Washington: The nation’s top national security officials assembled at the Pentagon early on April 24 for a secret meeting to plan the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. It was two weeks after President Joe Biden had announced the exit over the objection of his generals, but now they were carrying out his orders.
In a secure room in the building’s “extreme basement,” two floors below ground level, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with top White House and intelligence officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined by video conference. After four hours, two things were clear.
First, Pentagon officials said they could pull out the remaining 3,500 U.S. troops, almost all deployed at Bagram Airfield, by 4 July — two months earlier than the 11 September deadline Biden had set. The plan would mean closing the airfield that was the US military hub in Afghanistan, but Defense Department officials did not want a dwindling, vulnerable force and the risks of service members dying in a war declared lost.
Second, State Department officials said they would keep the US Embassy open, with more than 1,400 remaining Americans protected by 650 Marines and soldiers. An intelligence assessment presented at the meeting estimated that Afghan forces could hold off the Taliban for one to two years. There was brief talk of an emergency evacuation plan — helicopters would ferry Americans to the civilian airport in Kabul, the capital — but no one raised, let alone imagined, what the United States would do if the Taliban gained control of access to that airport, the only safe way in and out of the country once Bagram closed.
The plan was a good one, the group concluded.
Four months later, the plan is in shambles as Biden struggles to explain how a withdrawal most Americans supported went so badly wrong in its execution. On Friday, as scenes of continuing chaos and suffering at the airport were broadcast around the world, Biden went so far as to say that “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or what it will be — that it will be without risk of loss.”
Interviews with key participants in the last days of the war show a series of misjudgments and the failure of Biden’s calculation that pulling out US troops — prioritising their safety before evacuating US citizens and Afghan allies — would result in an orderly withdrawal.
Biden administration officials consistently believed they had the luxury of time. Military commanders overestimated the will of the Afghan forces to fight for their own country and underestimated how much the American withdrawal would destroy their confidence. The administration put too much faith in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul as it fell.
And although Biden White House officials say that they held more than 50 meetings on embassy security and evacuations and that so far no Americans have died in the operation, all the planning failed to prevent the mayhem when the Taliban took over Kabul in a matter of days.
Only in recent weeks did the administration change course from its original plan. By then it was too late.
A sinking feeling
Five days after the April meeting at the Pentagon, Milley told reporters on a flight back to Washington from Hawaii that the Afghan government’s troops were “reasonably well equipped, reasonably well trained, reasonably well led.” He declined to say whether they could stand on their own without support from the United States.
“We frankly don’t know yet,” he said. “We have to wait and see how things develop over the summer.”
Biden’s top intelligence officers echoed that uncertainty, privately offering concerns about the Afghan abilities. But they still predicted that a complete Taliban takeover was not likely for at least 18 months. One senior administration official, discussing classified intelligence information that had been presented to Biden, said there was no sense that the Taliban were on the march.
In fact, they were. Across Afghanistan, the Taliban were methodically gathering strength by threatening tribal leaders in every community they entered with warnings to surrender or die. They collected weapons, ammunition, volunteers and money as they stormed from town to town, province to province.
In May, they launched a major offensive in Helmand province in the south and six other areas of Afghanistan, including Ghazni and Kandahar. In Washington, refugee groups grew increasingly alarmed by what was happening on the ground and feared Taliban retribution against thousands of translators, interpreters and others who had helped the American war effort.
Leaders of the groups estimated that as many as 100,000 Afghans and family members were now targets for Taliban revenge. On May 6, representatives from several of the United States’ largest refugee groups, including Human Rights First, the International Refugee Assistance Project, No One Left Behind, and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service logged onto Zoom for a call with National Security Council staff members.
The groups pleaded with the White House officials for a mass evacuation of Afghans and urged them not to rely on a backlogged special visa program that could keep Afghans waiting for months or years.
There was no time for visas, they said, and Afghans had to be removed quickly to stay alive. The response was cordial but noncommittal, according to one participant, who recalled a sinking feeling afterward that the White House had no plan.
Republican Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a veteran and an ally of Biden's, echoed those concerns in his own discussions with the administration. Moulton said he told anyone who would listen at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon that “they need to stop processing visas in Afghanistan and just get people to safety.”
