There’s no way anyone in the Pentagon, the White House Situation Room, or the CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar can claim to have not had the requisite “intelligence” to know what was going on.
It was in the face of this months-long offensive to put the Taliban in position that our national security leaders apparently made the decision to just pull the troops out, with tens of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies still in-country, in early August.
We need a full accounting for that. But most of the hue and cry about it looks to be political maneuvering in the coming days: a cacophony of special pleading and partisan mud-slinging rather than a good use of time. Who in the world could look at those maps and read open-source accounts of the Taliban offensive, and then make the U.S. force decisions that obviously were, in fact, made in August 2021 – that’s the question that needs answering. There’s no what, here, that we’re unaware of. It’s who. That should clarify for us any obvious questions we have about motive. It must also clarify whom to hold to account.