It’s easy to blame President Joe Biden for the tragedy that took place on his watch Thursday, in which a terrorist attack claimed by the ISIS-K militant groupkilled at least 60 civilians and 13 U.S. troops at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, as people frantically tried to leave the country ahead of his deadline of next Tuesday for the U.S. to withdraw.
The architecture of the hasty U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable deadly chaos that has followed was constructed by the previous commander in chief.
The rushed evacuation and its vulnerability to Thursday’s deplorable attack were inevitable outcomes of the rapid collapse of the Afghan government. But while Biden does, indeed, hold his share of responsibility for that collapse, he wasn’t inaccurate when he pointed out in his news conference Thursday that the architecture of the hasty U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable deadly chaos that has followed was constructed by the previous commander in chief. Indeed, if there was ever a chance for a more orderly U.S. exit — and to be clear, that’s far from certain — one of Biden’s biggest mistakes might have been to adhere to the deal former President Donald Trump made with the Taliban rather than set his own terms and timeline.
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We need only rewind to February 2020, when the Trump administration signed the Doha agreement with the Taliban, in which the U.S. pledged to withdraw all U.S. and NATO forces by May 1, 2021, in exchange for the Taliban’s ceasing attacks on U.S. forces, forsaking ties to groups like Al Qaeda and agreeing to hold peace negotiations with the Afghan government, which then still controlled most of the country even though it was increasingly losing ground to the Taliban.
The Doha negotiations didn’t include the Afghan government — supposedly our partners in fighting the Taliban and terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the group better known as ISIS — and the deal that resulted was widely recognized as having thrown our allies under the bus, as the Taliban were free to carry on fighting the Afghan army as long as they didn’t attack U.S. forces.
The Taliban proceeded to do just that, going on the offensive in March 2020 while repeatedly spurning or walking out on the Afghan government’s attempts to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. As the government’s sway diminished, the agreement gave the Taliban new legitimacy, making it harder to dissuade them from pursuing a total military victory in place of some accommodation with the government. In other words, it was immediately clear to all observers that the treaty comprehensively removed incentives for the Taliban to compromise.
In another slap in the face — and a further destabilization of the already volatile scene — the Trump administration coerced the understandably angry Afghan government into releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners a year ago, including 400 convicted of serious crimes, such as murder. This move was designed to appease Taliban peace negotiators, but it failed to yield more diplomatic concessions. Instead, many of the released fighters promptly reinforced Taliban forces in the field as they steadily gnawed away at the Afghan army, no doubt contributing to the unexpected speed of the Taliban’s swift recapture of the country.
Ironically, the Taliban then committed a similar error when they began to reclaim power in recent days. Two Taliban leaders told NBC News that the group’s “biggest blunder” was releasing prisoners from jails as they swept across Afghanistan. Those they freed are thought to have included ISIS commanders, trainers and bomb makers, even though ISIS — including the branch responsible for Thursday’s attack — is an enemy of the Taliban. “They were very trained people, and they are now organizing themselves,” the Taliban leaders said.
More fundamentally, Trump’s decision to offer an explicit, near-term date for the U.S. withdrawal as part of the Doha Agreement also proved devastating. It was widely understood by both the Taliban and Afghan officials to set a doomsday clock in motion. While in theory the Afghan army should have had the material capability to defend major cities for months or years even without U.S. support, Afghan soldiers and officials rapidly lost the will to risk their lives fighting the Taliban just to buy time for the U.S. to withdraw from a war it had obviously concluded was a lost cause.
Had Washington been more ambiguous about the withdrawal date, the Taliban would have had more reasons to explore diplomatic options and less certainty about relying on military victory for fear the U.S. might be compelled to prolong its stay. Setting hard deadlines was important to Trump — and then Biden for domestic political reasons, of course — but the looming certainty of American withdrawal made it easy for the Taliban to bribe demoralized Afghan commanders into surrendering without a fight, facilitating the Taliban’s rapid advance.
Trump also bears responsibility for having made it harder to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who risked their lives working with the U.S. According to an aide to former Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s immigration team went out of its way to impede the application process of America’s Afghan allies seeking asylum and to reduce the number allowed to come in via Special Immigrant Visas, which allow Afghans who risked their lives to support U.S. forces to immigrate. That undoubtedly contributed to the backlog that has slowed the evacuation process this month.
To be clear, Biden remains responsible for following through on the Trump administration’s policy. Even though reversing Trump’s arrangement would have been more costly than had a better deal been negotiated in the first place, it nonetheless remained within Biden’s power once he took office to change the pace and diplomatic terms of the withdrawal. While he would have risked the Taliban’s resuming attacks on U.S. forces by not adhering to the deal, he could have tried to shore up the Afghan government and perhaps evacuate more Afghans in advance.
But Biden had been arguing for withdrawal since he was vice president a decade ago, so his views dovetailed with political pressure to end an unpopular war. His only major change to Trump’s withdrawal plans was to push the deadline back from May by a few months, once again providing a crystal-clear end date to the Taliban. Biden also failed to adequately accelerate the special visa admissions and evacuation process to make up for the delays imposed under Trump.
Of course, delaying the withdrawal to try to engineer more favorable circumstances for the Afghan government might not have succeeded and instead simply ensured that the same situation arose at a later date, possibly resulting in the deaths of even more U.S. troops and Afghans. It’s likely that only a continual U.S. presence for many years could have prevented the Afghan government’s fall — a presence too costly in U.S. lives and dollars in the opinion of many Americans.
It’s nonetheless risible to hear Trump blast Biden, telling the New York Post last week, “It is time for Joe Biden to resign in disgrace for what he has allowed to happen to Afghanistan.” Essentially, he was criticizing Biden for following through on his own exit strategy.
America’s failed war in Afghanistan was one of this polarized country’s few sustained bipartisan efforts, one in which both Democratic and Republican administrations can share plenty of blame, for both how they escalated the U.S. intervention there and then ultimately abandoned it.