Why experts say the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan didn't have to lead to chaos

·5 min read
Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the main gate leading to the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on Monday. The Taliban took hold of the capital city over the weekend, mere days after stepping up an offensive across the country. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press - image credit)
Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the main gate leading to the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul on Monday. The Taliban took hold of the capital city over the weekend, mere days after stepping up an offensive across the country. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press - image credit)

The chaos that ensued following the hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan may have been prevented had U.S. President Joe Biden executed a more gradual and protracted pullout, military experts say.

"So much of this is about a dialogue and about communicating a message to the Afghans and to the world that you are transitioning in an orderly fashion," said retired major-general David Fraser, who commanded more than 2,000 NATO coalition troops during Operation Medusa in the Afghan province of Kandahar in 2006.

"Wars today are not won in a battle. They are bloody, ugly, complicated, messy things that kind of whimper away. They don't end with a switch," he said. "It's a dimmer switch — you have to turn it down slowly."

Biden announced in April that he would be withdrawing the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the month as part of a 2020 deal made with the Taliban under former president Donald Trump. But in a matter of days, the Taliban was able to seize nearly all of Afghanistan, as the country's Western-trained security forces collapsed or fled in the face of an insurgent offensive.

It left thousands — Afghans and foreigners alike — scrambling to flee the country.

Biden defends decision

Earlier this week in a televised speech at the White House, Biden said he stood squarely behind his decision, and that after 20 years, he had "learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces."

He has faced criticism, however, from both Republicans and Democrats, who accuse the president of lacking an evacuation plan for Americans and their Afghan allies.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, a former captain in the Marine Corps, told the New York Times that for months, he had been asking the administration to provide a refugee plan.

Evan Vucci/The Associated Press
Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

Meanwhile, Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin, a member of the House armed services committee, wrote in Foreign Policy that "this negligence was par for the course for the last U.S. administration. I am disappointed to see it now."

"Had they remained longer, they also would have ensured a safe exit for interpreters, journalists and activists, many of whom may never get out," he wrote.

Fraser said in Bosnia, for example, it took years to dwindle down military operations

The remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan had not been conducting major combat operations, he said, but instead acted as a "show of force on the ground."

"And if I look at this whole plan, I would have said … 'What do you take out and what do you replace, back then, to keep the hope and opportunity for the Afghans that they will continue to work," Fraser said.

"I think the short answer is there was a better plan than what we are experiencing now."

'Gradual and protracted basis'

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute who specializes in U.S. defence strategy and the use of military force, agrees there's a high likelihood that events in Afghanistan could have played out very differently had the pullout been effected "on a more gradual and protracted basis."

WATCH | Chaos unfolds as thousands crowd Kabul airport:

That would have given the Afghan government and military more time to essentially triage, he said, and develop a plan to hold onto some parts of the country.

"You could have potentially given the Afghan army a sense that it was only going to be asked to go into battle where it had a good chance to win, and also where it had air power to back up that," he said.

Paul Miller, who was director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, also pointed a finger at Biden for pulling air support and "the sequence" in which the withdrawal occurred.

'Start negotiations from scratch'

"I can envision a withdrawal that maybe took place a year, five years from now, with a different negotiated settlement and with a different continuing commitment to the Afghan military that didn't result in this catastrophe," said Miller.

"Completely start negotiations from scratch, keep the training up for another couple of years, then there might have been a more gradual and stable withdrawal," he said.[

"It could have gone otherwise if we had mustered a shred of political will, competence and resources; we could have done differently."

It's also clear that the Biden administration had no concrete plan to get people out of Afghanistan, said Mark Jacobson, a former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.

"We should have been planning for lists of names who needed to be brought out — especially the Afghans," he said. "They also clearly didn't think that there might be 100,000 people that needed to get out."

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

Jacobson said it was also clear the U.S. didn't do any planning exercises to see where problem areas might be.

"We want to fly out 7,000 to 9,000 people each day. Then we need to have a plan to get 7,000 to 9,000 people by Taliban checkpoints and into gates that are large enough to handle that many people each day," he said.

PHOTOS | The chaotic scene at Kabul's airport:

However, Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University who served on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's initial strategic assessment team in Kabul in 2009, said that some sort of chaos was inevitable.

"Any indication that the United States was evacuating the embassy or evacuating Afghans who had worked with us was going to be read as a signal that the jig is up, the end is near," he said. "And that creates a huge incentive for everybody in Afghanistan to move fast, so as not to get caught when the Taliban roll in."

There was another solution, Biddle said, to avoid the chaos: Don't withdraw.

"If the administration said they were serious about negotiation, continue the negotiations. Make a withdrawal contingent on a settlement of the war. That would have been my preference. And if they've done that, then we wouldn't be looking at any of this chaos at the airport or any of the rest."

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