While the Biden administration’s chaotic and inept withdrawal from Afghanistan was unfolding in August 2021, a suicide bomber murdered 13 American service members, and at least 170 Afghans, at the Abbey Gate outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. It was one of the deadliest attacks on our troops in our 20 years in that nation.
“Know this,” President Joe Biden said after the bombing. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” This turned out to be face-saving political theater. Three days later, an air strike killed ten Afghans, seven of them children. Not one of the dead, as far as we know, was an “ISIS facilitator,” as the administration had alleged.
In fact, the Pentagon now says that the bombing was the work of a lone terrorist rather than a “complex” network, as the Biden administration had initially maintained. At the time, Gen. Mark Milley not only referred to the strike as “valid” and “righteous” but went further to describe a “secondary explosion” and a supposed plethora of evidence justifying the bombing. None of that, it seems, was true.
We also learn through ProPublica’s recent investigation into the Kabul suicide bombing that, despite intelligence warning of terrorist attacks, U.S. military commanders encouraged use of the routes. Some U.S. officials even provided maps to evacuees trying to bypass Taliban fighters stationed at a checkpoint outside the airport.
The fact that the murderer of 13 Americans “likely” gained access to troops via a path that U.S. officials were encouraging people to use seems quite noteworthy. As does the fact that we were helping evacuees circumvent the Taliban even as the Biden administration was assuring the American public that the Islamic militants were facilitating the extraction of Americans.
These are the same Taliban with whom the Biden administration had reportedly shared a list of “American citizens, green card holders and Afghan allies.” It is the same Taliban that the administration declared had comported themselves in a “businesslike and professional” manner.
You will recall as well White House press secretary Jen Psaki contending that no Americans had been “stranded” in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would later say that there were “under 200” Americans remaining in Afghanistan who “want to leave.”
A new Senate Foreign Relations Committee report from ranking member Jim Risch (R- Idaho) contends that State Department officials estimated that in August, 10,000-15,000 Americans were trapped in Afghanistan. Over the two weeks the Afghan forces disintegrated, 6,000 Americans were able to escape. I’m not a math whiz, but that leaves a lot more than zero, or even 200, stranded. How many of those American citizens, green card holders or Afghan allies had their names handed to the Taliban? Were the interpreters on that list being hunted down or beheaded by Islamists?
The Pentagon investigation into the bombing, relying on hundreds of witness interviews and drone footage and reports by medical examiners, concludes that the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate was “not preventable.” In truth, the attack became unpreventable only after the Biden administration evacuated secure positions without having extracted those who wanted to leave.
A recently declassified report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, which was submitted to the Department of Defense in January 2021, also warned the administration that the Afghan air force would quickly collapse. Military personnel would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation, said Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top U.S. commander on the ground, “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”
Yet none of this advice stopped the president from abandoning the Bagram Airfield. Nor did it prompt him to set up military safe zones to retrieve stranded Americans or Afghan allies before retreating. His failure to do so caused a bottleneck at the Kabul airport that put troops and civilians in needless danger.
Biden was wedded to the Taliban’s timeline. Given that he’s shown reliably disastrous foreign-policy instincts over 50 years in public life, this isn’t exactly surprising. It’s also increasingly clear that the administration ignored warnings because it believed leaving Afghanistan, which was quite popular in polls, would be a political slam dunk early in his term.
That was Biden’s prerogative. The president has no obligation to follow the advice of his generals. Undoubtedly, many of them would advocate for a U.S. presence in Afghanistan in perpetuity. As a policy matter, Biden’s botching of the evacuation is a separate issue from whether the United States should have withdrawn. However, once Biden decided to embrace what the Trump administration had begun, the responsibility to protect American lives was his. There are numerous questions yet to be answered on why he failed to do so.