WASHINGTON — President Biden’s top advisers concede they were stunned by the rapid collapse of the Afghan army in the face of an aggressive, well-planned offensive by the Taliban that now threatens Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.
The past 20 years show they should not have been.
If there is a consistent theme over two decades of war in Afghanistan, it is the overestimation of the results of the $83 billion the United States has spent since 2001 training and equipping the Afghan security forces and an underestimation of the brutal, wily strategy of the Taliban. The Pentagon had issued dire warnings to Mr. Biden even before he took office about the potential for the Taliban to overrun the Afghan army, but intelligence estimates, now shown to have badly missed the mark, assessed it might happen in 18 months, not weeks.
Commanders did know that the afflictions of the Afghan forces had never been cured: the deep corruption, the failure by the government to pay many Afghan soldiers and police officers for months, the defections, the soldiers sent to the front without adequate food and water, let alone arms. In the past several days, the Afghan forces have steadily collapsed as they battled to defend ever shrinking territory, losing Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s economic engine, to the Taliban on Saturday.
Mr. Biden’s aides say that the persistence of those problems reinforced his belief that the United States could not prop up the Afghan government and military in perpetuity. In Oval Office meetings this spring, he told aides that staying another year, or even five, would not make a substantial difference and was not worth the risks.
In the end, an Afghan force that did not believe in itself and a U.S. effort that Mr. Biden, and most Americans, no longer believed would alter the course of events combined to bring an ignoble close to America’s longest war. The United States kept forces in Afghanistan far longer than the British did in the 19th century, and twice as long as the Soviets — with roughly the same results.
For Mr. Biden, the last of four American presidents to face painful choices in Afghanistan but the first to get out, the debate about a final withdrawal and the miscalculations over how to execute it began the moment he took office.
“Under Trump, we were one tweet away from complete, precipitous withdrawal,” said Douglas E. Lute, a retired general who directed Afghan strategy at the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “Under Biden, it was clear to everyone who knew him, who saw him pressing for a vastly reduced force more than a decade ago, that he was determined to end U.S. military involvement,” he added, “but the Pentagon believed its own narrative that we would stay forever.”
“The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning: If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?”
A Skeptical President
From the moment that news outlets called Pennsylvania for Mr. Biden on Nov. 7, making him the next commander in chief for 1.4 million active-duty troops, Pentagon officials knew they would face an uphill battle to stop a withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Defense Department leaders had already been fending off Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, who wanted a rapid drawdown. In one Twitter post last year, he declared all American troops would be out by that Christmas.
And while they had publicly voiced support for the agreement Mr. Trump reached with the Taliban in February 2020 for a complete withdrawal this May, Pentagon officials said they wanted to talk Mr. Biden out of it.
After Mr. Biden took office, top Defense Department officials began a lobbying campaign to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan for a few more years. They told the president that the Taliban had grown stronger under Mr. Trump than at any point in the past two decades and pointed to intelligence estimates predicting that in two or three years, Al Qaeda could find a new foothold in Afghanistan.
Shortly after Lloyd J. Austin III was sworn in as defense secretary on Jan. 22, he and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to Mr. Biden that 3,000 to 4,500 troops stay in Afghanistan, nearly double the 2,500 troops there. On Feb. 3, a congressionally appointed panel led by a retired four-star Marine general, Joseph F. Dunford Jr., publicly recommended that Mr. Biden abandon the exit deadline of May 1 and further reduce American forces only as security conditions improved.
A report by the panel assessed that withdrawing troops on a strict timeline rather than how well the Taliban adhered to the agreement heightened the risk of a potential civil war once international forces left.
But Mr. Biden, who had become deeply skeptical of American efforts to remake foreign countries in his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president, asked what a few thousand American troops could do if Kabul was attacked. Aides said he told them that the presence of the American troops would further the Afghan government’s reliance on the United States and delay the day it would take responsibility for its own defense.
The president told his national security team, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, that he was convinced that no matter what the United States did, Afghanistan was almost certainly headed into another civil war — one Washington could not prevent, but also, in his view, one it could not be drawn into.
By March, Pentagon officials said they realized they were not getting anywhere with Mr. Biden. Although he listened to their arguments and asked extensive questions, they said they had a sense that his mind was made up.