But doing what Moulton and the refugee groups wanted would have meant launching a dangerous new military mission that would probably require a surge of troops just at the moment that Biden had announced the opposite. It also ran counter to what the Afghan government wanted, because a high-profile evacuation would amount to a vote of no confidence in the government and its forces.
The State Department sped up its efforts to process visas and clear the backlog. Officials overhauled the lengthy screening and vetting process and reduced processing time — but only to under a year. Eventually, they issued more than 5,600 special visas from April to July, the largest number in the program’s history but still a small fraction of the demand.
The Taliban continued their advance as the embassy in Kabul urged Americans to leave. On 27 April, the embassy had ordered nearly 3,000 members of its staff to depart, and on 15 May, officials there sent the latest in a series of warnings to Americans in the country: “U.S. Embassy strongly suggests that U.S. citizens make plans to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.”
A tense meeting with Ghani
On 25 June, Ghani met with Biden at the White House for what would become for the foreseeable future the last meeting between an American president and the Afghan leaders they had coaxed, cajoled and argued with over 20 years.
When the cameras were on at the beginning of the meeting, Ghani and Biden expressed mutual admiration even though Ghani was fuming about the decision to pull out US troops. As soon as reporters were shooed out of the room, the tension was clear.
Ghani, a former World Bank official whom Biden regarded as stubborn and arrogant, had three requests, according to an official familiar with the conversation. He wanted the United States to be “conservative” in granting exit visas to the interpreters and others, and “low key” about their leaving the country so it would not look as if America lacked faith in his government.
He also wanted to speed up security assistance and secure an agreement for the US military to continue to conduct airstrikes and provide overwatch from its planes and helicopters for his troops fighting the Taliban. US officials feared that the more they were drawn into direct combat with the militant group, the more its fighters would treat US diplomats as targets.
Biden agreed to provide air support and not make a public show of the Afghan evacuations.
Biden had his own request for Ghani. The Afghan forces were stretched too thin, Biden told him, and should not try to fight everywhere. He repeated American advice that Ghani consolidate Afghan forces around key locations, but Ghani never took it.
A week later, on 2 July, Biden, in an ebullient mood, gathered a small group of reporters to celebrate new jobs numbers that he said showed that his economic recovery plan was working. But all the questions he received were about news from Afghanistan that the United States had abandoned Bagram Airfield, with little to no notice to the Afghans.
“It’s a rational drawdown with our allies,” he insisted, “so there’s nothing unusual about it.”
But as the questions persisted, on Afghanistan rather than the economy, he grew visibly annoyed. He recalled Ghani’s visit and said, “I think they have the capacity to be able to sustain the government,” although he added that there would have to be negotiations with the Taliban.
Then, for the first time, he was pressed on what the administration would do to save Kabul if it came under direct attack. “I want to talk about happy things, man,” he said. He insisted there was a plan.
“We have worked out an over-the-horizon capacity,” he said, meaning the administration had contingency plans should things go badly. “But the Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves with the air force they have, which we’re helping them maintain,” he said. But by then, most of the U.S. contractors who helped keep the Afghan planes flying had been withdrawn from Bagram along with the troops. Military and intelligence officials acknowledge they were worried that the Afghans would not be able to stay in the air.
By 8 July, nearly all US forces were out of Afghanistan as the Taliban continued their surge across the country. In a speech that day from the White House defending his decision to leave, Biden was in a bind trying to express skepticism about the abilities of the Afghan forces while being careful not to undermine their government. Afterward, he angrily responded to a reporter’s comparison to Vietnam by insisting that “there’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
But five days later, nearly two dozen U.S. diplomats, all in the Kabul embassy, sent a memo directly to Blinken through the State Department’s “dissent” channel. The cable, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, urged that evacuation flights for Afghans begin in two weeks and that the administration move faster to register them for visas.
The next day, in a move already underway, the White House named a stepped-up effort “Operation Allies Refuge.”
By late July, General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of US Central Command who overseas all military operations in the region, received permission from Austin to extend the deployment of the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima in the Gulf of Oman, so that the Marines on board could be close enough to get to Afghanistan to evacuate Americans. A week later, Austin was concerned enough to order the expeditionary unit on the ship — about 2,000 Marines — to disembark and wait in Kuwait so that they could reach Afghanistan quickly.
