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Jeff McCausland Afghanistan's Taliban takeover was predictable. How did Biden miss the red flags?

The end of this war must mark the beginning of our investigation into how we got its final chapter so wrong.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's Camp Victory on Jan. 13, 2011.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's Camp Victory on Jan. 13, 2011.Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP via Getty Images file

On July 8, President Joe Biden assured the American people that it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would take control of Afghanistan. That is exactly what happened five weeks later. And the catastrophic scenes in Kabul this week beg the obvious questions: How did the Biden administration get this so wrong? Why is the president now facing his own Saigon moment?

On July 8, President Joe Biden assured the American people that it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would take control of Afghanistan. That is exactly what happened five weeks later.

The Taliban were technically outnumbered and outgunned by Afghan government forces. Biden and his administration frequently have emphasized that the U.S. has spent $83 billion training Afghan security forces that on paper, at least, numbered roughly 300,000 including police and the Afghan air force.

But the reality on the ground undermined any purely numbers-based assessment. An analysis of Afghan security forces found that of the 352,000 soldiers and police counted as members of the security forces, only around 254,000 could be confirmed as actively serving. The remainder were so-called ghost soldiers who padded unit payrolls and allowed local commanders to skim pay.

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The president made his statement in early July based on analysis he said he was provided by the U.S. intelligence community. Numerous members of his administration echoed this belief that Kabul would not fall immediately. Still, reports confirm that key intelligence assessments stated a collapse was possible, and it could necessitate the rapid evacuation of American diplomats not unlike what had occurred in South Vietnam in 1975.

Biden’s administration had also received numerous warnings. The annual threat assessment released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in April noted the Taliban were making gains and the Afghan government would “struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” The most recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted that attacks by the Taliban against government forces were rising. Taliban fighters had taken control of key border crossings as well as numerous district centers. The report said Afghan army units refused to execute missions without support from the special operations forces and that the Afghan air force was frequently misused.

This quarterly report was not startling. It was consistent with previous reports provided to the Biden administration and its predecessors.

Biden had also been warned several months prior to his withdrawal decision by Gen. Scott Miller, the last U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, as well as Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to The Washington Post. Milley advised against a full withdrawal, and Miller noted that government collapse was likely if U.S. forces left in a rush, the report said.

This quarterly report was not startling. It was consistent with previous reports provided to the Biden administration and its predecessors.

Afghan soldiers had fought over the past 20 years and carried the major burden during the past three years. Over 60,000 were killed, which is around 27 times the number of American casualties. Still, Afghan forces were heavily dependent on U.S. and contractor support for maintenance as well as American air power.

Ultimately, subjective factors made the difference. Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” This was proven true once again in the last few weeks in Afghanistan. The U.S. military can train soldiers in a foreign army how to fight, but it is impossible to train soldiers why they should.

Why should an Afghan government soldier fight for a government that cannot feed him or provide him reinforcements, ammunition, supplies and care for his wounded comrades? Furthermore, Afghan soldiers became increasingly convinced that their government was corrupt, something that had also been clearly documented in the “Afghanistan Papers” published by The Washington Post. Meanwhile, the average Taliban soldier firmly believes he is defending his country from foreign occupiers, like his ancestors did against the British or the Soviet Union, and defending his religion against “crusaders.”

An Afghan special forces officer told The Washington Post this week that many soldiers had lost hope following the signing of the agreement between the Taliban and the Trump administration in February 2020. This accord called for a full withdrawal of all American forces by May 2021 and the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Many experts agree the accord not only isolated and undermined the credibility of the Afghan government, but also meant it could no longer count on American air power and other crucial support on the battlefield. Consequently, Afghan soldiers became receptive to Taliban approaches urging them to surrender.

The last week has shown the consequences of a deadly combination of lack of willpower, poor leadership, unreliable air support and the poison of corruption. These factors combined to create the disaster that rapidly unfolded.

Biden addressed the nation Monday and acknowledged “this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” He further accepted responsibility and that “the buck stops with me.” But his remarks focused primarily on the policy decision to withdraw American forces after 20 years and not on the execution of the withdrawal. The scenes at Kabul’s airport are eerily reminiscent of the American departure from Saigon in 1975, despite the president’s arguments to the contrary.

The president also argued that his administration had “planned for every contingency,” but facts on the ground dispute this assertion, too. Furthermore, the decision to execute a contingency is often more important than the details of the plan.

The failure to properly plan, prepare and execute an evacuation plan for American and foreign diplomats, aid workers, foreign journalists and Afghans who worked for the United States for the past two decades is inexplicable. It undermines the credibility of a nation already undermined on the world stage by four years of President Donald Trump. Ron Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told The Washington Post, “If Trump undermined the confidence of the world, Biden’s actions, pulling out and leaving a mess in Afghanistan, may simply be chapter two in undercutting fundamental assumptions about America.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged in a statement that American intelligence officials had anticipated for years that in the absence of the U.S. military, the Taliban would continue to make gains in Afghanistan. He noted that, in fact, this “is exactly what has happened as the Afghan National Security Forces proved unable or unwilling to defend against Taliban advances in Kabul and across the country.” It is now the responsibility of congressional committees to ask why we were not better prepared and why it seems we ignored so many red flags.

The vast majority of Americans are tired of the war in Afghanistan and likely welcome its conclusion. But even those who support the president’s decision to withdraw (and there are many) must agree it is imperative that we determine how this catastrophe occurred. Otherwise, we will fail to learn from our past mistakes and better prepare ourselves for a challenging future.

At this moment, U.S. service members are still standing guard at the Kabul airport. Hopefully, they will soon be the last Americans to board an aircraft departing Afghanistan, bringing America’s longest war to a sad conclusion. But the end of this war must mark the beginning of our investigation into how we got its final chapter so wrong.

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