President Joe Biden and his inner circle were in an ebullient mood.
It was Wednesday morning, Aug. 11, and they were basking in the glow of back-to-back legislative wins. The day before, the Senate had passed a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. And in the early hours of Wednesday morning, they witnessed the advancement of a $3.5 trillion framework to finance Democrats’ social agenda.
Watching the Senate vote tally in front of a television screen in the president’s private dining room, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris pumped their fists in triumph. The linchpin of their domestic agenda had begun to fall into place.
Biden was looking forward to his summer vacation set to begin in a few days, including some downtime at Camp David and at his house near the beach in Delaware. Meanwhile, many senior and mid-level West Wing staffers were also prepping for some time off, setting their “out of office” email replies. “It’s a ghost town,” a White House official said, describing the scene in the West Wing.
But as the White House was taking a giant victory lap over its domestic accomplishments, a disaster was looming on the other side of the world in Afghanistan.
This account of five chaotic days in the middle of August is based on interviews with 33 U.S. officials and lawmakers, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive internal discussions.
By Wednesday morning — dusk in Central Asia — the Afghan government’s already brittle control of the war-torn country was quickly unraveling in the face of a swift Taliban offensive coinciding with the nearly complete withdrawal of U.S. troops that Biden ordered in April.
A few days earlier, the militant group had seized the provincial capital of Zaranj, the first of many to fall in a blitzkrieg that stunned American officials with its speed and ferocity.
Most of America’s top diplomats and generals were still operating under the assumption that they had ample time to prepare for a Taliban takeover of the country — it might even be a couple of years until the group was in position to regain power, many thought. Though some military officials and intelligence agencies had stepped up their warnings about the possibility of a government collapse, officials felt confident in the Afghan security forces’ strategy of consolidating in the cities to defend the urban population centers.
And just hours earlier, Biden publicly expressed hope that the Taliban would be held at bay by the Afghan army. “I think there’s still a possibility,” he told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. (A month earlier, Biden said a complete Taliban takeover was “highly unlikely.”)
Then, on Wednesday, Afghan security forces largely abandoned the provinces of Badakhshan, Baghlan and Farah to the Taliban’s guerrilla army. While other areas of the country had already fallen, it was clear the pace was picking up.
The president and his top aides still had one more meeting scheduled for Wednesday evening — a pre-planned session on a classified national security matter. As word of the deteriorating situation flowed into the Oval Office that morning, Biden ordered that the early evening meeting should focus on Afghanistan.
Biden’s national security team had already held dozens of meetings on Afghanistan. But this secret meeting, held in the White House Situation Room, the secure operations center in the basement of the West Wing, was coming at a crucial time.
Sitting around the large conference table were Harris; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley; Vice Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. John Hyten; national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy Jon Finer; Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines; Chief of Staff Ron Klain; Deputy CIA Director David Cohen; Liz Sherwood Randall, the president’s homeland security adviser; and other White House and national security staff. Secretary of State Antony Blinken participated by phone.
The mood was dramatically different from the celebratory spirit on display just hours earlier in the dining room. “It was a serious moment,” recalled a senior official.
Events were growing so dire that the president ordered Austin and Milley to prepare a plan for deploying additional troops to the region, where they would reinforce those put on standby months earlier to evacuate American personnel.
Austin had grown so alarmed that he had already called the first of what was to become twice-daily meetings on Afghanistan in the Pentagon’s third-floor secure video conference room, known as the secretary’s “cables.” The department’s top civilian and military leaders attended; other top brass, such as Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, and Rear Adm. Pete Vasely, the commander of forces on the ground in Afghanistan, called in via secure video.
In the Situation Room, Biden also directed the State Department to expand the evacuation of Afghan allies — those who had worked with the Americans and were now in mortal danger — to include the use of military aircraft, not just chartered civilian planes. The president had already been coming under heavy scrutiny in Congress over the slow pace of evacuations for Afghans who served as interpreters and translators for the U.S. military during the 20-year conflict.
Biden also asked his intelligence officials to prepare an up-to-date assessment on the situation in Afghanistan by the following morning.
After the meeting broke up, a classified email was sent to pertinent staffers to convene at 7:30 a.m. the next day. The email went out so late that the Situation Room staff also started calling those aides to make sure they would be on time Thursday morning.
