Harsanyi: The Real Issues Behind Biden's Devastating Afghanistan Withdrawal


While the Biden administration’s chaotic and inept withdrawal from Afghanistan was unfolding in August 2021, a suicide bomber murdered 13 American service members and at least 170 Afghans outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. It was one of the deadliest attacks on our troops in our 20 years in that nation.

“Know this,” President Joe Biden said after the bombing. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down to the ends of the earth.” This turned out to be face-saving political theater.

Three days later, an airstrike killed ten Afghans, seven of them children. Not one of the dead, as far as we know, was an “ISIS facilitator,” as the administration had alleged.

In fact, the Pentagon now says the airport bombing was the work of a lone terrorist rather than a “complex” network, as the Biden administration had initially maintained. At the time, Gen. Mark Milley not only referred to the strike as “valid” and “righteous” but went on to describe a “secondary explosion” and a supposed plethora of evidence justifying the airstrike. None of that, it seems, was true.

We also learned through ProPublica’s recent investigation into the Kabul suicide bombing that, despite intelligence warning of terrorist attacks, U.S. military commanders encouraged Americans and Afghan allies seeking to flee the country to take unguarded routes to the airport. The bomber likely used one of these routes. “Some U.S. officials even provided maps to evacuees trying to bypass Taliban fighters stationed at a checkpoint outside the airport,” ProPublica reported.

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The fact that the murderer of 13 Americans likely gained access to troops via a path that U.S. officials were encouraging people to use seems quite noteworthy. As does the fact that we were helping evacuees circumvent the Taliban even as the Biden administration was assuring the American public that the Islamic militants were facilitating the extraction of Americans.

This is the same Taliban with which the Biden administration had reportedly shared a list of American citizens, green card holders and Afghan allies. It is the same Taliban that the administration declared had comported itself in a “businesslike and professional” manner.

You will recall as well White House press secretary Jen Psaki contending that no Americans had been “stranded” in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would later say there were “under 200” Americans remaining in Afghanistan who “want to leave.”

A new Senate Foreign Relations Committee report from ranking member Jim Risch of Idaho contends that in August, State Department officials estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 Americans were trapped in Afghanistan. Over the two weeks in which Afghan forces disintegrated, 6,000 Americans were able to escape. I’m not a math whiz, but that leaves a lot more than zero, or even 200, stranded. How many of those American citizens, green card holders or Afghan allies had their names handed to the Taliban?

The Pentagon investigation into the suicide bombing, relying on hundreds of witness interviews, drone footage and reports by medical examiners, concluded that the attack was “not preventable.” In truth, it became unpreventable only after the Biden administration evacuated secure positions without having extracted those who needed to leave.

Is Biden responsible for the Afghanistan disaster?

A recently declassified report from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, which was submitted to Congress in January 2021, also warned that the Afghan air force would quickly collapse without U.S. support. Military personnel would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation, said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”

Yet none of this advice stopped the president from abandoning Bagram Airfield. Nor did it prompt him to set up military safe zones to retrieve stranded Americans or Afghan allies before retreating. His failure to do so caused a bottleneck at the Kabul airport that put troops and civilians in needless danger.

Biden was wedded to the Taliban’s timeline. Given that he’s shown reliably disastrous foreign policy instincts over 50 years in public life, this isn’t exactly surprising. It’s also increasingly clear that the administration ignored warnings because it believed leaving Afghanistan, which was quite popular in polls, would be a political slam dunk early in his term.

That was Biden’s prerogative. The president has no obligation to follow the advice of his generals. Undoubtedly, many of them would advocate for U.S. presence in Afghanistan in perpetuity. As a policy matter, Biden’s botching of the evacuation is a separate issue from whether the U.S. should have withdrawn.

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However, once Biden decided to continue what the Trump administration had begun, the responsibility to protect American lives was his. There are numerous questions yet to be answered about why he failed to do so.


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