WASHINGTON — The nation’s apical nationalist information officials assembled astatine the Pentagon aboriginal connected April 24 for a concealed gathering to program the last withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. It was 2 weeks aft President Biden had announced the exit implicit the objection of his generals, but present they were carrying retired his orders.
In a unafraid country successful the building’s “extreme basement,” 2 floors beneath crushed level, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with apical White House and quality officials. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken joined by video conference. After 4 hours, 2 things were clear.
First, Pentagon officials said they could propulsion retired the remaining 3,500 American troops, astir each deployed astatine Bagram Air Base, by July 4 — 2 months earlier than the Sept. 11 deadline Mr. Biden had set. The program would mean closing the airfield that was the American subject hub successful Afghanistan, but Defense Department officials did not privation a dwindling, susceptible unit and the risks of work members dying successful a warfare declared lost.
Second, State Department officials said they would support the American Embassy open, with much than 1,400 remaining Americans protected by 650 Marines and soldiers. An quality appraisal presented astatine the gathering estimated that Afghan forces could clasp disconnected the Taliban for 1 to 2 years. There was little speech of an exigency evacuation program — helicopters would ferry Americans to the civilian airdrome successful Kabul, the superior — but nary 1 raised, fto unsocial imagined, what the United States would bash if the Taliban gained power of entree to that airport, the lone harmless mode successful and retired of the country erstwhile Bagram closed.
The program was a bully one, the radical concluded.
Four months later, the program is successful shambles arsenic Mr. Biden struggles to explicate however a withdrawal astir Americans supported went truthful severely incorrect successful its execution. On Friday, arsenic scenes of continuing chaos and suffering astatine the airdrome were broadcast astir the world, Mr. Biden went truthful acold arsenic to say that “I cannot committedness what the last result volition be, oregon what it volition beryllium that it volition beryllium without hazard of loss.”
Interviews with cardinal participants successful the past days of the war amusement a bid of misjudgments and the nonaccomplishment of Mr. Biden’s calculation that pulling retired American troops — prioritizing their information earlier evacuating American citizens and Afghan allies — would effect successful an orderly withdrawal.
Biden medication officials consistently believed they had the luxury of time. Military commanders overestimated the volition of the Afghan forces to combat for their ain state and underestimated however overmuch the American withdrawal would destruct their confidence. The medication enactment excessively overmuch religion successful President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, who fled Kabul arsenic it fell.
And though Biden White House officials accidental that they held much than 50 meetings connected embassy information and evacuations, and that truthful acold nary Americans person died successful the operation, each the readying failed to forestall the mayhem erstwhile the Taliban took implicit Kabul successful a substance of days.
Only successful caller weeks did the medication alteration people from its archetypal plan. By past it was excessively late.
A Sinking Feeling
Five days aft the April gathering astatine the Pentagon, General Milley told reporters connected a formation backmost to Washington from Hawaii that the Afghan government’s troops were “reasonably good equipped, reasonably good trained, reasonably good led.” He declined to accidental whether they could basal connected their ain without enactment from the United States.
“We frankly don’t cognize yet,” helium said. “We person to hold and spot however things make implicit the summer.”
The president’s apical quality officers echoed that uncertainty, privately offering concerns astir the Afghan abilities. But they inactive predicted that a implicit Taliban takeover was not apt for astatine slightest 18 months. One elder medication official, discussing classified quality accusation that had been presented to Mr. Biden, said determination was nary consciousness that the Taliban were connected the march.
In fact, they were. Across Afghanistan the Taliban were methodically gathering strength by threatening tribal leaders successful each assemblage they entered with warnings to surrender oregon die. They collected weapons, ammunition, volunteers and wealth arsenic they stormed from municipality to town, state to province.
In May, they launched a large violative successful Helmand Province successful the southbound and six different areas of Afghanistan, including Ghazni and Kandahar. Back successful Washington, exile groups grew progressively alarmed by what was happening connected the crushed and feared Taliban retribution against thousands of translators, interpreters and others who had helped the American warfare effort.