“I remember how groggy everyone sounded,” recalled an official as Biden’s national security Cabinet gathered early Thursday morning. The sun had risen only an hour or so earlier, but the Situation Room — the windowless operations center deep below the West Wing — was already humming with activity.
Sullivan, the national security adviser, was there with other White House staff, while Cabinet members participated via secure hookups.
The principals meeting kicked off with an intelligence briefing concluding that the situation was so “fluid” that the Afghan government’s seat of power in Kabul could fall “within weeks or days,” the official noted.
That was a far cry from the assessments officials were relying on just days earlier that estimated a Taliban takeover would take months, or even up to two years, following the withdrawal of American and NATO troops. As recently as Aug. 8, McKenzie sent Austin a new, more pessimistic estimate: that Kabul could be isolated within 30 days.
“It was a pretty sobering meeting,” the official said. “We thought we had months ahead of us to draw down the embassy and do processing and relocation.”
But by Thursday morning in Washington, more population centers were falling to the Taliban by the hour, including the provincial capitals of Ghazni and Badghis.
In the Situation Room, Austin was now recommending that Biden send in troops to evacuate the embassy and protect the main international airport in Kabul. Sullivan asked each Cabinet member in the meeting to weigh in. They unanimously agreed.
That was the “oh, shit” moment, said the U.S. official. It was now officially a crisis.
Sullivan walked into the Oval Office just before 10 a.m. to report to the president. Biden picked up the phone and told Austin to send in the prepositioned troops.
Across Washington, Congress was also growing increasingly alarmed by the deteriorating situation. In some cases, lawmakers took it upon themselves to learn more about what was happening, absent guidance from the Biden administration.
A day earlier, as the Senate shifted to an hours-long, overnight series of votes on a top domestic agenda item for Biden, senators spearheading the effort were pulled out of meetings and off of the Senate floor where they were briefed on disturbing reports coming out of Afghanistan. Some of those terrifying stories and images began to emerge in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, when senators remained on the floor past 4 a.m.
One of the few lawmakers actively talking about the Afghanistan developments at the time was Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a longtime advocate for withdrawing U.S. troops. He had taken to the Senate floor on Tuesday to pre-emptively defend Biden and assert that the Taliban’s surge was in fact a reason to stay the course with the pullout.
“The complete, utter failure of the Afghan National Army, absent our hand-holding, to defend their country is a blistering indictment of a failed 20-year strategy predicated on the belief that billions of U.S taxpayer dollars could create an effective, democratic central government in a nation that has never had one,” Murphy said.
Lawmakers began discussing the Taliban’s gains among themselves on the Senate floor late into Wednesday, but neither party allowed it to overshadow their economic policy efforts.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), the first Green Beret to serve in Congress and one of the earliest and loudest voices pushing for evacuations of Afghan allies, was in constant communication with officials tied to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Even as the Taliban were taking huge swaths of territory by Wednesday, Waltz said Afghan forces believed “they could turn it around” as long as the U.S. kept providing air support.
That support wasn’t enough as the Afghan military laid down their arms en masse. In an interview, Waltz described the tepid air support as “putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound.”
Later on Thursday, around lunchtime, a White House official called Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, to provide an update on the deteriorating situation.
Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers that had been urging the Biden administration for months to move faster to evacuate Afghans who assisted the U.S. war effort.
Both Crow and Waltz believed by then that, absent a dramatic acceleration of the evacuations, it was unlikely that the U.S. would be able to safely take every American and Afghan ally out of the country before Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline.
By Thursday evening, the Pentagon announced that 3,000 additional troops were being rushed in to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and help get the remaining Americans, as well as Afghan and NATO allies, safely out of the country.
“Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment, but clearly … if you just look at what the Taliban has been doing, you can see that they are trying to isolate,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.
Biden had weeks earlier approved all of Austin’s recommendations to position naval assets and thousands of troops in the region in case of an evacuation, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and three infantry battalions.
But almost immediately, it became clear it wouldn’t be enough.
Brad Israel, a former Green Beret who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, received a frantic email on Thursday evening from his former Afghan interpreter.
The day before, the man was forced to flee Kandahar after the Taliban burned down his house — including destroying the documentary proof of his application for asylum in the U.S. — and executed his brother.
Israel emailed the address listed on the State Department website to find out how his friend could resubmit his visa application, only for the message to bounce back: “The recipient’s mailbox is full and can’t accept messages now.” A State Department spokesperson did not respond to a request to explain why.
