How Afghanistan Ended Like This

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S1: In Kabul on Sunday night, hundreds of people rushed across an airport tarmac to board planes out of Afghanistan. There were no lines, there was no one directing foot traffic, people held hands as they snaked through the crowd, shouting over the din, clutching children. Others climbed awkwardly into the back of a U.S. cargo jet by daybreak. Young men could be seen sprinting down a runway alongside a military plane as it prepared for liftoff. Some of the men had clasped their bodies onto the sides of the jet, desperate to flee their country as the Taliban asserted control.

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S2: It’s a tragic and largely preventable situation.

S1: Fred Kaplan writes the War Stories column for Slate. We spoke Monday morning, a day after Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani fled the country and Kabul fell to the Taliban.

S2: Yeah, now this is hell, you know, both substantively and politically. This is exactly the sort of image that that Biden never dreamed that he would have to confront. Right.

S3: Thank you very much, your own intelligence community has assessed that the Afghan government will likely collapse.

S4: That is not true.

S1: This was Biden answering questions from reporters just a month ago. It was July 8th. The U.S. had just turned off the lights at its main airbase north of Kabul. The Taliban was quickly taking over rural areas. Afghan forces were feeling abandoned

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S4: by the Afghan government. Leadership has to come together. They clearly have the capacity. To sustain the government in place, they have the forces, they have the equipment. The question is, will they do it? I want to make clear what I made clear to Garney, that we are not going to walk away and not sustain their ability to maintain that force.

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S1: Looking back, that comment from the president was either a lie or so blindly optimistic as to be foreign policy malpractice. The U.S. has walked away. Afghans have not maintained their security forces. The Taliban took over in less than four months.

S5: The Taliban captured the capital without any resistance from the Afghan army, militants took hold of the country’s presidential palace and the group claimed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was back. The war was over.

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S1: How did Afghanistan fall so quickly and so completely? Fred says when the Afghan forces saw that the Americans weren’t going to be there to prop them up. They simply did what they had to do

S2: once they saw which way the wind was blowing and heard reports of this city falling and that city falling, wi fi, you know, lay down your arms or cut a deal, do whatever you have to do and leave. You know, your cause is hopeless at that point.

S1: Hope is also in short supply for the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for U.S. and NATO forces and were promised visas and a life abroad. Now many of them are stuck behind Taliban roadblocks. Officials at the US embassy were spending their remaining hours in Kabul, burning documents that would identify allied Afghans. But Fred says the Taliban can still find them.

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S2: They can also go door to door and ask people who in your neighborhood was helping the Americans and people will cooperate. They’re not going to be sent to reeducation camps or rehabilitation centers. They’re going to be imprisoned or killed. I mean, I’m kind of appalled.

S1: On the show today, the hasty, chaotic exit of the U.S. military from Afghanistan after 20 years. I’m Mary Wilson filling in for Mary Harris, this is what next? Keep listening.

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S3: So let’s talk about how we got here, we could go back, we could go back two decades to talk about how we got here, but let’s go back to February. Twenty twenty when a deal was struck between the U.S. and the Taliban for U.S. withdrawal, it was brokered by the Trump administration.

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S6: We just signed an agreement that puts us in a position to get it done, bring us down to in the vicinity of 8000 troops.

S2: Yeah, no, Trump is now saying, oh, if I were still president, there would have been conditions attached to this withdrawal. Well, no, no. The deal that he went with, it had two deals. One was that the Taliban would not cooperate with al-Qaida or any other groups that threatened the United States. And so far, nothing that they’d done has involved al-Qaida or anything like it. And to that, they would engage in intra Afghan negotiations. Well, you know, what does that mean? There is no time stated to this. It wasn’t like you were doing this before, you know, taking over Kabul. So, yeah, there will probably be very, very, very brief intra Afghan negotiations. So, no, they have not broken the terms of anything in that February 20, 20 agreement. There is nothing in there which said you will not advance upon Kabul or or even any other city until we’re out of there or for another year or two. There is no such term. So they are still in compliance with the February 20 20 agreement.

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S3: So the deal is inked in February, twenty, twenty one year later, Biden is in office. Could the Biden administration have revisited that deal?

S2: Well, I think that that’s an interesting question, because under the Trump deal, we were supposed to be completely out by May 1st. And Biden said, well, like the logistics, we’re not going to be able to get out of there. So let’s say September 11th, Taliban had no problems with that. But one thing Biden said is possibly true. He said, look, if I didn’t pull out all the troops in accordance with this deal, then the Taliban would start fighting us again. And, you know, Mary people don’t generally recognize it’s not a single American has been killed in Afghanistan since that February 20, 20 deal was signed zero. It is possible that if Biden had come along and said, well, screw this deal. I know I’m not part of it. We’re we’re keeping two thousand troops in Afghanistan for the duration. It’s possible that the Taliban would have started fighting again. It’s also possible they might not. The point is the proposition was never tested. You know, I know that Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, said that, oh, well, if we’d kept some troops in, we’d now have to be moving in tens of thousands of troops to counter the Taliban onslaught. You know, I think that might be overstating it as well. We’ll never know. We’ll never know. And in any event, you know, the fact is, for a variety of reasons, some legitimate, some less. So Biden was looking to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. And the the the hastily negotiated Trump accord gave him the excuse for not delaying.

