WORDS: 4,694 — In the end the finger-pointing for our current shock & awe with the Afghanistan exodus can very easily be traced back to those who continued to vote for those elected officials, for decades, to keep such policies alive… you and me. But of course we can’t accept that level of responsibility, can we? It’s far too… obtuse; it doesn’t create a political villain.
Recently in putting together a reply to fellow blogger, Citizen Tom, I came across a couple sources that rather neatly packaged a recent timeline leading up to where we are at now, and a bit of history over the last four presidents. I thought presenting both in their entirety here would be a good reference to those searching the blogosphere for a villain to blame (besides ourselves as voters).
The first article is from CNN and covers the involvement of the last four U.S. Presidents. The second article is from Reuters and covers the timeline of events leading up to the current drawdown and evacuation. Don’t worry.. there’s lots and lots of reference citations to satisfy (and ultimately support or reject your own perceptions of the world),
Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden: How four presidents created today’s Afghanistan mess
By Kevin Liptak, CNN
Updated 8:15 AM ET, Tue August 24, 2021
Implicit in that statement is the belief the war shouldn’t have been passed to him, nearly 20 years after it began.
Each president since 2001 has confronted an evolving mission in Afghanistan, one that resulted in tens of thousands American and Afghan casualties, frustratingly futile attempts to improve the country’s political leadership and a Taliban that stubbornly refused defeat.
Biden has explained his decision to withdraw all US troops as a necessary choice for a war whose purpose had become blurred, adding that it was set in motion by a deal with the Taliban made by President Donald Trump. The chaos that ensued in evacuating Americans and Afghans who assisted the war effort was a predictable and mostly unavoidable outcome, he said last week.
Still, the scenes of rushed departures from Kabul and the Taliban’s takeover of the country have proved deeply humbling for a global superpower that spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in its efforts.
How America spent 20 years in Afghanistan, only to have the Taliban resume control again as its troops withdrew, will be a topic for historians to ponder for decades. And who ultimately bears responsibility is a complicated debate.
George W. Bush
After the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, which were plotted by al Qaeda from bases in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush vowed to stamp out global terrorism. He called on the Taliban — which controlled most of Afghanistan — to deliver al Qaeda leaders hiding out in the country, including Osama bin Laden.
When the Taliban rejected that call, he adopted a war footing. Congress authorized US forces to go after those responsible for 9/11 on September 18, 2001 — though lawmakers have never explicitly voted to declare war on Afghanistan. Bush, in remarks to a joint session of Congress two days later, acknowledged the coming conflict would amount to “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”
Still, even Bush couldn’t have predicted just how lengthy the war would become.
On October 7, 2001, the US military officially launched Operation Enduring Freedom, with support from the United Kingdom. The war’s earliest phase mostly involved airstrikes on al Qaeda and Taliban targets. But by November, 1,300 American troops were in the country.
That number steadily increased over the coming months as US and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government and went after bin Laden, who was hiding in the Tora Bora cave complex southeast of Kabul. Bin Laden eventually slipped across the border into Pakistan.
The coming months and years would see Bush send thousands more US troops to Afghanistan to go after Taliban insurgents. By May 2003, the Pentagon said major combat in Afghanistan was over. Focus for the US and its international partners turned toward reconstructing the country and installing a western-style democratic political system.
Many of the strictures of the Taliban did fall away, and thousands of girls and women were allowed to attend school and take jobs. But Afghanistan’s government, still rife with corruption, frustrated American officials. And the Taliban began a resurgence.
At the same time, focus was shifting in Washington toward another war, this time in Iraq, which sapped military resources and attention away from Afghanistan. By the time Bush was reelected in 2004, troop levels in Afghanistan had reached around 20,000, even as oversight and attention were directed more squarely on what was transpiring in Iraq.
The following years would see steady increases in American forces deployed to Afghanistan as the Taliban regained ground in rural areas of the south. When Bush left office in 2009, there were more than 30,000 US troops stationed there — and the Taliban was staging a full-blown insurgency.
Entering the White House in 2009, President Barack Obama faced a decision on a war he inherited from Bush. Top generals recommended a “surge” in troop levels to weaken the Taliban, which was staging attacks at a heightened clip.
After a grueling internal debate, during which then-Vice President Biden made his opposition to the surge known, Obama ultimately began deploying tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. At the same time, he committed to a withdrawal timetable that would begin pulling troops back out by 2011 and insisted on standards in measuring progress in fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Obama said in a televised address that the additional US troops would “help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.” But later, aides said Obama felt jammed by military commanders pushing for a counterinsurgency strategy.
