“The intelligence community did not say, back in June or July, that in fact this was going to collapse like it did,” Joe Biden said of the speed with which the Afghan government imploded following the full withdrawal of U.S. troops in an interview last August. A newly declassified report via the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, however, calls this claim into doubt.
According to that report, which was submitted to the Pentagon in January 2021, U.S. authorities might not have known exactly when the Afghan government would collapse without U.S. logistical support, but they knew collapse was inevitable. That SIGAR dispatch—oddly, one of few such reports to be classified and, odder still, not declassified until a year after it was relayed to the Defense Department—means that American authorities were apprised of Kabul’s inability to do without U.S. air and logistical support.
The existence of this memo only reinforces the conclusions reached by any discerning reader of the news that came out around the Afghanistan withdrawal even weeks before the government’s collapse. As of last spring, the New York Times reported in mid-June, over 18,000 contractors including 6,000 Americans were operating in Afghanistan. Many of those contractors were responsible for servicing Afghan helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. As Inspector General Jon Sopko noted, the Afghan National Army was “completing just under 20 percent of its own maintenance work orders,” and all maintenance on Afghanistan’s air force was the responsibility of foreign contractors. “One U.S. official said it would take until the mid-2030s for the Afghans to be able to maintain the Black Hawk fleet on their own,” the Times revealed.
Yes, this was a problem Joe Biden inherited from his predecessors. And yes, it was a problem that he chose to ignore in his headlong rush towards Afghanistan’s exits. No one can say the president wasn’t warned.
By early July, Biden had pulled much of the U.S. troop presence out of Afghanistan, abandoned the pivotal Bagram Air Base, and left only a skeleton crew of Pentagon contractors in the country—all while American civilians and their families remained. Defense officials told Politico they hoped to help Afghans maintain the tempo of airstrikes on Taliban positions by helping local contractors remotely—”looking over their shoulders via Zoom or coaching them over the phone.” America’s regional allies warned that this was insufficient. When pressed, however, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby dismissed their concerns. “They’ve had training and the ability to be in the field with American forces much over the last 20 years,” he said defensively. “Now it’s time to have that will.”
You don’t have to be a logistics expert to understand the scale of the challenge that was imposed on America’s Afghan allies. You need only be familiar with history. “The same happened with another failed American effort, the South Vietnamese army in the 1970s, said retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who commanded the U.S.-led coalition’s mission to train Afghan forces in 2011-2013,” the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov wrote of the fate suffered by another American ally when U.S. contractors were withdrawn.
The Afghan government was warned by the Trump administration in February of 2020 that contractors would depart along with U.S. soldiers on the last administration’s timeline, in May 2021, but the Afghan government did not prepare to fill the gap. They were operating under the assumption that the Americans would not leave in May of 2021, and they were correct. But even if the government in Kabul deferred to a flawed hypothesis about America’s lack of resolve to abandon the Afghan project, that doesn’t absolve the Biden administration’s decision to rely heavily on an Afghan air force that it knew full well couldn’t provide sufficient cover for its forces.
With the Taliban onslaught creeping closer to the capital following America’s withdrawal, the Biden administration’s decision to abandon the Afghan air force was exposed more as abject incompetence than a cold-eyed assessment of inevitable geopolitical realities. Even with a handful of U.S. forces still on the ground, the Biden administration reluctantly resumed the U.S.-led airstrikes on advancing Taliban columns it had halted weeks earlier. There was still time to correct the mistake the White House made by putting so much of the burden of maintaining Afghanistan’s independence on an air force that couldn’t fly. But that opportunity was squandered, and the nation’s fate was sealed.
Today, with the Biden administration mired in a domestic political mess, so much of the president’s problems can be traced back to what was once the “popular” withdrawal from Afghanistan. From former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s advisers to Barack Obama’s longtime confidante, David Axelrod, a number of Democrats blame the president’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal for putting downward pressure on the president’s polling—pressure that has yet to let up. It was all a self-inflicted wound—a disaster that many in the president’s orbit saw coming. The only remaining mystery is why Joe Biden couldn’t.