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S3: So in April of this year, Biden announced that he would withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11th,

S4: we cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result.

S3: There were about three thousand five hundred U.S. troops remaining contractors also will be coming with them. You know, that’s all part of that announcement. The drawdown begins in earnest in May and so did the advance of the Taliban. They started in the rural areas. And then by July, people are starting to sound the alarm that, holy heck, this is going a lot faster than anybody anticipated. The Afghan forces are falling like dominoes. So the question became, why are they so weak?

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S2: Well, you know, what was propping up the Afghan army wasn’t just American troops as American troops hadn’t really been fighting, you know, doing come direct combat for quite a while. What was propping them up were things like close air support, logistics, intelligence helicopters, which were able to transport Afghan troops from one very isolated part of the country to another. The only other way to get there would be to climb over mountains. That’s what was doing it. And one problem here is that and we have a tendency to do this. The US military built up the Afghan army in the image of the US military to make them dependent on all of these things, logistics and close air support, intelligence and so forth. Medevac surgeons, it enhanced their power greatly, but it also made them forever dependent on them. And once that network of combat support and supplies and maintenance and so forth, once that left, that was it. Even an American combat unit would not have had much ability to keep fighting without that network of support behind it. So that’s why they collapsed quickly. That plus the fact that, you know, they were they hated the Taliban, but they were never, never had much fealty toward the Afghan government, which remained corrupt, which didn’t feed, give them enough food or water, much less guns and ammunition. So they really they said this thing is going down the tubes and I don’t want to die here for something I don’t particularly believe in. So that’s why I fell and enlisted military experts and retired officers that I was talking with all along thought that once once we pulled out like this, it was just a matter of time and not much time. Yeah.

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S3: You talk about Afghan security forces not having much fealty toward the Afghan government. And I’m thinking of the stories I’ve read over the past week of Afghan forces waiting for rations, waiting and waiting for rations and getting like a box. I think it might have been a Washington Post report. They got a box of slimy potatoes and they said, we can’t hold this line with French fries. You know, you’ve you’ve got reports of Afghan security force, equipment winding up in the hands of the Taliban. They’re using vehicles that still have Afghan security force insignia, Afghan army insignia on it.

S2: That had been going on for quite a long time. Is that right? I mean, for years, maybe a decade. I mean, the idea of the Taliban going up to army units and giving them money or food or whatever for their weapons or their jeeps or whatever their, you know, you know, warlords who had declared fealty to the government doing back deals with the Taliban. You know, it’s a little dangerous to focus so much on what’s happened in the last couple of weeks. This has been a pretty hopeless endeavor for many, many years, arguably from the very beginning of, you know, the very fact that you were going after we were fighting an insurgency that when they were coming under attack could just take safe haven in neighboring Pakistan. That alone really, you know, makes the odds almost almost absurdly small that we were never going to succeed here.

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S3: I think about the Afghan forces and I’m it reminds me of Esperanto, which was this like language that was invented out of whole cloth, basically to become the new lingua franca of the world. And, of course, that has never caught on

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S2: or the book or the metric system of the United States.

S3: It’s just these systems that are like here, this this will be this will be good. There’s no history. There’s no unifying cause. There’s no unifying culture. But here, this will work, whereas the Taliban is fighting for a recognizable culture.

S2: That’s right. In some ways, it’s even more delusional because, you know, there was a book written in the 1960s by a former French colonial soldier named David Galula called Counterinsurgency Warfare, and this was the Bible for General Petraeus and other people who were pushing for a counterinsurgency in a nation building kind of thing. But there was one chapter in that book which talked about favorable and unfavorable conditions for counterinsurgency. And if you look at the things that he listed for what makes for an unfavorable conditions for a counterinsurgency, it included things like landlocked country, rural, illiterate sanctuary in a neighboring country. A few other things. It’s like a description of Afghanistan. So, I mean, if they had read the Bible less dogmatically, they would have seen that this thing was it was a no go from the very beginning. And so it was a mistake not listen, they had the diagnostics might have been correct, which is look at Afghan society and politics don’t change. Somebody else like the Taliban and al-Qaida will will will come back into power again, preying on the the appetite, you know, the desires of the people in the face of an inadequate government. And so therefore, we have to instill reforms. OK, there might be something to that diagnostically, but Afghanistan was a terrible place for doing it. We don’t know how to do this outside of the image of ourselves. You know, we had almost nobody over there who spoke the language, much less understood the history, the culture or anything. It was it’s just I mean, textbook from A to Z on how to do something like this incorrectly,

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S1: nor with Fred Kaplan after the break.