In late March, Mr. Austin and General Milley made a last-ditch effort with the president by forecasting dire outcomes in which the Afghan military folded in an aggressive advance by the Taliban. They drew comparisons to how the Iraqi military was overrun by the Islamic State in 2014 after American combat troops left Iraq, prompting Mr. Obama to send American forces back.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Mr. Austin told Mr. Biden, according to officials with knowledge of the meetings.
But the president was unmoved. If the Afghan government could not hold off the Taliban now, aides said he asked, when would they be able to? None of the Pentagon officials could answer the question.
On the morning of April 6, Mr. Biden told Mr. Austin and General Milley he wanted all American troops out by Sept. 11.
The intelligence assessments in Mr. Biden’s briefing books gave him some assurance that if a bloody debacle resulted in Afghanistan, it would at least be delayed. As recently as late June, the intelligence agencies estimated that even if the Taliban continued to gain power, it would be at least a year and a half before Kabul would be threatened; the Afghan forces had the advantages of greater numbers and air power, if they could keep their helicopters and planes flying.
Even so, the Pentagon moved swiftly to get its troops out, fearful of the risks of leaving a dwindling number of Americans in Afghanistan and of service members dying in a war the United States had given up for lost. Before the July 4 weekend, the United States had handed over Bagram Air Base, the military hub of the war, to the Afghans, effectively ending all major U.S. military operations in the country.
“Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves with the air force they have, which we’re helping them maintain,” Mr. Biden said at the time. A week later, he argued that the Afghans “have the capacity” to defend themselves.
“The question is,” he said, “will they do it?”
The Will Is Gone
To critics of the decision, the president underestimated the importance of even a modest presence, and the execution of the withdrawal made the problem far worse.
“We set them up for failure,” said David H. Petraeus, the retired general who commanded the international forces in Afghanistan from 2010 until he was appointed C.I.A. director the next year. Mr. Biden’s team, he argued, “did not recognize the risk incurred by the swift withdrawal” of intelligence and reconnaissance drones and close air support, as well as the withdrawal of thousands of contractors who kept the Afghan air force flying — all in the middle of a particularly intense fighting season.
The result was that Afghan forces on the ground would “fight for a few days, and then realize there are no reinforcements” on the way, he said. The “psychological impact was devastating.”
But administration officials, responding to such critiques, counter that the Afghan military dwarfs the Taliban, some 300,000 troops to 75,000.
“They have an air force, a capable air force,” something the Taliban does not have, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Friday. “They have modern equipment. They have the benefit of the training that we have provided for the last 20 years. It’s time now to use those advantages.”
But by the time Mr. Kirby noted those advantages, none of them seemed to be making a difference. Feeling abandoned by the United States and commanded by rudderless leaders meant that Afghan troops on the ground “looked at what was in front of them, and what was behind them, and decided it’s easier to go off on their own,” said retired Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the former commander of United States Central Command who oversaw the war in Afghanistan from 2016 to 2019.
Mr. Biden, one administration official said, expressed frustration that President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan had not managed to effectively plan and execute what was supposed to be the latest strategy: consolidating forces to protect key cities. On Wednesday, Mr. Ghani fired his army chief, Lt. General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, who had only been in place for two months, replacing him with Maj. Gen. Haibatullah Alizai, a special operations commander. The commandos under General Alizai are the only troops who have consistently fought the Taliban these past weeks.
Richard Fontaine, the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, an influential Washington think tank that specializes in national security, wrote that in the end, the 20-year symbiosis between the United States and the Afghan government it stood up, supported and ushered through elections had broken down.
“Those highlighting the Afghan government’s military superiority — in numbers, training, equipment, air power — miss the larger point,” he wrote recently. “Everything depends on the will to fight for the government. And that, it turns out, depended on U.S. presence and support. We’re exhorting the Afghans to show political will when theirs depends on ours. And ours is gone.”
On Saturday, as the last major city in northern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Mr. Biden accelerated the deployment of 1,000 additional troops to the country to help ensure the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked for the U.S. government from Kabul.
Mr. Biden released a lengthy statement in which he blamed Mr. Trump for at least part of the unfolding disaster. He said, “I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor” which “left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021, deadline on U.S. forces.”
He said when he took office, he had a choice: abide by the deal or “ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict.”
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats,” Mr. Biden said. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”