Biden’s Chaotic Withdrawal from Afghanistan Is Complete

Nine days after the fall of Kabul, a colleague forwarded me an e-mail about someone who “wants to talk about a story that is not being reported.” Hours later, I found myself speaking with a colonel who was working on the airlift out of Kabul. He had served multiple tours in Afghanistan since 2002, and…

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Nine days after the fall of Kabul, a colleague forwarded me an e-mail about someone who “wants to talk about a story that is not being reported.” Hours later, I found myself speaking with a colonel who was working on the airlift out of Kabul. He had served multiple tours in Afghanistan since 2002, and a female Afghan translator who had repeatedly risked her life for his unit had made it through Taliban checkpoints to the airport. But she and her family could not get a seat on a plane. “I can’t get her out,” he lamented. “I finally got them in the wire and I don’t want them to die there.”

The sudden Taliban seizure of the Afghan capital, on August 15th, threw the Biden Administration, and much of Washington’s national-security apparatus, into chaos. Military officers and diplomats, instead of stonewalling journalists and aid workers—as they often had before—sought information and help. In a way I had not seen since the aftermath of 9/11, when I covered the rescue effort in New York and then the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for the Times, government officials seemed openly disoriented, expressing shock and fury at their own government, and a deep sense of shame. Another military officer urged me to publicly attack U.S. immigration officials for failing to process Special Immigrant Visa applications for roughly twenty thousand Afghan interpreters who had worked with U.S. forces. “These are extraordinary times,” the officer said. “It called for extraordinary measures. They failed. Hope you consider this.”

On Monday, the final flight of American troops left Kabul, ending a twenty-year mission and fulfilling Joe Biden’s promise to withdraw all U.S. forces by the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In a statement, Biden touted the evacuation of more than a hundred and twenty thousand people from Kabul, the majority of them Afghan citizens. For months, refugee organizations and military officials had urged the Administration to begin evacuating Afghans who had backed the U.S. effort. The White House demurred, worried that such a move would signal a lack of faith in the Afghan government. As a result, the operation, crammed into the span of a few weeks, was unnecessarily rushed and poorly planned. An estimated two hundred thousand Afghans who were unable to get out now face retaliation from the Taliban. To many critics inside and outside of government, the conflict appears to be ending as it began—with individual acts of courage carried out amid a chaotic, politically driven U.S. government response. “We’re heroic as individuals,” a former national-security official said. “We don’t get heroic as a nation.”

The departure of U.S. troops will largely end a frantic effort by scores of military veterans, aid workers, and journalists to save Afghan lives. For the past two weeks, WhatsApp and Signal channels have erupted with tips about Taliban checkpoints, crowd sizes, and, most important, which airport gates were open. A call, text, or e-mail to the right person could save a life. At one point, Jane Ferguson, a PBS NewsHour correspondent reporting in Kabul—who also contributes to The New Yorker—messaged instructions as she tried to guide a family onto a British base near the airport. “They must push forward to the front,” she wrote. “The back gate is shut.” Later, as the family fought their way through the crowd, she added, “I know it seems scary out there but this is the calmest it has been in days.”

Racing against the U.S. deadline, Ferguson ultimately got two dozen Afghans into the British base. She watched thousands of others try. Those with ties to U.S. passport holders sometimes made it. But the vast majority did not. “There is no system. The system has collapsed,” she said. “It’s hard to describe how utterly ad hoc it was. It’s placed me and my colleagues in this bizarre position of having this odd, misplaced power.” A clergywoman in New York tried to help evacuate dozens of Afghan women, including a university official and a member of parliament. Artists in New York tried to get Afghan musicians evacuated. A high-school teacher at an American school in Taiwan tried to fly out seven young leaders and their families. Working with others, the teacher was able to get three of the seven families out. “Only three weeks ago they were holding a conference practicing their conflict resolution and negotiation skills,” the teacher, who asked not to be named, told me. “They were the future of what was possible for Afghanistan.”

After twenty years, the vast majority of Americans, understandably, want out of Afghanistan. America lost 2,461 service members, including thirteen at the Kabul airport on Thursday, and spent more than two trillion dollars on a new form of warfare that dragged on, in part, because it impacted so few Americans—an all-volunteer military meant that less than one per cent of the U.S. population actually engaged in fighting. Washington waged war in election-cycle increments of two and four years; policy goals were often set to make campaigning politicians look tough on terrorism. Meanwhile, the effort on the ground was beset by dizzying contradictions. American-backed leaders in Afghanistan engaged in corruption and empowered warlords, even as some three hundred thousand Afghans joined the Army and the police to fight the Taliban. Sixty-six thousand of them perished. The Taliban suffered enormous casualties of their own, losing fifty-one thousand in battle. Worst of all, forty-seven thousand Afghan civilians died, with large numbers of them killed in bombings and other attacks by the Taliban and the Islamic State in recent years. “With Afghanistan, there was no overarching strategy of what we wanted to do,” a former C.I.A. station chief told me. “If you look at U.S. policy since 9/11, it was totally confused.”

The Taliban are expected to quickly reverse whatever gains were made. Since 2001, Afghanistan has experienced dramatic improvements in literacy and health care, with the share of young girls attending school rising from twelve to fifty per cent. Last year, Afghanistan’s parliament had a higher percentage of women than the U.S. Congress did. Most striking, a generation of Afghans, particularly in the country’s cities, has embraced technology, social media, and modernity. “It truly changed the lives of a generation,” Brad Blitz, a professor of international politics at University College London, told me. In the past two weeks, he and a team of London-based academics have struggled to evacuate three hundred and fifty Afghan researchers. They managed to get twenty-five people, including some of the researchers’ family members, to Poland. Hours after their arrival, a few Afghan children ventured out onto the grounds of a reception center and ate wild mushrooms that were poisonous. They had to be hospitalized, and two of them were in critical condition. “This is just one more example of the chaotic situation Afghans have found themselves in,” Blitz said.

The former C.I.A. station chief expressed despair. “It’s hard to believe that we’ve abandoned the Afghans so overwhelmingly,” he said. “We created this society, like it or not. We encouraged women to go to school and work. Now they’re being taken as war brides.” At one point, he began to interview me. Twelve years ago, while reporting in Afghanistan for the Times, I was abducted with two Afghan colleagues outside Kabul by members of the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction, and held for seven months in remote tribal areas of Pakistan. The Haqqani network’s leader is now the Afghan capital’s security chief. “The guy who kidnapped you is now the head of security in Kabul,” he said. “Is he going to be a nice guy? I don’t think so.” I share his pessimism. During my time in captivity, I grew to see the Haqqanis as a criminal gang masquerading as a pious religious movement. They described themselves as the true followers of Islam but displayed an astounding capacity for dishonesty and greed. Paranoid and delusional, they insisted that the 9/11 attacks were hatched by American and Israeli intelligence agencies to create a pretext for the U.S. to enslave Muslims. They said that the U.S. was forcibly converting vast numbers of Muslims to Christianity. American and NATO soldiers, they believed, were making Afghan women work as prostitutes on military bases.

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