S3: So there are two competing views of this withdrawal. There’s the case that what we’re seeing proves that the U.S. never should have left. And then there’s the side that thinks that what we’re seeing proves we never should have been there in the first place, never had an achievable mission. I’d like you to try to explain both viewpoints, put a little meat on those bones, and then I’d like you to tell me where you land.

S2: Well, here’s the thing. Obama, you know, he put a lot more troops. Thirty thousand more than it was already there when he was president and and embarked on a kind of a nation building counterinsurgency. Strategy, after about 18 months, he realized that this wasn’t working and he withdrew all the surge forces and then he started cutting back on the mission and the numbers. But as he left office, he kept in fifty eight hundred troops and their missions were training the Afghan army and counterterrorism along the Pakistani border. I think a case could be made. Look, you know, the United States has troops, you know, all over the world. I don’t even more than one hundred countries. I don’t know how many countries off the top of my head doing one thing or another. In Afghanistan, the cost of keeping troops in Afghanistan had diminished to a very small amount. A case could be made that we could have stayed there really with inconspicuously for quite a long time. So it could have been done. Now, again, the one thing that we don’t know is this crazy deal that Trump signed with the Taliban saying we’ll be out by May the first and the Taliban threatening. If you’re not, we’re going to come after you again. I certainly would not have been for staying there, that would meant renewing direct combat with I don’t think it’s worth. Very many of any American deaths, but but again, you’re asking the fundamental question and the fundamental question is, is is complicated by the restraints that Trump put on Biden’s actions and then the reality that the sheer incompetence of the way that we were withdrawing the complete waste of four months in which Biden and the Pentagon could have done a lot to ward off the savagery that’s about to take place now.

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S3: Yeah, you’re reminding me of this interview segment that’s been making the rounds the past few days. It’s an interview from last year, from February 20 20. And then candidate Biden was on Face the Nation. And Margaret Brennan asked Biden, don’t you bear some

S1: responsibility for the outcome of the Taliban ends up back in control and women end up losing the boys

S4: don’t look, are you telling me that we should go into China because go to war China? Because what they’re doing to the wiggers, a million wiggers and out in the West in concentration camps, is that what you’re saying to me?

S1: It was your quote, sir. I was asking you.

S4: I know I gave you my I gave you the answer. You do. I bear responsibility. Zero responsibility.

S3: And I can I can hear as you as you talk, it’s it’s pretty obvious where you think he gets that right and where you think he gets that wrong.

S2: Well, see, back in the in 2009, you know, Obama President Obama held ten National Security Council meetings to discuss what do we do in Afghanistan. And Biden was almost alone in opposing the idea of sending in another 30, 40 thousand troops and adopting a nation building strategy. He said, look, it’s just not going to work. I’ve been to Afghanistan. I remember Vietnam. It’s not going to work. And he proposed sending another 10000 troops to to improve the training and equipping of the Afghan army, helping them fight more. And look, he turned out to be right. That turned out to have been would have been the right move. And so Biden doesn’t forget those debates. And he also saw, again, correctly, that the military was boxing Obama in. And so he didn’t want to be boxed in. And he also wanted to get on with other things, domestic and foreign. And so he decided, let’s just get the hell out of there again. I understand what he was doing. I understand his reasoning. He’s absolutely right when he says, look, if we stay another 10 years and then leave, it’s going to be the same. The results are going to be the same. I’m just saying he could have used those four months to get out in a much more responsible, less deadly way.

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S1: What the Taliban takeover looks like to me

S3: is local Afghans knowing how to survive invasions.

S2: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

S3: You figure out which big dog is leaving and you make nice with the next alpha dog in line. And Afghans have been doing that for decades.

S2: Listen, there were you know, there were reports, there are stories about this even now that this late date, a lot of Afghan farmers thought that the US people who were there were Russians. Wow. I mean, they never quite processed that the Russians had left a long time ago, but, you know, to them there’s no difference. Americans, Russians, they’re all outsiders.

S3: And, of course, the Soviets left in 89.

S2: So, yeah, it’s been I mean, maybe even before some of these when these farmers were a little kid. Now it was. But, you know, it’s almost it almost doesn’t matter from their perspective. There is no difference. Both both groups of outsiders came in and said, we’re going to make a better future for you. You know, the Soviets did. We’re going to we’re going to clue you in on the glories of international socialism. We came in and said, we’re going to clue you into the glories of freedom, democracy and modernity. It was all nonsense to them and they had nothing to do with anything about their everyday lives.

S3: Fred Kaplan, thank you so much.

S2: Sure. My pleasure.

S1: Fred Kaplan writes the War Stories column for Slate. His latest book is The Bomb Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War. On Monday afternoon, President Biden said he stood by his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and added that the U.S. would move quickly in coming days to help transport Afghans with visas out of the country.

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S4: 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 some time without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that any new US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.

S1: That’s the show What Next is produced by the amazing Davis land, Danielle, Hewitt Carmel Delshad and Elena Schwartz. Allison Benedikt is the executive editor of Slate. Lisa Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. I am Mary Wilson filling in today for Mary Harris. We’ll catch you back here tomorrow. Thanks for listening.