‘This is Actually Happening': US Officials Had 'Oh Sh*t' Moment Prior to Fall of Kabul
13:59 GMT 22.08.2021 (Updated: 06:50 GMT 29.08.2021)
© AP Photo / Rahmat GulAnti-missile decoy flares are deployed as U.S. Black Hawk military helicopters and a dirigible balloon fly over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.
© AP Photo / Rahmat Gul
US President Joe Biden said back in July that the Taliban’s* complete take-over of Afghanistan was “highly unlikely” in the wake of the West’s departure from the country after 20 years of military engagement. It seems, however, that the group’s rapid capture of Afghanistan’s capital on 15 August took his administration by surprise.
It was 12 August, three days before the "Fall of Kabul", when the Joe Biden team was finally hit by an “oh, sh*t” moment and started treating the Taliban’s offensive in Afghanistan as a crisis, an exclusive report by Politico has revealed.
The report reviews an account of some 33 officials who recall internal discussions within the Biden administration on Afghanistan starting Wednesday, 11 August, as the US president and many of his staffers were looking to begin their summer vacation after a series of domestic political wins.
But as the terrorist group captured the provinces of Badakhshan, Baghlan, and Farah as well as some large provincial cities, Biden’s national security Cabinet reportedly learned from an intelligence briefing on 12 August that Ashraf Ghani’s government could fall “within weeks or days” and not within months, as had been expected before, one anonymous source told Politico.
“It was a pretty sobering meeting”, the person said. “We thought we had months ahead of us to draw down the embassy and do processing and relocation”.
At that point, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly recommended that Biden send in soldiers to evacuate the US Embassy and put protection around Kabul’s main international airport. By Thursday evening, the Pentagon said that 3,000 troops would be rushed to the airport to help with the evacuations of Americans and thousands of their Afghan and NATO partners, who had for years assisted in the military campaign.
© STRINGERWaheedullah Hashimi (C), a senior Taliban commander, gestures as he speaks with Reuters during an interview at an undisclosed location near Afghanistan-Pakistan border August 17, 2021. Picture taken August 17, 2021.
Waheedullah Hashimi (C), a senior Taliban commander, gestures as he speaks with Reuters during an interview at an undisclosed location near Afghanistan-Pakistan border August 17, 2021. Picture taken August 17, 2021.
“By Friday afternoon, it was clear to me that we were rapidly losing control of the situation at the capital, in the airport, and that the evacuation operation was in jeopardy”, said Colorado Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger in Afghanistan, who was long pushing the Biden team to move faster with pulling Afghan translators and aides out of the country, albeit to no avail.
However, on the same day, Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken still held the belief that Ghani would stay in the country despite the Taliban’s offensive: “He represented himself as willing to stay and fight”, one defence official said.
‘Just Fell Apart’
By 14 August, while Biden was still vacationing at Camp David, it reportedly became clear to US authorities that Kabul would fall after Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, Mazar-i-Sharif, an important commercial hub in the north, had been captured by the group. According to the outlet, many military officers just could not believe that the Afghan forces, trained by the US and presented as ready to fight, would give up their capital so easily.
“Email was blowing up left and right [at the National Military Command Centre] ‘Wow, this is actually happening right now’”, a defence source told Politico. “This thing just fell apart over the weekend”.
On Sunday, 15 August, military officials revealed to lawmakers that a deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament and key Ghani ally had gone over to the Taliban and become their defence chief in Kabul:
“That’s when we knew it was really FUBAR”, one senior Democratic aide said, using the "fouled up beyond all recognition" acronym.
Despite Austin’s authorisation for additional troops that would be flown into Kabul from Kuwait where they had been stationed, it was already too late at that point.
The Taliban captured the city on 15 August with little resistance from the vaunted Afghan Army following America’s hasty military withdrawal from the country in the aftermath of the war, which is believed to have cost American taxpayers upwards of $2 trillion.
Ghani fled the country, announcing that he made the move to prevent bloodshed, but many described his departure as a “betrayal”.
© REUTERS / KEN CEDENOU.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on evacuation efforts and the ongoing situation in Afghanistan during a speech in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 20, 2021
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on evacuation efforts and the ongoing situation in Afghanistan during a speech in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 20, 2021
Afghan Passports Reportedly Destroyed
Biden has stood for his decision to withdraw US troops from the country: “After 20 years”, the president said this week, “I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces”.
The US and its allies have so far continued their efforts to evacuate American personnel and Afghan citizens who helped to keep the military operation going throughout the years. According to Major General William Taylor, some 17,000 people, including 2,500 Americans, have so far been evacuated from the country by the US, but thousands more are hoping to get out.
However, many of those who applied for American visas and had their passports kept at the US Embassy in Kabul saw their documents burned by staffers who carried out the “emergency destruction” of sensitive data in anticipation of a Taliban takeover, according to Rep. Andy Kim. It is not clear how much easier it is for them to get out of Afghanistan now, amid a chorus of complaints that the Pentagon did not have a clear list of Afghans who worked with the Americans and were thereby eligible for evacuation.
*The Taliban is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia and many other nations.