The U.S. diplomatic effort to manage an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan was also falling apart.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had concluded on Friday that they had no choice but to shutter America’s diplomatic outpost. They directed personnel to immediately begin the “emergency destruction” of all sensitive documents and materials.
That included incinerating American flags and other U.S. government logos “which could be misused in propaganda efforts,” according to a memo issued to embassy personnel. And, according to Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), passports of Afghan citizens who had applied for American visas were among the documents burned — making it almost impossible to identify them as they seek to leave the country in the coming days.
Back in Washington, Tracy Jacobson, head of the State Department’s Afghanistan Task Force, briefed Crow by phone on the administration’s planned response.
Crow headed to a sensitive compartmentalized information facility located in the basement of the Capitol, where he reviewed the latest secret intelligence reports from Kabul.
Congressional leaders were also keeping close tabs on the situation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told radio host Hugh Hewitt this week that he was in touch with military leaders who were “blindsided.”
Weeks earlier, the U.S. military had abandoned Bagram Air Base, long the beating heart of American operations in Afghanistan. With just a few thousand troops left behind, Pentagon officials made the decision that they could not keep the sprawling facility secure while defending the embassy and the Kabul airport.
Plans called instead for using helicopters to ferry Americans from the embassy compound in central Kabul to Hamid Karzai International Airport, a few miles away, rather than risk getting bogged down or ambushed in the Afghan capital’s clogged traffic. It would mean risking exactly the kind of chaotic scenes Biden had vowed would not happen — indelible, Saigon-style images of America in retreat.
“By Friday afternoon, it was clear to me that we were rapidly losing control of the situation at the capital, in the airport, and that the evacuation operation was in jeopardy,” Crow said.
He was also told that the Pentagon was “going to rapidly ramp up the evacuation in terms of the quantity of folks, but also who they were looking at evacuating as well.”
But that meant deciding which Americans and Afghan allies who were stuck in Kabul should get evacuated first.
The Pentagon didn’t have a comprehensive list of Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. during the war. Officials were still compiling a “priority list” of interpreters to evacuate.
That was despite repeated warnings, including a bipartisan plea to Biden in early June expressing growing concern “that you have not yet directed the Department of Defense be mobilized as part of a concrete and workable whole-of-government plan to protect our Afghan partners.”
Meanwhile on the ground in Afghanistan, Vasely was in direct contact with Ghani or his staff almost every day. Austin and Blinken also spoke with Ghani, but he gave no indication that he was going to abruptly leave the country.
“He represented himself as willing to stay and fight,” one defense official said.
That promise proved to be short-lived.
By Saturday, the National Military Command Center, the highly secure global operations center below the Pentagon, was getting slammed with message traffic.
The latest domino to fall to the Taliban was the northern commercial hub of Mazar-e-Sharif. It was becoming clear that Kabul was next. Seasoned military officers expressed disbelief that the Afghan forces appeared ready to give up their capital city without a fight.
“Email was blowing up left and right [with people saying] ‘Wow, this is actually happening right now,’” a defense official said. “This thing just fell apart over the weekend.”
Pentagon officials were realizing far too late that the Taliban had waged an effective influence campaign in addition to the physical one, taking advantage of tribal dynamics to build ties with village elders and others who played key roles in the group’s mostly bloodless march across the country.
At the same time, the U.S. military had fewer than 2,500 troops left — not enough to understand just how fast the Afghan national army’s morale and cohesion was crumbling.
“No one was surprised that they folded like a deck of cards, but just the speed of it — it just evaporated,” the official said.
Another defense official wrote at the top of his notebook entry for the day: “Fall of Kabul.”
In light of the deteriorating situation, Biden that morning had approved Austin’s recommendation to dispatch another 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to help evacuate personnel from Kabul. Two more battalions were on their way to the region to stage in Kuwait as a ready reserve.
Biden was still at Camp David, dressed in khakis and a polo shirt and accompanied only by a few more junior aides. In a lengthy statement, he announced the troop movements and other steps the administration was scrambling to make, then pivoted to a thumping defense of his withdrawal decision.
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats,” he said. “I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
By Sunday Aug. 15, Austin, Milley, and their staffs held hastily arranged phone calls with lawmakers to discuss the situation.
During one such call, military officials reported that a key Ghani ally, the deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament, had defected to become the Taliban’s police chief in Kabul.