By August 2010, US forces in Afghanistan reached 100,000. But it was in a different country — Pakistan — where US intelligence ultimately tracked down bin Laden, who was killed during a Navy SEAL raid in May 2011. Shortly afterward, Obama announced he would begin bringing US troops home with a goal of handing off security responsibilities to the Afghans by 2014.
Over the next years, troop levels declined steadily as the US engaged in fraught diplomacy with Afghanistan’s leaders. By the start of his second term, Obama had adopted a view toward the country summed up by members of his team as “Afghan good enough” — a recognition that attempts to cultivate a western-style democracy were mostly hopeless, and that taking out terrorists and keeping the Taliban in check amounted to the limits of the United States’ role.
Obama announced the end of major combat operations on December 31, 2014, with the US shifting to a mission of training and assisting Afghan security forces. Further troop declines put the US on track for a full withdrawal by the time Obama left office.
But a year later, as his tenure was nearing an end, Obama determined the fragile security situation in the country meant the full withdrawal he’d hoped for wasn’t feasible. He left office with just under 10,000 troops in the country and said it would be up to his successor to decide what to do next.
As a candidate, Trump vowed to bring American troops home from Afghanistan. But making good on his promise proved difficult as the Taliban continued to surge, and an Islamic State affiliate emerged.
In his first major Afghanistan decision, Trump outsourced troop level authority to the Pentagon. His team was divided along ideological lines, between his military advisers who advocated a continued presence and more staunch nationalists who opposed foreign interventions.
Eventually, Trump admitted in an August 2017 speech that though his instinct had been to withdraw all US troops, conditions made it impossible. He left the future of the American presence there open-ended, rejecting a timeline for withdrawal and instead insisting “conditions on the ground” would dictate any decision-making.
A year later, Trump tasked Zalmay Khalilzad, a seasoned Afghan American diplomat, with leading negotiations with the Taliban meant to bring the war to an end. The talks mostly excluded Afghanistan’s government, driving a wedge between the US and President Ashraf Ghani.
Meanwhile, the Taliban continued carrying out a series of terror attacks, including in Kabul, which killed scores of civilians. Even after Trump invited and then canceled peace talks with the group to be held at Camp David in 2019, the discussions continued with Khalilzad.
A deal was struck in February 2020 that set the course for a full American withdrawal in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban it would reduce violence and cut ties to terror groups. But there weren’t any measures to enforce those promises, which the Pentagon said went unfulfilled.
Even as US troops began leaving, the Taliban gained strength. And the May 2021 deadline for pulling out all US troops ultimately was passed onto Trump’s successor.
Even before entering office in January, Biden had begun weighing what to do in Afghanistan, where he’d long become disillusioned about the war efforts. After having his advice to remove US troops rejected by Obama, Biden was finally in a position to end what he’d come to view as a war without purpose.
Over the course of the early months of his presidency, Biden received advice from his national security team, including “clear-eyed” warnings that withdrawing all US troops could lead to the eventual collapse of Afghanistan’s government and a takeover by the Taliban.
Conversely, remaining in the country past the May deadline set in Trump’s deal with the Taliban would expose US troops to attacks.
Ultimately, Biden announced that the remaining 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan would come home by September 11, 2021 — 20 years after the terror attacks that prompted the war in the first place. It was clear, Biden said, that the United States’ objectives had been fulfilled — and that there wasn’t anything more his country could do to build Afghanistan into a stable democracy.
The timeline eventually accelerated as the Pentagon worked to pull forces out faster. On July 2, the US handed Bagram Airfield — a symbol of US military might — to Afghan forces. The Taliban, meanwhile, were taking over provincial capitals, often without any resistance from the Afghan military.
On August 15, the Taliban returned to power in Kabul after Ghani fled the country — a collapse that American officials frankly said happened far more quickly than they anticipated.
The US and its allies began a hurried mission to evacuate citizens and Afghan allies who had assisted during the war effort and feared reprisals by the militants.
Biden sent 6,000 US troops back into the country to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, and facilitate the airlift. But a new deadline — August 31 — still stands for those troops to leave.
The Taliban has called it a red line. And Biden has decided that the US will meet that deadline if the Taliban cooperates, but the Pentagon and State Department are still making contingency plans in case the situation on the ground changes.
Timeline of U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Key decisions by two administrations determined to end America’s longest war
Posted on August 17, 2021
The blame game has begun over who lost Afghanistan.
