- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2021

The desperate pleas crossing cyberspace from Afghanistan to the U.S. symbolize America’s surrender to a feudal terrorist army, qualifying the retreat as the nation’s most embarrassing.

President Biden’s decision to bypass his military advisers and order a complete withdrawal has left tens of thousands of Americans and friendly Afghans trapped by Taliban terrorist brigades.

Congressional sources told The Washington Times that they were kept in the dark as they asked repeatedly for a timetable to evacuate civilians once the president announced the decision in April.

They never received the timetable, and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15.

Making one’s way through Kabul’s teeming streets to Hamid Karzai International Airport grew even more dangerous Saturday.

Agence France-Presse reported that Taliban leaders turned over the city’s security to Khalil Haqqani, a Taliban-al Qaeda hybrid on whom the U.S. has put a $5 million bounty. The Haqqani network is led by a notorious terrorist family running a Taliban haven in Pakistan.

Afghans who worked shoulder to shoulder with U.S. troops and diplomats are hoping those contacts will leverage lifesaving flights out of Kabul, now patrolled by victorious Taliban squads.

A former Pentagon official told The Washington Times that he is working to win freedom for a number of Afghans, such as the female government employee who sent an email saying, “I’m in bad security situation, my life and my family life is danger.”

“They are hiding. All they can do,” the former official, who did not want to be identified, told The Times.

During the crisis and two interrupted vacations, Mr. Biden has delivered a number of inaccurate assessments, liberal and conservative media outlets said.

The string began with the president’s July 8 declaration that local Afghan forces would prevail.

The flubs continued at his Friday press conference when he asserted that al Qaeda had left Afghanistan. The Taliban-hosted terrorist group that executed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. and triggered an American invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago is diminished but has not exited.

Perhaps Mr. Biden’s most inappropriate advice was that it was safe for Americans — now essentially Taliban hostages — to come out of hiding and go to the U.S.-protected international airport in Kabul.

He said the Taliban assured his team that Americans could pass through their checkpoints safely.

The embassy staff in Kabul contradicted that advice the next day.

Abandoning Trump’s pullout plan

Mr. Biden’s troop withdrawal sped along with fatal precision. After his April announcement that all U.S. troops would pull out by Sept. 11, U.S. Central Command began issuing press releases about the numbers of airlifted personnel and equipment.

Mr. Biden abandoned what President Trump had billed as a “conditions-based” pullout. If the Taliban did not abide by certain agreements, then the U.S. outflow would stop as it did in October, when troop numbers held at 2,500.

Mr. Trump spoke by phone with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban leader negotiating in Doha, Qatar, and warned him against breaking a February 2020 agreement. “We know where you live,” Mr. Trump told him, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg said on Fox News.

Mr. Biden’s withdrawal, however, was free-flowing. 

On July 2 came the big vacancy. Bagram, the sprawling air base 40 miles north of Kabul that for two decades had served as the operational heartbeat, was abandoned in the dead of night. Afghans complained that the commander never said goodbye.

A defense official familiar with the planning told The Washington Times that military commanders had always intended to close Bagram before the American withdrawal was complete.

The official rejected the idea that it was practical to keep Bagram operational until Mr. Biden’s deadline or shortly before. The source said it would have been a logistical nightmare to attempt to transport thousands of U.S. personnel from Kabul or from other more distant cities.

But plans to rely on one airfield did not take into account such a rapid collapse. That scenario, the official said, “was beyond the conceivable” as Defense Department leaders crafted the withdrawal.

Two weeks after Bagram’s shuttering, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greeted the war’s last in-country commander, Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, in the U.S.

Afghanistan was losing its American security forces, its biggest operational base and its four-star ground commander. The Taliban were watching.

While Mr. Biden was speaking to the press on July 8, the Taliban were capturing districts with relative ease and turning the battle toward the big prizes: provincial capitals.

