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America’s Miscalculations, Afghanistan’s Collapse – The New York Times

America’s Miscalculations, Afghanistan’s Collapse – The New York Times

#Americas #Miscalculations #Afghanistans #Collapse #York #Times

michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

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Today, the American miscalculations and misjudgments that led to the stunningly fast collapse of Afghanistan and to the scenes of chaos in Kabul. I spoke with my colleague David Sanger.

It’s Tuesday, August 17.

David, I want to start with the latest developments inside Kabul now that it has fallen into the hands of the Taliban. Can you describe what that scene has been like over the past 24 hours or so?

david sanger

Well, Michael, it was a weekend in which events unfolded I think much faster than anybody at the White House, journalists, even people in Kabul thought they would.

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If you’re just joining us, we’re getting new developments from Afghanistan where the situation is changing there minute by minute.

david sanger

And by Sunday, the Taliban were at the gates of the city.

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American Chinook helicopters have been spotted taking off and landing near the U.S. embassy as the Pentagon speeds troops into Kabul to get our people out.

david sanger

We were seeing helicopters lifting off adjacent to the American embassy, clearly beginning to shuttle people out to the airport.

archived recording

Richard said something at the top of his reporting. And I want to make sure that everybody heard it because it is significant. The president, President Ghani of Afghanistan has left the country.

david sanger

By midday, President Ghani had fled the palace, was out of the country. It looked like he had not even told his cabinet or his top aides.

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You are looking at Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace.

david sanger

By Sunday night, there were pictures of the Taliban showing up at the palace.

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A stunning turnaround of events.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

david sanger

And then, on Monday, we saw these heartbreaking scenes from around the Hamid Karzai airport. There were thousands of Afghans trying to get through the gates, over the gates, anything they could do to get their families inside the airport compound in hopes of somehow flying away from the Taliban’s clutches.

There was one moment where American Marines had to go open fire on some armed attackers who were coming in at the airfield. There was another moment, perhaps the most devastating of all, where you saw people clinging to the landing gear of a plane as it was taking off and some of them falling to their death.

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michael barbaro

Well, David, I’m struck by just how many American officials, even the Secretary of State, for instance, who are expressing surprise at these developments, in some cases, shock. And I want to talk to why this has all been such a surprise and what misjudgments and miscalculations got us to this point where the Taliban could so quickly seize control of the entire country before the U.S. even finished its military withdrawal. So where should we start?

david sanger

Well, I think the way you start goal is to think about this decision in two different parts. For the first part was Biden’s decision to get out. He made a decision in April that he would have all American troops out of the country by September 11.

And we could have a separate debate about whether that was a good decision or a bad decision. But you’ve heard his fundamental argument, which was, if we didn’t manage to change the country in 20 years, staying another year or two years or five years was not going to make a material difference.

So at that moment, he basically started a clock. Once the clock started, it raised a whole second set of issues, which is, how do you execute on this decision in a smooth way that hands over the power to the Afghan government and doesn’t give a huge opening to the Taliban?

michael barbaro

Right.

david sanger

And I think it’s fair to say, Michael, that there are four major assumptions, some might say miscalculations, that go into the execution of the American withdrawal, and that some would argue contributed to the chaos that we’ve just seen.

michael barbaro

And David, what is the first of those assumptions slash miscalculations?

david sanger

Well, the first, and the biggest assumption, was that they had the luxury of time. And the intelligence assessments that were on President Biden’s desk suggested that they would probably have at least 18 months before Kabul could be seriously threatened by the Taliban and that, over that time, the Afghan security forces would learn how to operate on their own so that they might actually be able to hold on to strategically vital parts of the country, especially the capital, Kabul, and that 20 years of training and equipping the Afghan security forces at a cost of at least $83 billion, and some would say much higher, had created an efficient force that had the capability to go deal with the Taliban and some big advantages.

michael barbaro

What do you mean?

david sanger

The Afghan security forces had all of the hardware that we have been giving them and training them how to use and maintain. They had helicopters. They had aircraft. This was a huge advantage, obviously, in most battle situations. And there were 300,000 Afghan security forces. There were only 75,000 Taliban by the best estimates.

michael barbaro

So a major underpinning of the 18-month time horizon that turned out to be very flawed was this numerical disjunction between the Taliban, 75,000, and the Afghan security forces, 300,000.

david sanger

Yes, on paper, the capabilities of the Afghans was tremendous. At one point, Biden said it was one of the best equipped modern fighting forces in the world— some exaggeration, but, on paper, it looked like the Afghan government had all the advantages. And that led to the second big assumption, which was that the Afghan forces had the same drive, the same determination to win that the Taliban did.

michael barbaro

And why did the U.S. get that so wrong? How did we miscalculate the willingness, the eagerness the determination of the Afghan military to defend their country against the Taliban?

david sanger

You know, that’s going to be, when the histories of this are written, I think, the biggest and toughest question. Because if you asked almost anybody who had fought alongside the Afghan units, they would tell you that, at best, it was a mixed bag. They were extremely talented, extremely patriotic, extremely hard working Afghan special forces, and that there were moments in time, particularly around 2009, 2010, where those units fought right alongside the United States, learned a lot of lessons, and seemed to be a very effective fighting force.