The fact is, President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, were both eager to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and end what Biden referred to in his Aug. 16 speech as “America’s longest war.”
The Trump administration in February 2020 negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban that excluded the Afghan government, freed 5,000 imprisoned Taliban soldiers and set a date certain of May 1, 2021, for the final withdrawal.
And the Trump administration kept to the pact, reducing U.S. troop levels from about 13,000 to 2,500, even though the Taliban continued to attack Afghan government forces and welcomed al-Qaeda terrorists into the Taliban leadership.
Biden delayed the May 1 withdrawal date that he inherited. But ultimately his administration pushed ahead with a plan to withdraw by Aug. 31, despite obvious signs that the Taliban wasn’t complying with the agreement and had a stated goal to create an “Islamic government” in Afghanistan after the U.S. left, even if it meant it had to “continue our war to achieve our goal.”
Biden assured Americans last month that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was “not inevitable,” and denied that U.S. intelligence assessed that the Afghan government would likely collapse. But it did — and quickly.
Here we lay out many of the key diplomatic decisions, military actions, presidential pronouncements and expert assessments of the withdrawal agreement that ended the U.S. military’s 20-year war in Afghanistan — a war that has “taken the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen, cost a trillion dollars, and occupied the attention of four presidential administrations,” as the Afghanistan Study Group put it in a February report.
Trump Strikes a Deal
Feb. 29, 2020 — U.S. and Taliban sign an agreement that sets the terms for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, but do not release two classified annexes that set the conditions for U.S. withdrawal. At the time of the agreement, the U.S. had about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to a Department of Defense inspector general report.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops is contingent on the “Taliban’s action against al-Qaeda and other terrorists who could threaten us,” Trump says in a speech at the Conservative Political Active Conference. (U.S. withdrawals, however, occurred despite the fact that the Defense Department inspector general’s office repeatedly reported that the Taliban worked with al-Qaeda.)
The pact includes the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters who have been held prisoners by the Afghanistan government, which is not a party to the agreement.
March 1, 2020 — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani objects to a provision in the agreement that would require his country to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. “Freeing Taliban prisoners is not [under] the authority of America but the authority of the Afghan government,” Ghani says. “There has been no commitment for the release of 5,000 prisoners.”
March 4, 2020 — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban pledged in the classified documents not to attack U.S. troops and coalition forces or launch “high-profile attacks,” including in Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. “[T]he Taliban have signed up to a whole series of conditions … all the Members of the Congress have all the documents associated with this agreement,” Milley says.
Despite the agreement, the Taliban attack Afghan forces in Helmand province, and the U.S. responds with an air strike.
March 10, 2020 — Under pressure from the U.S., Ghani orders the release of 1,500 Taliban prisoners, but at the rate of 100 per day.
May 19, 2020 — In releasing its quarterly report on Afghanistan, the DOD inspector general’s office says the U.S. cut troop levels in Afghanistan by more than 4,000, even though “the Taliban escalated violence further after signing the agreement.”
“U.S. officials stated the Taliban must reduce violence as a necessary condition for continued U.S. reduction in forces and that remaining high levels of violence could jeopardize the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” according to the report, which covered activity from Jan. 1, 2020, to March 31, 2020. “Even still, the United States began to reduce its forces in Afghanistan from roughly 13,000 to 8,600.”
Aug. 18, 2020 — In releasing a report that covered activity in Afghanistan from April 1, 2020, to June 30, 2020, the Defense Department inspector general’s office says, “The Taliban did not appear to uphold its commitment to distance itself from terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. UN and U.S. officials reported that the Taliban continued to support al-Qaeda, and conducted joint attacks with al-Qaeda members against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”
Sept. 3, 2020 — Afghanistan releases the final 400 Taliban prisoners, as required under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, clearing the way for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin.
Sept. 12, 2020 — After seven months of delays, Afghanistan government officials and Taliban representatives meet in Qatar for peace talks. The U.S.-Taliban agreement called for the first peace talks to begin on March 10.
Sept. 16, 2020 — The Taliban continued attacks on government forces. The Voice of America reported that “Taliban attacks in three provinces across northern Afghanistan since Tuesday killed at least 17 people, including six civilians, and wounded scores of others even as a Taliban political team was negotiating peace with Afghan government representatives in Doha, Qatar.”
Sept. 18, 2020 — At a press conference, Trump says, “We’re dealing very well with the Taliban. They’re very tough, they’re very smart, they’re very sharp. But, you know, it’s been 19 years, and even they are tired of fighting, in all fairness.”
