The news from the end of America’s longest war was grim on Sunday.
First, Reuters reported, the Taliban took the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad, a massive strategic victory for the insurgents that gave them control of one of the main supply routes into Pakistan. What’s more, they took it without a fight.
“There are no clashes taking place right now in Jalalabad because the governor has surrendered to the Taliban,” an Afghan official based in Jalalabad told Reuters. “Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives.”
Then there was bigger news. About 10 a.m. Eastern Time Sunday, the U.K. Independent reported that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled Kabul, leaving the Taliban the effective masters of the country.
Yet it was only a little more than a month ago that President Joe Biden was predicting that the U.S. withdrawal from the country would proceed in a “secure and orderly way,” and even declared, ludicrously as it turns out, that a Taliban takeover of the country was “not inevitable.”
The Afghan army outnumbered the Taliban, he said, and was “as well-equipped as any army in the world.”
In light of more recent events, we must ask ourselves: When Biden talked to us about our military drawdown in Afghanistan last month, was he lying or merely ignorant?
On July 8, Biden spoke from the East Room of the White House, telling reporters, “When I announced our drawdown in April, I said we would be out by September, and we’re on track to meet that target.
Is Biden to blame for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?
“Our military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31st. The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart,” he added, according to a White House transcript.
It was a bit of a “Mission Accomplished” speech for Biden: He said our goal in Afghanistan was to get the terrorists responsible for 9/11, including Osama bin Laden, and to ensure the country couldn’t be used as a launchpad for future terrorist attacks.
Our goal wasn’t nation-building, he said, adding “it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
Then came the Q&A, when a reporter asked if a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was inevitable.
“No, it is not,” Biden said.
“Because you — the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban,” he added. “It is not inevitable.”
Later, he said that “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and … more competent in terms of conducting war” and that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
It was condescending. It was arrogant. And it wasn’t close to being correct.
Numbers and training don’t matter if the military isn’t able and willing to fight, however. On both counts, The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov pointed out in a Saturday piece, the Afghan military was woefully lacking.
In terms of ability, while Afghanistan’s army was American-trained, that becomes a liability when you have to fight without the resources the United States has.
“The U.S. military, the world’s most advanced, relies heavily on combining ground operations with air power, using aircraft to resupply outposts, strike targets, ferry the wounded, and collect reconnaissance and intelligence,” Trofimov wrote.
“In the wake of President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters. That meant the Afghan military simply couldn’t operate anymore.”
Trofimov also wrote that the Afghan government’s military strategy spread its resources too thin geographically — something that worked well enough while its commanders had the resources of the United States at their disposal, but was infeasible after U.S. left.
“When U.S. forces were still operating here, the Afghan government sought to maximize its presence through the country’s far-flung countryside, maintaining more than 200 bases and outposts that could be resupplied only by air. Extending government operations to the most of Afghanistan’s more than 400 districts has long been the main pillar of America’s counterinsurgency strategy,” Trofimov wrote.
“Mr. Ghani had ample warning of the American departure after the Trump administration signed the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban that called on all U.S. forces and contractors to leave by May 2021. Yet, the Afghan government failed to adjust its military footprint to match the new reality. Many officials didn’t believe in their hearts that the Americans would actually leave.”
Those far-flung outposts were the first to be targeted by the Taliban when their offensive began in May. Soldiers who resisted were killed, but deals negotiated with local tribal elders spared those who willingly surrendered.
The process repeated itself when the Taliban began attacking Afghanistan’s population centers earlier this month. Afghan soldiers, who were demoralized and unpaid, weren’t particularly willing to fight. Deals were struck to spare surrendering troops, the Journal reported, this time by senior military commanders and provincial leaders.
Since the Taliban typically offered the soldiers safe passage home, few were willing to resist.
“Everyone just surrendered their guns and ran away,” a soldier named Rahimullah told the Journal. The 25-year-old soldier joined the army a year ago, but said he left because there wasn’t any support coming from Kabul to his unit in the Shahr-e-Bozorg district of northeastern Badakhshan province.
“We didn’t receive any help from the central government, and so the district fell without any fighting,” he said.
Did Joe Biden not know the grim realities on the ground — or was he lying?
Whatever the case, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Biden in a statement on Thursday, saying his “decisions have us hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975.”
“The Biden Administration has reduced U.S. officials to pleading with Islamic extremists to spare our Embassy as they prepare to overrun Kabul. Absurdly, naively, our government is arguing that bloodshed might hurt the Taliban’s international reputation, as if radical terrorists are anxious about their P.R.
“The Taliban doesn’t believe in a political settlement. They want military victory and bloody retribution. President Biden and his team have a proud superpower trying to fight atrocities and war crimes with plaintive tweets.”
Then again, what do you expect from an administration that tried to fight atrocities and war crimes with an Afghan military it should have known would lose to the Taliban both quickly and spectacularly?
Was Biden lying or ignorant? For a president supposedly handling a crisis like this, there’s no excuse for either.