• Sean D. Carberry

Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Who's to Blame?


In 2008, the Bush administration and the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki negotiated and ratified a security agreement that stated all U.S. forces would leave Iraq by December 31, 2011. In January 2009, Barack Obama was sworn into office and assumed responsibility for executing the security agreement with Iraq.


Obama followed the terms of the deal and withdrew the final U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011. While there were many military and civilian officials who believed that Iraq wasn't ready to handle its security on its own and they wanted Obama to renegotiate the deal, the president did not.


We know what happened next. ISIS grew and metastasized. It seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, and Obama sent forces into those countries to combat the terrorist group.


To this day, the bulk of the D.C. echo chamber blames Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2011 and paving the way for the rise of ISIS. They conveniently ignore the fact that it was President Bush who signed the deal to withdraw U.S. troops. President Obama simply executed the deal handed to him by his predecessor. Why doesn't Bush get some of the blame for what happened in Iraq? After all, ISIS grew out of remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq prior to the Bush administrations 2003 invasion, but I digress.


A similar dynamic is playing out now with Afghanistan. In February 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban negotiated a deal that required the United States to withdraw all forces and contractors from Afghanistan within 14 months, which translated to the end of April 2021. In exchange, the Taliban was required to cut ties with terrorist groups and enter into peace talks with the Afghan government. It did the latter, at least to the point of meeting the letter of the agreement. It is still not clear the extent to which it has met its obligations regarding terrorist groups.


In April, President Biden announced that he would adhere to the agreement, but he was shifting the timeline to the right by a few months. Instead of getting the troops out by May 1, the United States would complete the withdrawal by September 11.


However, the media continue to frame it as a sudden (and ill-advised) decision by Biden to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The latest to do so is my friend and former NPR colleague Tom Bowman, who wrote a thorough and sobering piece about Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I have to take him to task for perpetuating this notion that the withdrawal from Afghanistan came out of the blue.


"When Biden announced that all U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, it caught many by surprise," Tom wrote. "Some are saying the abrupt withdrawal will only make matters worse," he continued.


Why did it catch people by surprise? The United States had a formal, written and signed agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all troops. That agreement had been in place for 14 months when Biden said he would extend the deadline by a few months.


What would have been a real surprise with real consequences would have been if Biden said he was throwing out the agreement and keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan (as many people in the Defense Department hoped). That would have meant returning to combat with the Taliban, and would have meant more American casualties--remember that under the U.S.-Taliban agreement the Taliban agreed not to attack U.S. forces and since February 2020 it adhered to that.


What I find most troubling about the framing of all of this as Biden's surprise decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is that it takes the Defense Department off the hook for doing next to nothing for 14 months to plan for the withdrawal and a post-withdrawal posture. Calling Biden's decision a sudden withdrawal says that no one took the U.S.-Taliban agreement seriously, or that somehow the United States was not obligated to honor the withdrawal provision.


I believe that the Defense Department was negligent in 2020. Yes, Trump made things far more complicated by the personnel moves and battles he unleashed in the department in his waning months, but I don't believe planners took the agreement seriously and used the time wisely to develop a plan to support the Afghan military and government post withdrawal. As a result, the Biden administration is still scrambling today to figure out how to do things like train and maintain Afghan forces and help the thousands of Afghan interpreters. "The secretary is still chewing over it," CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie recently said about post-withdrawal posture.


Just as Obama is forever blamed for "prematurely" withdrawing from Iraq and setting the stage for ISIS, Biden will be forever blamed for withdrawing from Afghanistan and whatever comes of that. Yet, in each case, they were executing agreements signed by their predecessors.


It would be refreshing to see a news story ask "was George Bush right to sign an agreement with Iraq that mandated the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of December 2011?" and "was Donald Trump right to sign an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan within 14 months?" Sure, it's fair to argue that Obama and Biden should have read the conditions on the ground and tried to renegotiate the deals they were handed. However, I would argue that the odds of cutting a new deal with the recalcitrant al-Maliki were close to zero, and the odds that the Taliban would have renegotiated and accepted a continued U.S. troop presence would also have been close to zero.


Since this post was inspired by Tom Bowman's July 3 piece, I have to comment on one other line in the story. Jeffrey Stacey, described as a longtime UN consultant in Afghanistan, said that Biden killed the Afghan peace process by withdrawing "right as NATO and Afghan forces were in the course of applying sufficient battlefield pressure needed to compel the Taliban to make concessions at the peace negotiations table in (Qatar)."


I disagree with that characterization. The Taliban had been slowly making battlefield gains. Military pressure was not driving the Taliban to make concessions in negotiations. The Trump administration was making concessions by reversing the long-held policy of not negotiating directly with the Taliban. The Taliban ultimately came to the negotiating table with the Afghan government because the Trump administration agreed to give the Taliban the one thing it had been fighting for all along--the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.


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