It’s amazing how America’s national security landscape changed in just four years. With the Islamic State on the ropes after the fall of Mosul, in February 2017 defense expert Andrew Exum proclaimed, “Donald Trump will defeat ISIS and it will mostly be due to the work of his predecessor.” But with Trump’s successor just weeks into his term, David Von Drehle in March urged the United States to “cut its losses” in concluding, “Biden has to take the loss in Afghanistan.”
By all indications, that is precisely what is happening. With President Biden’s deadline for the final withdrawal of American troops now just weeks away, the feared fall of the government in Kabul looks much more imminent than U.S. national security policymakers imagined. The Taliban’s estimated 80,000 fighters have seized a dozen provincial capitals, including Afghanistan’s second largest city Kandahar. On Thursday, the Biden administration announced the deployment of 3,000 U.S. troops to Kabul airport to protect evacuating American personnel. It seems inescapable that the evaporation of Afghanistan’s 300,000-plus security forces and the final descent of the country into chaos and carnage will occur on Joe Biden’s watch.
But what is very disputable is the blame game now underway. While Politico headlines regurgitate GOP sound bites like “Biden on Afghanistan: Not My Problem,” CNN’s Peter Bergen charged that “Biden deserves blame for the debacle in Afghanistan.” Even the Washington Post editorial board got in the act, proclaiming, “Afghan lives ruined or lost will be part of Biden’s legacy.” Sadly, these “hot takes” are revisionist history of the worst kind. Not only was President Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan arguably doomed to fail before it began. It was Donald Trump’s February 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban that set an early timetable for an American withdrawal and put 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters back into battle.
As the Council on Foreign Relations documented, the U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha led by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad set a May 1, 2021 target date for the pull-out of all American troops in Afghanistan. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to a cease fire and promised to end its support for terrorist groups including Al Qaeda. Negotiated without the participation of the government of President Ashraf Ghani, the agreement required Kabul to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security personnel held by the Taliban. Separate discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban were to begin only after that swap was complete, prompting deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani to declare in a New York Times op-ed:
“If we can reach an agreement with a foreign enemy, we must be able to resolve intra-Afghan disagreements through talks.”
But the February agreement guaranteed that the Taliban could just wait the Americans out. Even before its talks with the Afghan government were to begin, the Taliban already secured a reduction of U.S. troop levels from 12,000 to 8.600 within 135 days. The remainder of American and allied forces was to be completed by May 1, 2021. As conservative David French lamented on March 3, 2020:
There is a difference between peace and retreat. The Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban represents a full retreat. It’s an agreement that most Republicans would deplore if a Democrat president made the deal, and they’d be right to be angry […]
The combination of the planned American retreat and the planned prisoner release would represent a substantial change in the balance of forces in Afghanistan. This would come without any agreement by the Taliban to cease hostilities against our allies.
At this point, the deal looks worse than a simple withdrawal. America can leave all on its own without also agreeing to seek the release of Taliban prisoners. It can leave all on its own without promising to ease sanctions. So why agree to the additional concessions?
French was exactly right. If that 5 to 1 ratio for the prisoner exchange sounds familiar, it should. After all, in June 2014 President Obama approved the release of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in order to secure the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. For that, Donald Trump urged Obama’s impeachment “for incompetence.”
For its part, the Trump administration treated its agreement with the Taliban as a done deal. On March 2, 2020, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that the withdrawal of the first 4,000 U.S. troops was underway, “My instruction to the commander was, 'Let's get moving, let's show our full faith and effort to do that.'" Meanwhile, the talks between Kabul and the Taliban kept being pushed back, as delays in the prisoner swap and violations of the cease fire put progress on hold. Nevertheless, Khalilzad urged the parties continue full speed ahead:
“A political solution, a peace agreement among Afghans, is the only realistic option at the present time.”
Nevertheless, Trump’s supporters wrongly proclaimed, “mission accomplished.” At the Republican National Convention in August 2020, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) declared, “President Trump is the first President in a generation to seek to end war rather than start one. He intends to end the war in Afghanistan. He is bringing our men and women home.” Among his father’s supposed accomplishments, Eric Trump told the national TV audience, were these:
“Peace in the Middle East. Never-ending wars were finally ended.”
Of course, President Donald Trump had done no such things. But key players in the region were certainly convinced that he would. “It was a great achievement of his because he literally forced this peace process to take place,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said on November 25, 2020, “I feel that President Trump did a great job here.” Taliban leaders also voiced support for Trump, with one declaring in October, “"We hope he will win the election and wind up U.S. military presence in Afghanistan." For his part, Khan concluded, “I am convinced that President-elect Biden is not going to reverse this because there is no other solution.”
Now, President Biden could have chosen another path. For one, Biden could have simply abrogated Trump’s deal with the Taliban and maintain an open-ended American military presence. Alternately, the 46th President could have opted to maintain a residual counter-terrorism force in the country to strike Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS and other targets deemed threats to U.S. national security. There were certainly some voices in both parties, including Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who warned that Biden’s strategy was a mistake. Still, President Biden’s plan enjoyed broad public support when it was announced in April. Among his backers was Donald Trump, who gave his blessing on April 19:
Trump said that while leaving Afghanistan is "a wonderful and positive thing to do," he had set a May 1 withdrawal deadline and added that "we should keep as close to that schedule as possible."
Putting it simply, as journalist Dexter Filkins did, Donald Trump left Joe Biden “a terrible situation.”
Afghanistan’s rapid unraveling is already producing severe cases of amnesia from Trump and his allies. “Had our 2020 Presidential election not been rigged and if I were now president,” Trump said in a statement on Thursday, “the world would find that our withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a conditions-based withdrawal.” That doesn’t merely run counter to the deal Trump himself blessed, but ignores the inevitable conclusion that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was doomed from the moment President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decided to do it on the cheap.
If the American war aim had merely been the decapitation and destruction of the Al Qaeda terrorists who launched the devastating September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, that objective was achievable. But insufficient American boots on the ground in late 2001 made Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora possible. Al Qaeda enjoyed a safe haven in the mountainous regions on either side of the Pakistan border, positions made safer still by the redirection of American resources to Iraq throughout 2002 and 2003. Nevertheless, Bush expanded the Afghan mission to democracy and nation-building. By 2008, the situation in the Afghan countryside was deteriorating, Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen warned, because “I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq.” By the time President Obama announced his Afghan troop surge in late 2009, the prospects for success were already very slim.
By 2016, the man Barack Obama defeated for the Presidency was blaming him for America’s dimming prospects in Afghanistan. But it was the same John McCain who declared in April 2003 that “nobody in Afghanistan threatens the United States of America” and again a year later, “The facts on the ground are we went to Afghanistan and we prevailed there.”
Now, you can certainly make the case that President Biden has dropped the ball in his handling the American draw down in Afghanistan. But in large part that’s because Donald Trump tied his hands.