The US pullout from the Pentagon’s once-mighty Bagram Air Base in the dead of night, while Taliban fighters pour across the country, looks a lot like a military defeat. Back home, President Joe Biden sees a political win.
The US government calls its Afghan exit a “drawdown,” not a retreat. And it insists it will continue to support the increasingly vulnerable Afghan government from a distance.
However, the rapid, secretive extraction of all but a handful of the final US troops leaves no doubt about Biden’s one true priority: ending 20 years of fruitless warfare against a Taliban insurgency that could not be beaten.
Defeat or not, but the White House is blunt about the basic reality.
Afghanistan is “a war that the president continues to feel does not have a military solution,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday.
‘Concern for the world’
Biden originally set a deadline for the withdrawal of September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that first triggered US invasion of Afghanistan.
By Tuesday, though, 90 percent of the troops were already gone. The last will be out by the end of August, the Pentagon said.
As quickly as the American presence vanishes, so the Taliban force advances, sometimes taking over swaths of territory without a fight, sometimes engaging in bloody clashes.
The Afghan government claims that hundreds of Taliban died in the latest fighting, but there have also been signs of potential collapse in the US-built national army. On Monday, a thousand soldiers, rather than surrendering chose the better part of valor and fled across the border into Tajikistan.
The top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, has delivered an unusually blunt warning of chaotic civil war – a “concern for the world.”
Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump set the exit in motion when he struck a deal with the Taliban where US troops would get out by May 1. Biden, despite disagreeing with Trump on most things, changed the date but embraced the idea.
“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan,” Biden said in April. “I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
For all the gloom and doom inside Afghanistan, Biden has a firm focus on an entirely different picture back home: overwhelming public support for stopping the so-called “forever war.”
Amid warnings that the Taliban could commit atrocities, ban girls’ education or even renew its relationship with al-Qaeda, some say Biden should rethink his plans. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham calls the withdrawal “a disaster in the making.”
But John Mueller, a political science professor and foreign policy expert at Ohio State University, says that whatever the aftermath of the war, the most likely reaction from Americans will be to shrug.
“I don’t think the likely political ramifications are very great one way or the other. No one got shattered from the cosmic debacle in 1975 in Vietnam and there were no repercussions for Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983 or Clinton’s from Somalia in 1993,” he said.
“Americans are likely to give it little attention. They are good at that and are already working on it.”
Gordon Adams, a professor at American University’s School of International Service, said Biden was right “to cut bait.”
“I do not think there is a personal risk to Biden,” Adams said. “Afghanistan is not a popular war.”
Pentagon on secretive exit
The US military confirmed Tuesday that it did not give Afghan officials the precise time troops would abandon the strategic Bagram airbase for security reasons, even as it left the facility open to looters.
According to reports, Afghan military officials, including the general who will run the base in the future, complained that they were not told in advance that US forces would leave in the early hours last Friday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said senior Afghan political and military officials were told about the exit two days ahead and were given a walk-through of the sprawling base, the center of US and coalition operations against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgency for the past two decades.
“The exact hour of departure was not divulged for operational security purposes,” Kirby said in a press briefing.
“In general we felt it was better to keep that information as closely held as possible,” he added.
The US withdrawal must be “safe and orderly,” Kirby said, pointing to the constant threat the Taliban poses to US forces.
“I can’t speak to how the Afghans interpreted that decision,” he added, amid questions of whether it showed a fundamental distrust of US partner forces in the country.
“It’s not a statement about whether we trust or don’t trust our Afghan partners. It’s a statement of the fact that we have to consider that this drawdown could be contested by the Taliban. And we have to take that into consideration.”
“It was a turnover just like the previous six bases were turned over,” he went on.
The United States has moved quickly to pull out thousands of service personnel and civilian contractors since President Joe Biden ordered them to leave in April, setting a September deadline.
On Tuesday the US Central Command, which oversees Afghan operations, said the pullout was more than 90 percent complete.