“That’s when we knew it was really FUBAR,” one senior Democratic aide said, using the military acronym for “fouled up beyond all recognition.”
Milley also warned lawmakers that with the Taliban ascendant, so was the threat that al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups seeking to attack the U.S. might once again be able to plot from Afghan territory.
Meanwhile, Austin had authorized another two battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division to head straight to Kabul instead of staging in Kuwait, bringing the total ordered to flow into the capital city to roughly 6,000 troops.
But in many ways it was too late. Taliban fighters had already taken the eastern city of Jalalabad without a fight, effectively encircling Kabul, and were starting to enter the capital with little resistance.
In quick succession on Sunday, Ghani fled the country, the Taliban waltzed into the presidential palace and posed for selfies in his office. The airport was fast turning into a refugee camp, overrun by thousands of frantic Afghans clamoring to escape, some even willing to cling to planes taxiing on the runway. Satellite images showed tiny dots clustered around the tarmac — living symbols of desperation and despair.
By the end of the day, the American flag no longer flew over the U.S. Embassy. Foreign diplomats posted selfies online from the insides of Chinook helicopters, while photographers captured the arresting sight from afar. And the fresh U.S. troops on their way to Kabul would be protecting an airport in chaos.
Biden’s cabinet members and their deputies had held some three-dozen “scenario planning” meetings following the president’s April announcement that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
They covered everything from how to secure the U.S. Embassy and handle Afghan refugees to how to best position the U.S. military in the region in case things spun out of control. Many more sessions were held at the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command in Tampa, the State Department, and other agencies.
But it still wasn’t enough to prepare for the utter collapse, in a matter of days, of America’s two-decade, $2 trillion effort designed to prop up the Afghan government. Biden had insisted the Afghan military would fight; it largely hadn’t. Blinken had scoffed at the notion that Kabul would fall over a weekend; and yet it did. The “Saigon moment” Biden feared had arrived.
Even as thousands of American troops scramble to rescue U.S. personnel and frantic Afghans who fear for their lives, the questions are mounting about how the U.S. government was caught so flat-footed. For years, watchdog reports had warned that the Afghan military was riddled with corruption, low morale and bad leadership. But few appreciated just how bad.
The Defense Department said it conducted a tabletop exercise at the Pentagon several weeks ago that included evacuation scenarios from the Kabul airport. Even before that, on April 28, Austin convened a drill in the Pentagon’s command center to rehearse the various steps of the withdrawal, including the possibility of evacuating noncombatants. But the military was surprised by the speed with which the Taliban seized the capital city.
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” Milley told reporters on Wednesday.
The chaos at the Kabul airport over the weekend and early this week, with flight operations temporarily suspended after desperate Afghans rushed the runway, has raised questions about the Biden administration’s planning for the withdrawal, including whether it was a mistake to close Bagram Air Base.
Milley defended the military’s decision to close Bagram, which has two runways to Kabul’s airport but is nearly 40 miles from the embassy. With fewer than 2,500 troops left on the ground at the time, Milley said, officials had to choose between securing Bagram and the commercial airport.
“We had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made,” Milley said. Biden, in a speech of his own this week, gave a full-throated defense of his actions, saying, “I stand squarely behind my decision.”
“After 20 years,” he added, “I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
A full accounting of what many others in Washington see as a debacle is on its way. Irate Republicans and Democrats in Congress have vowed to conduct a series of oversight hearings, reviewing potential intelligence failures and previous assessments of the Afghan army’s capabilities.
“It seems that everyone across [the Pentagon] and the intelligence community was caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban’s advance on Kabul,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a member of the Armed Services Committee and an Iraq war veteran. “How is that possible? Was it a lack of resources focused on the issue? Contingency planning failure? Other?”
“We should have been prepared for this contingency and we clearly weren’t,” Moulton added. “If you did the simple arithmetic you couldn’t execute this operation in the space of a few days, even a few weeks. And there’s no excuse for that.”
Many expect the postmortem to get ugly and partisan. “I think you are going to see a lot of, ‘It’s not my fault,’” said Sharon Burke, a veteran of Afghanistan policy under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “There are people who are going to be covering their own records here.”
“It would be really interesting to figure out if you added up all the ‘not my faults,’ who ends up holding the bag?” she added. “Whose fault is it?”
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