Updated at 2:10 p.m. ET on August 27, 2021.
Who, exactly, is responsible for today’s calamity in Afghanistan? ISIS appears to be the author of this tragedy, but are American officials at fault as well? At least 12 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghan civilians are dead after an attack by a suicide bomber just outside the Kabul airport. The number of casualties is sure to rise.
For that matter, who will Americans blame when they think about the image of desperate Afghans clinging to a departing C-17? Even before the bombings in Kabul, the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan had been intermittently chaotic—some of those lucky enough to escape were transferred to rat- and feces-infested holding facilities in Qatar. A lost war is ending much as it began 20 years ago, with a gruesome terrorist attack targeting Americans.
Prior to today’s attack, Congress had already opened hearings into the Biden administration’s handling of the Afghanistan pullout, though Washington has its own ideas of who was culpable. A recent Politico story distilled the city’s insistence on finding and shaming a scapegoat in its headline “The Blob Turns on Jake”—a reference to the foreign-policy establishment’s current view of Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas, a Republican and ex–Navy SEAL who lost his right eye in an explosion while serving in Afghanistan, singled out Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week. At a private briefing with lawmakers, Blinken said the U.S. expected to extract all Americans from Afghanistan by President Joe Biden’s August 31 deadline, Crenshaw told me. “I don’t like the way the secretary of state toed the line for Biden,” he said. “No sane person believes that.”
Others are looking outside the White House. When I spoke with Representative Adam Schiff of California on Tuesday, he pointed to the Pentagon. “With all the contingency planning that the Pentagon does, it seems inexplicable that we didn’t have a better plan for how this ends,” Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told me. Then there are those blaming the intelligence community, specifically whoever drew the erroneous conclusion that the Afghan military could keep the Taliban at bay for months. “If I were in his [Biden’s] shoes, I would examine all the folks dealing with this intelligence—I’d be pretty pissed off,” Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey told me.
Today’s casualties also cast doubt on a core claim that Biden has used to justify the troop pullout—that even without a military presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. can still stave off terrorist attacks. General Kenneth McKenzie of U.S. Central Command said in a briefing today that the airlift from Kabul would continue, despite the threat of terrorist attacks ahead of the August 31 withdrawal date. As of this writing, about 1,000 Americans are still in Afghanistan. Biden has pledged to leave none behind. If anyone remains stranded, Biden’s unfulfilled promise may haunt his presidency for the rest of the term, while providing propaganda fodder for terrorists.
No top-level administration firings appear imminent. A high-profile housecleaning ordered by Biden would amount to a profound admission of error that Republicans would eagerly exploit in next year’s midterms and in the 2024 presidential election. For now, the White House remains focused on evacuating Americans and the Afghan interpreters, aid workers, and soldiers who helped the U.S. in the war effort. Rather than firing people in the near term, the administration is preparing to bring in more staff to help resettle the Afghans who’ve fled the country, a person familiar with the planning told me.
Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is one that a large majority of Americans favor, and have for years. It’s something he’s long wanted to do. In 2009, he spoke privately to Barack Obama about the then-president’s plans to temporarily add 30,000 troops to the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. As he walked with Obama from the White House residence into the Oval Office, Biden tried to dissuade the president from a “surge” that proved to be a futile attempt to beat back the Taliban. Warning Obama about the advice coming from the military, Biden said: “If you let them roll you, you’ll be their puppy for the next four years,” according to a person familiar with the conversation. “Joe, I’d like to see you be president for five minutes to see how you’d do it,” this person said was Obama’s reply.
“Biden is a stubborn guy,” one former Obama-administration foreign-policy official told me, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “Sometimes he does not want to hear what he knows he doesn’t like … If the problem here was mostly not hearing what he didn’t want to hear and telling everyone to shut up and go away when they told him things he didn’t want to hear, that’s not the intelligence community’s fault.”