But I think the overwhelming sense that you get from people who spent a lot of time with Afghanistan in some way, as soldiers or contractors or whatever, that they really weren’t ready for it.

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And so I think the big question is, did Joe Biden, a man who prides himself as the foreign policy president, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during much of the Afghan war, how did he make a misjudgment that the Afghans were ready? And that’s a really pretty big mystery that we’re all trying to grapple with today.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

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So David, you had said that there were four assumptions and miscalculations that really help us understand how we got to this point in Afghanistan. What are the other two?

david sanger

Well the third assumption, Michael, was that we had a well-planned system for evacuating the embassy and, equally importantly, those 20,000, 25,000, maybe more Afghans and their families, who had worked for the Americans or worked for N.G.O.s or worked for news organizations, and needed to get out of the country if the Taliban were going to take over.

michael barbaro

Right. That seems like a basic obligation of a country that occupies another country for 20 years.

david sanger

That’s right. And we knew from what the military did that you can get a lot of people out of Afghanistan in a big hurry. Because after all, the military was way ahead of schedule and got most of their combat troops out before the July 4 holiday. But it was a more complicated issue with these two different groups of civilians.

The State Department was hesitant to reduce the size of the embassy too quickly because they had a lot of diplomatic missions they needed to deal with the Afghan government. And then, there were those interpreters and the helpers and those people who worked for news organizations, like The Times.

And that was difficult as well because the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, had pressed President Biden during his meeting at the White House in June to keep a lot of these people in the country because he didn’t want the image that the United States believes that the Afghan government would fall.

And the question was, as it became clear that the country was collapsing and the Taliban were taking more territory, could you get these people out of the country on aircraft? And that process— the paperwork, meeting all of the statutory requirements for these special immigration status, that was all agonizingly slow.

michael barbaro

Understood. But given the number of lives hanging in the balance, lives of civilians who had risked their lives for the United States and our military in Afghanistan, why didn’t the U.S. take steps to expedite this process to cut through all of this agonizingly slow bureaucracy and just make this happen?

david sanger

It’s a great question, Michael. And I think it’s going to be the subject of a lot of investigations in coming months. The administration says that the law is so complex for these kinds of special immigrants that they had to go through a lengthy process.

And the U.S. did not have flights set up for them. So it was only a few weeks ago that they got the first 2,000 of them out to some U.S. bases where their application could be evaluated, a process that may take a year or more. And that left thousands more stranded when the curtain came down.

michael barbaro

Well, David, I think there’s not going to be a lot of sympathy for the Biden administration when it comes to this group of people because these are the folks who risked their lives to help the United States, the United States military, conduct its mission in Afghanistan. And so the idea that there was a lot of paperwork or they didn’t plan for enough flights is going to be very, very hard for people to swallow.

david sanger

It’s going to be even harder since we are showing, this weekend and this week, that if you apply a huge amount of organizational effort to it and a lot of flights, you can move a lot of people really quickly. If you could do this in a giant rush, as the Taliban were coming through the outer gates of Kabul, why couldn’t you have been moving 500 or 1,000 of these interpreters and their families out starting in April or May?

michael barbaro

So David, what is the fourth and final misjudgment here when it comes to the execution of the U.S. withdrawal? Well, I think the fourth one, Michael, is one that actually broken Joe Biden’s favor. It was an assumption that, if the end did come to Kabul, if the Afghan forces did fall apart, there would be an awful and bloody block-by-block civil war being fought in the streets of Kabul.

That didn’t happen. When the Taliban showed up at the gates of Kabul, they said, we’re coming in, and we’re going to take over the reins of the government, and the security forces, but we’re going to go do it peacefully. And they made it clear that they would not attack embassies or diplomats.

They made no such guarantees for Afghans who may have worked for those embassies. But basically, the bloodbath that we had all feared would happen in the last stages of Afghan civil war between the Taliban and the Afghan government didn’t materialize. Right. And it feels like one explanation for that is that the Afghan security forces, as we have discussed, lay down their arms. But I’m curious why the Taliban has been so seemingly restrained as they enter these cities, especially Kabul.

david sanger

Well, there are a couple of possible answers to this. One possibility is that the Taliban of 2021 are not the same as the Taliban of 2001. It’s way too early to come to that conclusion. The second is that the Americans were mounting a big operation to get out, and not just to get Americans out, but to get the rest of the Western governments out. And so, why get in their way when the adversary was leaving?