The Washington press corps was skeptical as Mr. Biden said the U.S. military mission would end on Aug. 31. Making some of his most unfortunate predictions, the president angrily rejected journalists’ warnings that the Afghan security forces — a mix of 300,000 army soldiers, airmen and police — would fold.

“I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war,” Mr. Biden said.

Asked whether a Taliban victory was inevitable, he said, “No, it is not. Because the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.”

Two weeks later at the Pentagon, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave the same promise.

“The Afghan security forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country, and we will continue to support the Afghan security forces where necessary in accordance with the guidance from the president and the secretary of defense,” Gen. Milley told reporters.

Mr. Biden’s and Gen. Milley’s assurances would turn out to be the war’s final and greatest miscalculations.

Two weeks later, on Aug. 4, State Department spokesman Ned Price promoted the Afghan army.

“No. 1, it is a simple fact that the Afghan security forces are numerically far superior to the Taliban,” Mr. Price said. “It’s a simple fact. They have over 300,000 troops. They have an air force. They have special forces. They have heavy equipment. The Taliban, in contrast, have less than 100,000 forces.”

Two days later, the first provincial capital fell. Nearly all of the other 33 collapsed within 11 days.

Two days before Kabul fell Aug. 15, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby assured the public that a Taliban takeover was not imminent.

Pressed by Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson on Saturday to explain why he was so wrong, Mr. Kirby said, “In the moment that I said it, based on what we knew at the time, it was a true statement. And yes, two days later things dramatically changed. I readily admit that. Things moved very, very quickly.”

On Aug. 13, the Taliban captured Kandahar, their spiritual birthplace and the operational base of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as the Sept. 11 attacks were planned. Then came Jalalabad, the gateway to Pakistan on Kabul’s eastern flank.

Almost simultaneously, Taliban fighters, some with captured American guns and vehicles, waltzed into Kabul on Aug. 15. Fighters posed for a photo portrait in the ornate presidential palace.

Less-ceremonious Taliban began the street-by-street hunt in a city of 5 million for the Afghans who helped the Americans. Taliban social media promised “amnesty,” but those in hiding knew that was a lie.

Jarred by the Taliban’s stunning advances, the White House and Pentagon held a series of meetings to produce a new plan.

Mr. Biden replaced the American drawdown with a buildup of more than 4,000 troops, speeding 82nd Airborne soldiers and Marines to the Kabul airport with a main goal of putting evacuees on airplanes.

With Gen. Miller gone, a two-star admiral assigned to the embassy headed the last American stand.

American troops left first, stranding some 60,000 or more U.S. citizens and Afghan visa holders.

Biden seems to ignore Pentagon

What exactly the intelligence community told Mr. Biden is garbled and will be scrutinized by Congress. Lawmakers are talking about hearings as early as this week.

Did the CIA tell Mr. Biden it was “highly unlikely” that the Afghan security forces would stand up and protect crucial population centers? The Biden team was so confident that it budgeted another $3.3 billion for the security forces next year on top of the nearly $90 billion spent since 2001.

“No. 1, as you know, the intelligence community did not say back in June or July that, in fact, this was going to collapse like it did,” Mr. Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos.

He said he was told that the CIA did believe the Taliban would win the war, “but not this quickly. Not even close.”

Asked whether any of his military advisers recommended keeping the 2,500 troop level inherited from Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden said, “No, they didn’t. It was split.”

A Wall Street Journal report this spring said all of Mr. Biden’s top military advisers did urge the president to maintain the Trump troop number.

During the Saturday press briefing at the Pentagon, Mr. Kirby did not deny that Mr. Austin made such a recommendation. As Iraq commander, Mr. Austin made the same recommendation to President Obama, but the president pulled all troops in 2011.

Mr. Kirby said, “The secretary is 100% focused on the mission at hand right now, which is a noncombatant evacuation operation. And he’s comfortable that throughout this deliberation, his voice was heard. That he had an opportunity to provide his best advice and counsel to the commander in chief and to the national security team as did other leaders here at the Pentagon. It was a very inclusive, very deliberate process, and the secretary believes that the president was given the benefit of a lot of different views. Not just his, but a lot of different views.”