Nov. 16, 2020 — Congressional Republicans, responding to news reports that the Trump administration will rapidly reduce forces in Afghanistan, warn of what Sen. Marco Rubio calls “a Saigon-type of situation” in Afghanistan. “A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says.
Nov. 17, 2020 — Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller formally announces that the U.S. will reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 by Jan. 15, 2021.
On the same day, the Defense Department IG’s office released a report for the quarter ending Sept. 30, 2020, that said the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives had stalled and violence increased. “At the same time, the Taliban increased its attacks against Afghan forces, leading to ‘distressingly high’ levels of violence that could threaten the peace agreement,” the report said.
Dec. 2, 2020 — After past false starts, Afghan and Taliban negotiators agree on a framework to govern peace negotiations. “At the same time, the Taliban continued its ‘fight and talk’ strategy, increasing violence across the country to increase its leverage with the Afghan government in negotiations,” the Defense Department IG’s office said a quarterly report covering this period.
The IG report also continued to warn that the Taliban was apparently violating the withdrawal agreement. “This withdrawal is contingent on the Taliban abiding by its commitments under the agreement, which include not allowing terrorists to use Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies,” the report said. “However, it was unclear whether the Taliban was in compliance with the agreement, as members of al-Qaeda were integrated into the Taliban’s leadership and command structure.”
Jan. 15 — “Today, U.S. force levels in Afghanistan have reached 2,500,” Miller, the acting defense secretary, says in a statement. “[T]his drawdown brings U.S. forces in the country to their lowest levels since 2001.”
Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh tells the BBC that the Trump administration made too many concessions to the Taliban. “I am telling [the United States] as a friend and as an ally that trusting the Taliban without putting in a verification mechanism is going to be a fatal mistake,” Saleh says, adding that Afghanistan leaders warned the U.S. that “violence will spike” as the 5,000 Taliban prisoners were released. “Violence has spiked,” he added.
Biden Follows Through
Feb. 3 — The Afghanistan Study Group, which was created by Congress in December 2019 and charged with making policy recommendations for a peaceful transition in Afghanistan, releases a report recommending changes to the agreement with the Taliban. “The most important revision is to ensure that a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops is based not on an inflexible timeline but on all parties fulfilling their commitments, including the Taliban making good on its promises to contain terrorist groups and reduce violence against the Afghan people, and making compromises to achieve a political settlement,” it said.
Feb. 19 — Biden reiterates his campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, saying during remarks at the Munich Security Conference, “My administration strongly supports the diplomatic process that’s underway and to bring an end to this war that is closing out 20 years. We remain committed to ensuring that Afghanistan never again provides a base for terrorist attacks against the United States and our partners and our interests.”
March 7 — Secretary of State Antony Blinken tells Afghanistan President Ashra Ghani that, despite future U.S. financial assistance, he is “concerned that the security situation will worsen and the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains.”
March 25 — Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that “it is clear that the Taliban have not upheld what they said they would do and reduce the violence. While…they have not attacked U.S. forces, it is clear that they took a deliberate approach and increased their violence…since the peace accords were signed.”
March 25 — During a press conference at the White House, Biden says “it’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline. Just in terms of tactical reasons, it’s hard to get those troops out.” He assures that “if we leave, we’re going to do so in a safe and orderly way.” Without committing to a pullout date, Biden says, “it is not my intention to stay there for a long time. But the question is: How and in what circumstances do we meet that agreement that was made by President Trump to leave under a deal that looks like it’s not being able to be worked out to begin with? How is that done? But we are not staying a long time.”
April 14 — Saying it is “time to end the forever war,” Biden announces that all troops will be removed from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
In a speech explaining the decision, Biden says he became convinced after trip to Afghanistan in 2008 that “more and endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.” Biden says the U.S. achieved its initial and primary objective, “to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again” and that “our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.”
Biden says he “inherited a diplomatic agreement” between the U.S. and the Taliban that all U.S. forces would be out by May 1. “It is perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself, but it was an agreement made by the United States government, and that means something,” Biden says, adding that final troop withdrawal would begin on May 1.
“We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit,” Biden says. “We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely.” Biden assures Americans that the U.S. has “trained and equipped a standing force of over 300,000 Afghan personnel” and that “they’ll continue to fight valiantly, on behalf of the Afghans, at great cost.”
