Team Joe will have to answer for this but we can already guess what that answer will be. There was no way logistically to get enough American troops into Kabul quickly enough to secure a city with more than four million people, they’ll say. And maybe that’s true. It wouldn’t have taken many soldiers to provide checkpoints for the roads into Kabul, I assume, but how many would it have taken to keep order on the streets as the city fell into a panic over the impending Taliban takeover? And to process evacuees at the airport? And to conduct counterterrorism ops in Kabul? Even if Biden were willing to commit those troops, how soon could they have been deployed?
Was it feasible to secure Kabul temporarily? That’s what strategic planners, notably Lloyd Austin and Mark Milley, will be asked at the upcoming congressional hearings over our great Afghan bugout. Maybe the truth is that it wasn’t.
Or maybe this was the most costly example yet of Biden’s refusal to insert more troops into Afghanistan, even if only temporarily to ensure a more orderly withdrawal. He ended up having to do that anyway to secure the airport, an operation that ultimately led to tens of thousands of Afghan friendlies being abandoned because they couldn’t be processed in time. How many more soldiers would it have taken to secure the city, which presumably would have led to many more Afghans getting out safely?
In a hastily arranged in-person meeting, senior U.S. military leaders in Doha — including McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command — spoke with Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban’s political wing.
“We have a problem,” Baradar said, according to the U.S. official. “We have two options to deal with it: You [the United States military] take responsibility for securing Kabul or you have to allow us to do it.”
Throughout the day, Biden had remained resolute in his decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan. The collapse of the Afghan government hadn’t changed his mind.
McKenzie, aware of those orders, told Baradar that the U.S. mission was only to evacuate American citizens, Afghan allies and others at risk. The United States, he told Baradar, needed the airport to do that.
On the spot, an understanding was reached, according to two other U.S. officials: The United States could have the airport until Aug. 31. But the Taliban would control the city.
Fast-forward two weeks and here’s the message that’s reportedly being received by some NATO helpers in Kabul, three days before the withdrawal is supposed to conclude:
We regret to inform you… pic.twitter.com/UMjoiir7vY
— Dion Nissenbaum (@DionNissenbaum) August 29, 2021
The Taliban established extra checkpoints around the airport perimeter yesterday, partly to provide extra security against ISIS attacks but party too to seal it off so that no more Afghans could depart. France and the UK are now scrambling to propose a resolution at the UN that would establish a “safe zone” in Kabul to get some of those friendlies out. How they plan to enforce that safe zone if the resolution passes and the Taliban says no is anyone’s guess. But *in theory* all of Kabul would have been a safe zone these past few weeks if Biden had accepted the Taliban’s offer to let U.S./NATO troops secure the city.
Could the outcome have been different? Those 13 fallen American soldiers might still be alive.
But other Americans might be dead already or facing death soon. Imagine that we had loosely secured the city somehow with a few thousand troops but still hadn’t gotten everyone out by the August 31 deadline. Biden would have asked for more time; the Taliban might have refused and warned that they would attack on September 1. What does Biden do in that situation? Send even more troops — at a moment when we’re supposed to be evacuating? How many American soldiers would die in the Taliban’s attack on Kabul? If the Taliban broke through and entered part of the city, how would we safely evacuate American soldiers securing the perimeter who might suddenly find themselves surrounded by jihadis?
And what would happen at the airport? With hostilities having resumed, there’d be no reason for the Taliban to let the evacuation continue. They’d attack the airport too.
There was a middle-ground option between having the U.S. secure Kabul and the U.S. pulling back to the airport. We could have let the Taliban secure the city in exchange for reoccupying Bagram and conducting the evacuation from there. It’s a bigger airfield so more people could have been airlifted out and it’s easier to secure than an urban facility like Karzai Airport. But the Bagram plan would have had its own challenges. Is the base still operational or has it already been looted and wrecked? And since Bagram is miles away from the city, how would we have gotten Afghan friendlies from Kabul to the base? It would have been even easier for the Taliban to prevent Afghans from departing in those circumstances by blocking the road to Bagram. We may have ended up evacuating fewer people all told than we did working out of Karzai.
But those 13 dead soldiers might still be alive. And we wouldn’t be playing whack-a-mole with inbound car bombers aiming to kill American troops:
WASHINGTON (AP) — US officials: Drone strikes vehicle with ‘multiple suicide bombers’ on way to Kabul airport; threat believed eliminated.
— Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) August 29, 2021
I’ll leave you with NSA Jake Sullivan promising that the effort to evacuate people left behind will go on after August 31 and that we’ll use our “substantial leverage” over the Taliban to make it happen. I assume that’s diplo-speak for “we’ll release the billions of dollars in the Afghan government’s bank accounts to them if they play ball on getting our people out.” There’s also been chatter lately about the U.S. leaving behind a diplomatic presence in Kabul to liaise with the Taliban, although Biden seems disinclined to do that right now. Presumably the idea is to continue chatting with the Taliban behind closed doors and see if they cooperate with us. If so, maybe they get rewarded with an official U.S. envoy. Exit question: Is Biden right when he says that tens of thousands of American troops would have been needed to fight the Taliban if he had canceled Trump’s May 1 deadline for withdrawal? Some estimates are that 3-4,000 Americans could have propped up the Afghan army to continue fighting while evacuations proceeded in a more orderly way.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan: “Aug. 31 is not a cliff. After Aug. 31, we believe that we have substantial leverage to hold the Taliban to its commitments to allow safe passage for American citizens, legal permanent residents and…Afghan allies” #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/teNpbqvLei
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) August 29, 2021