Disastrous Afghanistan exit demands tough congressional hearings

Our View: Biden administration owes the American public and American allies straight talk under oath about the tragic evacuation from the Taliban takeover.

The Editorial Board
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America's greatest foreign policy debacle in more than a generation will demand congressional hearings to understand what went wrong with America's disastrous exit from Afghanistan.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner hit the right tone this week when he pledged "tough but necessary questions about why we weren't better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces."

If lessons are to be learned and credibility in U.S. foreign policy is to be clawed back, the American public and American allies deserve straight talk under oath from Biden administration officials.

President Biden: 'far from perfect'

All they've gotten from the president was a lengthy rehash on Monday for why he left Afghanistan, some finger-pointing over the botched exit and a tepid acknowledgment it was "hard and messy, and yes, far from perfect."

Despite a gratuitous remark about the buck stopping with him, Biden offered blame shifting that deserves to be challenged. 

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One case in point, during a news briefing on July 8, President Biden was asked about what he knew regarding the prospects of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

"Your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse," a reporter said.

"That is not true," Biden responded. "They did not ... reach that conclusion." 

What did the president know?

They didn't? There were several reports by U.S. officials just weeks earlier that the intelligence community was predicting the fall of the Kabul regime within six months of a U.S. withdrawal. (That intel timeline estimate was further reduced last week.)

So which is it? Did those forecasts occur and, if so, were they communicated to the president? 

That's not the only issue that needs scrutiny:

Botched evacuation. The image of panicked Afghans falling hundreds of feet to their deaths Monday after trying to stowaway on U.S. military aircraft by hiding in wheel wells will not soon be forgotten.

Biden announced his withdrawal plan in April. In fact, the Trump scheme for pulling out  – which Biden said he was obligated to follow – was reached more than a year before that. Any move to end U.S. military involvement should have immediately set in motion a process to safeguard the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military (and others employed with U.S. media and nongovernmental agencies).

Yet the Biden administration announced no such evacuation plans until June, and by the time the Taliban had overrun the country and entered Kabul, only a few thousand Afghans had been flown out. Efforts to extricate others devolved into bedlam, and it's now open to question how many will be saved. Once the decision was made to leave Afghanistan, why wasn't the priority immediately airlifting out as many at-risk Afghans as possible, and sorting out visa issues later where there was the luxury of time and safety? 

Displaced Afghan families from outlying provinces due to battles between Taliban and Afghan security forces walk past their temporary tents in Kabul on Aug.11, 2021.

The 'Afghanistan Papers'

Challenging assumptions. Beyond the question of whether intel reports predicting a collapse of the Afghan regime reached Biden's desk, just how hard did top-ranking Pentagon officials push back against the president's apparent determination to pull out the last 2,500 U.S. troops?

In explaining Biden's fear, White House officials repeatedly cited the concern that the Taliban would start "shooting at U.S. troops again." But American ground combat operations ended in 2014. Troops have since been largely secluded on major military installations, and deaths have fallen to a dozen or so a year since 2016. Just how devastating were the consequences the White House feared?

Crisis of confidence. After-action analysts have been united in the view that despite a superiority in numbers and armaments, the Afghan security forces melted away before Taliban fighters because of a logistical lack of food, ammunition and paychecks, along with a despairing sense of abandonment by the United States.

Did U.S. intel and military analysts consider the apparent consequences on Afghan troop morale in predicting their staying power? After all, an "Afghanistan Papers" report by The Washington Post two years ago detailed the false progress U.S. officials claimed to have made preparing Afghan troops. Yet Biden, as late as July, expressed confidence these forces would hold off Taliban fighters. How could they have gotten that so wrong?

Upgraded threat of terrorism

Prospects of terror. The Taliban's tactical decision to reject U.S. demands for peace negotiations in favor of a military takeover has been manifestly rewarded. What possible incentive, then, would they have to keep their other crucial promise of not providing haven to well-funded terrorists? Already, the Pentagon is upgrading the threat of terrorism in the wake of Taliban takeover.

Biden is correct that since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida has metastasized to other countries. But those nations, however weak they may be, are ostensibly hostile to the group. The reinstalled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan might not be. And what would be America's options if al-Qaida or other terrorists reestablish themselves in Afghanistan now that there's no U.S. military presence to stop it?

A similar vacuum in Iraq when American troops withdrew was ultimately filled with the violence of the Islamic State. Has the United States gotten nothing from that history?

If the United States is to learn from tough mistakes in Afghanistan, Congress needs to ask some tough questions. There are a lot of people – particularly America's allies – who deserve answers.

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