So wait for all those Marines who are supposed to guide the Americans out of the country to depart. And then they would own the city and the government and the reins of power, and they could go do whatever they were going to do.

michael barbaro

So the thinking is that the Taliban may understand that violence against Afghan civilians might just invite the U.S. to stay or slow their withdrawal or get somehow involved in this conflict, so don’t bother. But that may, of course, just be a temporary show of restraint rather than a permanent one.

david sanger

Could be. But it also could be that they see an opportunity to avoid being dealt with as a pariah and avoid the kind of crippling economic sanctions that would leave them in a lot of trouble running the country. It’s very possible that China and Russia will end up recognizing this new government.

And it’s conceivable that the United States in the future might do the same. When Secretary of State Tony Blinken was asked this question over the weekend, he said they would judge the Taliban by their behavior, by their respect for human rights, and so forth. He did not say that we would not recognize any government that wasn’t democratically elected. He said we will judge them by how they rule.

michael barbaro

David, I wonder how much of all of these ultimately incorrect assumptions that the Biden administration made tie back to the original U.S. announcement that our military was leaving Afghanistan and to the assumption that Afghanistan’s American-backed government and its American-backed military could ever really function without American soldiers on the ground. Was that assumption itself inherently flawed? In other words, is there such a thing as leaving a country like Afghanistan after 20 years cleanly?

david sanger

Michael, I don’t think there was ever a chance that, when the U.S. left, it could leave cleanly. And in part, that’s because the mission had expanded so dramatically beyond kicking out al-Qaeda and hunting down Osama bin Laden. It became building a democracy. It became protecting girls so that they could go to school. It became building a real economy. It became building a Western-style, American-style military, whether those fit within an Afghan context or not. And if you trace the problem back that far, that expansion happened in the Bush administration.

So when your mission gets that big, when it becomes not only about hunting down terrorists, but about changing the nature of the country, the fact of the matter is, there’s no way to wind down an operation that big, that quickly, and expect that the Afghan military would just pick up where you left off.

michael barbaro

Right. I think that’s the question on a lot of people’s minds, David. Given that chain of decision making you just described that dates back 20 years, how much responsibility does President Biden shoulder here?

david sanger

Well, clearly, he shoulders some for the decisions made since he came in about how you would execute the withdrawal. You can believe that Biden made exactly the right decision to get out, that we wouldn’t do any better staying for one year or five, and still believe that he could have executed it far more skillfully.

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Will the world remember that Biden got out of Afghanistan, that he ended this nightmare that had expanded in the mission well beyond what the original intention was? Or will it remember how we got out and whether we left a good number of people who had showed loyalty to the United States, who had helped the United States in this war, whether we have left them behind? And I think that’s the enduring question.

The answer may be that they remember both. But the fact of the matter is, when we get to that commemoration, that 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in just a few weeks, the Taliban are going to be back in control of Kabul just as they were 20 years ago.

michael barbaro

Well, David, as always, thank you for your time.

david sanger

Thank you.

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joe biden

Good afternoon. I want to speak today to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan.

michael barbaro

On Monday afternoon, in a televised address to the nation, President Biden acknowledged that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan had occurred far faster than his administration had expected and that his execution of the U.S. military withdrawal has been flawed.

joe biden

I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for president that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end. While it’s been hard and messy, and, yes, far from perfect, I’ve honored that commitment.

michael barbaro

Biden put much of the blame on the Afghan government, which he said had failed to mount a real defense against the Taliban. That lack of follow-through, Biden said, is precisely why the United States must leave Afghanistan.

joe biden

If Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance of the Taliban now, there is no chance that one year, one more year, five more years, or 20 more years, the U.S. military boots on the ground would have made any difference. Here’s what I believe to my core. It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

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Here’s what else you need to know today.

On Monday, the depth of the destruction from a major earthquake in Haiti became clearer. The death toll surpassed 1,400. The number of injured reached 7,000. And the estimated number of damaged buildings hit 1.5 million. Haitian officials said that rescue efforts have been disrupted by a major tropical storm that is expected to produce 10 inches of heavy rain by the end of today, potentially triggering floods and mudslides.

And The Times reports that the Biden administration has decided that most Americans should get a booster shot of the Covid-19 vaccine eight months after completing their initial vaccination. The U.S. is expected to begin offering those booster shots as early as mid-September.

Today’s episode was produced by Sydney Harper, Diana Nguyen and Clare Toeniskoetter. It was edited by M.J. Davis Lin, contains original music by Marion Lozano and Dan Powell and was engineered by Chris Wood.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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