How Biden went about ending U.S. participation in the Afghanistan war has ignited the biggest foreign-policy scandal in the eight months of his presidency. Any evaluation of who should be held accountable for the humanitarian mess centers on two points, one technical, the other political. Biden has said that the “consensus” advice he received was that Afghanistan would not fall to the Taliban until later this year, meaning he thought the U.S. had time to conduct an orderly evacuation. That rosy projection would have come from America’s raft of intelligence agencies, along with military officials who trained the Afghan army and diplomats who supposedly understood the staying power of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. “Whoever was saying that was wrong, tragically wrong,” Dick Harpootlian, a longtime Biden political ally and a Democratic South Carolina state senator, told me. “If I know Joe Biden, I know he’s going to remember who told him that.”
Yet Biden also needed to weigh the risks against his long-held view that the U.S. must finally extricate itself from a pointless war. At bottom, that’s a political decision. And to make a smart choice, Biden needed unsparing candor from the senior national security advisers he’s assembled, among them Blinken and Sullivan. They share a certain biographical affinity: Both are in the most prominent jobs of their lives because of Biden (each served as his national security adviser while he was vice president). Neither has a power base or constituency independent of Biden. And that may make them more inclined to yield to his predilections. Any White House is prey to this sort of deference.
Brett Bruen, an official in Obama’s National Security Council, recalled a meeting in the Situation Room in 2014 involving Russia. Aides had come in prepared to make a recommendation, and “as soon as a number of people saw the president heading in another direction, no one was willing to tell him, ‘Sir, I think this is important enough for a closer examination,’” he told me. “The way you get ahead in this team is by validating and amplifying what your principal wants to hear.” Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton and the head of the Pentagon and CIA under Obama, told me: “It’s pretty clear that people around [Biden], even though they pointed out the problems, just knew that he was very intent on moving as quickly as we could. So, how do you deal with that? From my experience, it’s really important to have advisers who are willing to look the president in the eye and say, ‘You’re making a mistake. There’s a better way to do this.’”
A president can, of course, grow in the job by applying hard lessons from past failures. Following the botched attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion, John F. Kennedy ousted his CIA director, Allen Dulles. “Under a parliamentary system of government, it is I who would be leaving office,” Kennedy told him. “But under our system, it is you who must go.” During the Cuban missile crisis a year later, Kennedy relied on a more informal national-security advisory group, “ExComm,” that would on occasion meet without him so that he didn’t inhibit anyone from speaking their mind.
In time, Biden will doubtlessly find someone to punish. Too much has gone wrong to leave voters with the impression that there wasn’t any accountability. But demoting or disempowering or reassigning someone immediately only obscures the uncomfortable reality that mistakes in Afghanistan spanned four presidencies, resulting in lives needlessly lost and taxpayer money inexcusably wasted. During a speech earlier this month, Biden said, “The buck stops with me.” This was after he blamed a fractious Afghan government and the Afghan military for refusing to fight. (That last point sparked outrage among national-security experts who pointed to the high Afghan death toll. “He said they didn’t fight for their country. Yes, they did fight for their country! They lost 70,000 soldiers,” Lisa Curtis, a senior director for South and Central Asia in Donald Trump’s National Security Council, told me.)
“Could this have been handled better? For sure, and we should look at what went wrong and why it went wrong and who made what decisions,” Ivo Daalder, who was the U.S. ambassador to NATO during Obama’s first term, told me. That said, he added, “the reason the government collapsed is not because of Jake Sullivan or Lloyd Austin. The reason the government collapsed is because we have fooled ourselves into believing that our support for the Afghan government was sufficient and it would ultimately stand on its own feet. And it didn’t. There’s been 20 years of failed policy.”
Biden, speaking at the White House late this afternoon, vowed to find and punish the attacker. “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget.”
“America will not be intimidated,” he added. What is notable about this statement is that Biden was essentially promising the American people that he would hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan, no matter what the price. This wouldn’t be the first time Americans have heard this promise from their president.
This story has been updated to reflect that a single suicide bomber carried out the attack in Kabul, according to the Pentagon. Military officials had previously stated that two suicide bombers were involved.