In August 2020, President Donald Trump told reporters that the United States would draw down its forces in Afghanistan precipitously ahead of Election Day. At the time, around 8,500 were deployed to the region—roughly the same troop levels Trump inherited from his predecessor. The former administration made good on its promise. In November 2020, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan had been reduced to about 5,000. By January, on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. had drawn its presence to just 2,500.
Donald Trump wanted out of Afghanistan, and his administration was committed to executing his vision with imprudent alacrity. The Biden administration has repeatedly reminded the public of this truth in its contradictory efforts to shift blame for the president’s long-sought accomplishment—getting out of Afghanistan altogether—away from the president. Yet, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley testified before Congress on Tuesday, the situation in Afghanistan could have gone south earlier than it did. In November of last year, Milley acknowledged receiving a signed order from Trump directing the military to withdraw fully from Afghanistan before Biden’s inauguration day. Mercifully, the president was talked out of it. “After further discussions,” he said, “the order was rescinded.”
Thus, a misleading narrative by the Biden administration met a deservedly ignominious end. Joe Biden and his allies have repeatedly insisted that America’s drawdown in Afghanistan was not of his making. His predecessor had made a “commitment,” Biden contended. To reverse course would jeopardize American lives. But Joe Biden had every opportunity to avoid the catastrophe his preferred policies have unleashed, just as his predecessor had.
It is a matter of public record that the president was repeatedly advised to back off his self-set terms for America’s full withdrawal from Afghanistan. In August, the New York Times reported that Gen. Milley recommended that Biden not only preserve the existing number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan but augment American forces by as much as 2,000 soldiers. In February, a congressionally appointed panel publicly recommended that Biden ditch the Trump administration’s May 1 deadline (which the administration subsequently did) and increase troop levels to 4,500.
In March, both Gen. Milley and Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin, formerly the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, implored the president to rethink his withdrawal schedule, citing the increasingly “dire outcomes” America’s military brass were forecasting. “But the president was unmoved,” the Times reported. As late as June, according to Wall Street Journal reporting recently confirmed by Politico, the Pentagon briefly halted the inexplicable decision to abandon the pivotal Bagram Airbase to allow the president and his advisers to reassess their disastrous strategy. But Biden did no reassessing.
In a July interview with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, Biden was repeatedly pressed to explain the pace of the drawdown and account for the public reporting suggesting his own appointees advised against it. “They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?” Stephanopoulos asked. “No,” Biden replied. “Not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn’t argue against that.” Incredulously, the anchor asked the same question again; specifically, that no one advised Biden to maintain at least 2,500 troops in theater. “No,” Biden said. “No one said that to me that I can recall.”
That was not true. Biden’s definitive denials suggest that he absolutely could recall the conversations he had with his military and civilian advisers prior to the debacle this administration engineered in Afghanistan. Whether the Pentagon initiated the plan, as Biden’s civilian advisers contend, or his political and diplomatic strategists were its biggest boosters remains the subject of an ongoing congressional inquiry. But we don’t need an investigation to know that Joe Biden was its executor.
The Biden administration has sought refuge from the political whirlwind they unleashed with their haphazard Afghanistan strategy in the idea that the plan was unalterable and imposed on them by the last administration. That is false. This tragedy was perfectly evitable, and opportunities to reverse course and prevent the worst outcomes regularly presented themselves. Joe Biden ignored them, pursued his own objectives, and unleashed an ongoing crisis in which American citizens, permanent residents, and visa holders were betrayed and left stranded in Central Asia behind Taliban lines. That much we now know for sure.