By 3 August, top national security officials met in Washington and heard an updated intelligence assessment: Districts and provincial capitals across Afghanistan were falling rapidly to the Taliban and the Afghan government could collapse in “days or weeks.” It was not the most likely outcome, but it was an increasingly plausible one.
“We’re assisting the government so that the Talibs do not think this is going to be a cakewalk, that they can conquer and take over the country,” the chief US envoy to Afghan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Aspen Security Forum on 3 August. Days later, however, that is exactly what happened.
The end game
By 6 August, the maps in the Pentagon showed a spreading stain of areas under Taliban control. In some places, the Afghans had put up a fight, but in many others, there was just surrender.
That same day in Washington, the Pentagon reviewed worst-case scenarios. If security further deteriorated, planning — begun days after Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April — led by Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the president’s homeland security adviser, called for flying most of the embassy personnel out of the compound, and many out of the country, while a small core group of diplomats operated from a backup site at the airport.
On its face, the Kabul airport made sense as an evacuation point. Close to the centre of the city, it could be as little as a 12-minute drive and a three-minute helicopter flight from the embassy — logistics that had helped reassure planners after the closure of Bagram, which was more than 50 miles and a far longer drive from Kabul.
By 11 August, the Taliban advances were so alarming that Biden asked his top national security advisers in the White House Situation Room if it was time to send the Marines to Kabul and to evacuate the embassy. He asked for an updated assessment of the situation and authorised the use of military planes for evacuating Afghan allies.
Overnight in Washington, Kandahar and Ghazni were falling. National security officials were awakened as early as 4 am on 12 August and told to gather for an urgent meeting a few hours later to provide options to the president. Once assembled, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told the group that the intelligence agencies could no longer ensure that they could provide sufficient warning if the capital was about to be under siege.
Everyone looked at one another, one participant said, and came to the same conclusion: It was time to get out. An hour later, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, walked into the Oval Office to deliver the group’s unanimous consensus to start an evacuation and deploy 3,000 Marines and Army soldiers to the airport.
By 14 August, Biden was at Camp David for what he hoped would be the start of a 10-day vacation. Instead, he spent much of the day on dire video conference calls with his top aides.
On one of the calls, Austin urged all remaining personnel at the Kabul embassy be moved immediately to the airport.
It was a stunning turnaround from what Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, had said two days earlier: “The embassy remains open, and we plan to continue our diplomatic work in Afghanistan.” Ross Wilson, acting US ambassador to Afghanistan and who was on the call, said the staff still needed 72 hours to leave.
“You have to move now,” Austin replied.
Blinken spoke by phone to Ghani the same day. The Afghan president was defiant, according to one official familiar with the conversation, and insisted that he would defend Afghanistan until the end. He did not tell Blinken that he was already planning to flee his country, which US officials first learned by reading news reports.
Later that day, the US Embassy in Afghanistan sent a message saying it would pay for American citizens to get out of the country, but warned that although there were reports that international commercial flights were still operating from Kabul, “seats may not be available.”
On 15 August, Ghani was gone. His departure — he would eventually turn up days later in the United Arab Emirates — and scenes of the Taliban celebrating at his presidential palace documented the collapse of the government.
By the end of the day, the Taliban addressed the news media, declaring their intention to restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The evacuation of the Kabul embassy staff was by that point underway as diplomats rushed to board military helicopters for the short trip to the airport bunker.
Others stayed behind long enough to burn sensitive documents. Another official said embassy helicopters were blown up or otherwise destroyed, which sent a cloud of smoke over the compound.
Many Americans and Afghans could not reach the airport as Taliban fighters set up checkpoints on roads throughout the city and beat some people, leaving top FBI officials concerned about the possibility that the Taliban or criminal gangs might kidnap Americans, a nightmare outcome with the US military no longer in the country.
As Biden made plans the evening of 15 August to address Americans the next day about the situation, the American flag was lowered over the abandoned embassy. The Green Zone, once the heart of the American effort to remake the country, was again Taliban territory.
Michael D Shear, David E Sanger, Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Julian E Barnes and Lara Jakes c.2021 The New York Times Company