April 15 — In response to Biden’s decision to delay full withdrawal until Sept. 11, the Taliban releases a statement that says failure to complete the withdrawal by May 1 “opens the way for [the Taliban] to take every necessary countermeasure, hence the American side will be held responsible for all future consequences.”
April 18 — In a released statement, Trump criticizes Biden’s Sept. 11 withdrawal deadline saying, “we can and should get out earlier.” He concludes, “Getting out of Afghanistan is a wonderful and positive thing to do. I planned to withdraw on May 1st, and we should keep as close to that schedule as possible.”
May 18 — The Defense Department IG releases a report for the first three months of 2021 that says the Taliban had increased its attacks against Afghanistan government forces during this period and appears to be preparing with al-Qaeda for “large-scale offensives.”
“The Taliban initiated 37 percent more attacks this quarter than during the same period in 2020,” the report said. “According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Taliban maintained close ties with al-Qaeda and was very likely preparing for large-scale offensives against population centers and Afghan government installations.”
May 18 — In a House hearing on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, downplays the prospect of a swift Taliban takeover when U.S. forces leave. “If they [Taliban] pursue, in my judgment, a military victory, it will result in a long war, because Afghan security forces will fight, other Afghans will fight, neighbors will come to support different forces,” Khalilzad says.
Later Khalilzad added, “I personally believe that the statements that the [Afghan] forces will disintegrate, and the Talibs will take over in short order are mistaken. The real choices that the Afghans will face is between a long war and negotiated settlement.”
June 8 — Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tells Foreign Policy that after foreign forces leave Afghanistan the group’s goal is to create an “Islamic government,” and “we will be compelled to continue our war to achieve our goal.”
June 26 — At a rally in Ohio, his first since leaving office, Trump boasts that Biden can’t stop the process he started to remove troops from Afghanistan, and acknowledges the Afghan government won’t last once U.S. troops leave.
“I started the process,” Trump says. “All the troops are coming back home. They [the Biden administration] couldn’t stop the process. 21 years is enough. Don’t we think? 21 years. They couldn’t stop the process. They wanted to, but it was very tough to stop the process when other things… It’s a shame. 21 years, by a government that wouldn’t last. The only way they last is if we’re there. What are we going to say? We’ll stay for another 21 years, then we’ll stay for another 50. The whole thing is ridiculous. … We’re bringing troops back home from Afghanistan.”
July 6 — The U.S. military confirms it has pulled out of Bagram Airfield, its largest airfield in the Afghanistan, as the final withdrawal nears.
July 8 — Saying “speed is safety,” Biden moves up the timeline for full troop withdrawal to Aug. 31. Biden acknowledges the move comes as the Taliban “is at its strongest militarily since 2001.” Biden says if he went back on the agreement that Trump made, the Taliban “would have again begun to target our forces” and that “staying would have meant U.S. troops taking casualties. … Once that agreement with the Taliban had been made, staying with a bare minimum force was no longer possible.”
Biden assures Americans that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan “is not inevitable,” and denies that U.S. intelligence assessed that the Afghan government would likely collapse.
Asked if he sees any parallels between the withdrawals from Vietnam Afghanistan, Biden responds, “None whatsoever. Zero. … The Taliban is not the south — the North Vietnamese army. They’re not — they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”
Biden adds that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Biden also promises to help accelerate the issuance of special visas for Afghan nationals who helped the U.S. during the war.
July 24 — At a rally in Phoenix, Trump again boasts, “I started the move out of Afghanistan,” adding “I think it was impossible for him [Biden] to stop it, but it was a much different deal.”
Trump says that when he was president, in a phone conversation with the leader of the Taliban, he warned that after U.S. troops leave if “you decide to do something terrible to our country … we are going to come back and we are going to hit you harder than any country has ever been hit.” Trump says he believes the two “had a real understanding” but that after Trump left office “now they’re going wild over there.”
Aug. 6 — The Taliban takes control of its first province — the capital of Nimroz province in Afghanistan — despite the agreement it signed with the U.S.
Aug. 16 — In a speech to the nation, Biden says, “I do not regret my decision to end America’s warfighting in Afghanistan,” and deflected blame for the government’s swift collapse.
“The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” the president said. “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”
As of yesterday (8/26/2021), seemingly expected, two ISIS-K bombs killed 13 American soldiers and some 90 Afghans waiting in line at a Kabul Airport gate, with multitudes on both sides left wounded. Most are in agreement that there’s more to come.
The bottom line… the final chapter of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has yet to be written… and history can be the judge who to blame.