The answer leaves the unmistakable impression that Mr. Biden overrode his secretary of defense, paving the way for the Afghanistan disaster.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported on a memo from more than 20 embassy staff members in Kabul to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The memo said the situation was quickly deteriorating and urged an accelerated evacuation. The evacuation did not begin until mid-August.

Republicans warn administration

In Congress, Democrats have offered some criticism and muted praise for Mr. Biden’s Afghanistan policy.

In contrast, Republicans predicted a disaster early on. No one raised warning signs more than Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Once news reports surfaced in April that Mr. Biden had decided on a 100% troop withdrawal by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the al Qaeda attack, Mr. McCaul predicted a disaster.

“I am shocked and extremely concerned by reports of President Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September,” he said.

“This will mean we are not leaving a residual force to address the counterterrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan, abandoning our Afghan partners during critical peace negotiations, and allowing the Taliban a total victory despite their failure to fulfill their commitments under our agreement. This premature withdrawal shows a complete disregard for the realities on the ground and will not only put Afghans at risk, but endanger the lives of U.S. citizens at home and abroad. I have urgently requested details on this decision and strongly urge the president to reconsider,” he said.

Later in April, Mr. McCaul urged Mr. Blinken to prepare for counterterrorism operations once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan.

Mr. McCaul wrote, “Given the threat the withdrawal of U.S. troops poses to our homeland, it is vital that the administration is clear-eyed about the implications of this withdrawal and rapidly secures the basing, overflight for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strikes, and other necessary agreements that will allow us to have lethal counterterrorism capabilities from countries around Afghanistan and in the larger region.”

By June, Mr. McCaul was chastising the administration for the slow pace in processing visas for Afghan interpreters and other loyalists. Thousands remain stranded four months later.

“These Afghans will have a bull’s-eye on their backs from the moment we leave the country,” he said. “If President Biden abandons them, he is signing their death warrants.”

Sources on Capitol Hill said they were never given any kind of pullout schedule or timetable.

One congressional source told The Times that they “asked repeatedly” for details about the plan to evacuate both U.S. personnel and Afghan allies.

“We asked for timetables,” said the source, but the Biden team refused. “We were under the assumption that when they told us they were going to get these people out … they were actually going to do it.”

Foreign criticism

What Mr. Biden did not expect was the resounding criticism of him, by name, from NATO allies.

The president has touted his interactions with the Western alliance as a welcome change from Mr. Trump’s brusque criticism.

“America is back,” Mr. Biden told NATO.

Not as far as British politicians are concerned.

The British Parliament convened an emergency session Wednesday to condemn Prime Minister Boris Johnson for the Afghanistan collapse and, strikingly, the American president.

Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat, who served with NATO forces in Afghanistan, said he was appalled at Mr. Biden’s tactic of blaming the Afghan security forces and called out Mr. Biden’s lack of military service.

“To see their commander in chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, it’s shameful,” he said. “Those who have never fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have.”

Mr. Biden had said on Aug. 16, “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.”

Afghanistan has lost nearly 60,000 troops in battle, far more than the Americans, who switched to an advisory role in 2014 and provided vital close-air support to pound Taliban positions.

Former British Army chief Richard Dannatt, a member of the House of Lords, said, “The manner and timing of the Afghan collapse is the direct result of President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11.”

He said in Parliament that “at a stroke,” Mr. Biden had “undermined the patient and painstaking work of the last five, 10, 15 years to build up governance in Afghanistan, develop its economy, transform its civil society and build up its security forces.”

It wasn’t just Britain. The leader of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party also lashed out at the U.S. actions.

“This is the biggest debacle that NATO has seen since its foundation, and it is an epochal change that we are facing,” Christian Democratic Union Chairman Armin Laschet said last week.

Days after these stinging rebukes, Mr. Biden said Friday, after returning to the White House from vacation, “I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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