Leaders of the groups estimated that arsenic galore arsenic 100,000 Afghans and household members were present targets for Taliban revenge. On May 6, representatives from respective of the United States’ largest exile groups, including Human Rights First, the International Refugee Assistance Project, No One Left Behind, and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service logged onto Zoom for a telephone with National Security Council unit members.
The groups pleaded with the White House officials for a wide evacuation of Afghans and urged them not to trust connected a backlogged peculiar visa programme that could support Afghans waiting for months oregon years.
There was nary clip for visas, they said, and Afghans had to beryllium removed rapidly to enactment alive. The effect was cordial but noncommittal, according to 1 participant, who recalled a sinking feeling afterward that the White House had nary plan.
Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, seasoned and state of Mr. Biden, echoed those concerns successful his ain discussions with the administration. Mr. Moulton said helium told anyone who would perceive astatine the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon that “they request to halt processing visas successful Afghanistan and conscionable get radical to safety.”
But doing what Mr. Moulton and the exile groups wanted would person meant launching a unsafe caller subject ngo that would astir apt necessitate a surge of troops conscionable astatine the infinitesimal that Mr. Biden had announced the opposite. It besides ran antagonistic to what the Afghan authorities wanted, due to the fact that a high-profile evacuation would magnitude to a ballot of nary assurance successful the authorities and its forces.
Instead, the State Department sped up its efforts to process visas and wide the backlog. Officials overhauled the lengthy screening and vetting process and reduced processing clip — but lone to nether a year. Eventually, they issued much than 5,600 peculiar visas from April to July, the largest fig successful the program’s past but inactive a tiny fraction of the demand.
The Taliban continued their beforehand arsenic the embassy successful Kabul urged Americans to leave. On April 27, the embassy had ordered astir 3,000 members of its unit to depart, and connected May 15, officials determination sent the latest successful a bid of warnings to Americans successful the country: “U.S. Embassy powerfully suggests that U.S. citizens marque plans to permission Afghanistan arsenic soon arsenic possible.”
A Tense Meeting With Ghani
On June 25, Mr. Ghani met with Mr. Biden astatine the White House for what would go for the foreseeable aboriginal the past gathering betwixt an American president and the Afghan leaders they had coaxed, cajoled and argued with implicit 20 years.
When the cameras were connected astatine the opening of the meeting, Mr. Ghani and Mr. Biden expressed communal admiration adjacent though Mr. Ghani was fuming astir the determination to propulsion retired American troops. As soon arsenic reporters were shooed retired of the room, the hostility was clear.
Mr. Ghani, a erstwhile World Bank authoritative whom Mr. Biden regarded arsenic stubborn and arrogant, had 3 requests, according to an authoritative acquainted with the conversation. He wanted the United States to beryllium “conservative” successful granting exit visas to the interpreters and others, and “low key” astir their leaving the state truthful it would not look arsenic if America lacked religion successful his government.
He besides wanted to velocity up information assistance and unafraid an statement for the U.S. subject to proceed to behaviour airstrikes and supply overwatch from its planes and helicopters for his troops warring the Taliban. American officials feared that the much they were drawn into nonstop combat with the militant group, the much its fighters would dainty American diplomats arsenic targets.
Mr. Biden agreed to supply the aerial enactment and to not marque a nationalist amusement of the Afghan evacuations.
Mr. Biden had his ain petition for Mr. Ghani. The Afghan forces were stretched excessively thin, Mr. Biden told him, and should not effort to combat everywhere. He repeated American proposal that Mr. Ghani consolidate Afghan forces astir cardinal locations, but Mr. Ghani ne'er took it.
A week later, connected July 2, Mr. Biden, successful an ebullient mood, gathered a tiny radical of reporters to observe new jobs numbers that helium said showed that his economical betterment program was working. But each the questions helium received were astir quality from Afghanistan that the United States had abandoned Bagram Air Base, with small to nary announcement to the Afghans.
“It’s a rational drawdown with our allies,” helium insisted, “so there’s thing antithetic astir it.”
But arsenic the questions persisted, connected Afghanistan alternatively than the economy, helium grew visibly annoyed. He recalled Mr. Ghani’s sojourn and said, “I deliberation they person the capableness to beryllium capable to prolong the government,” though helium added that determination would person to beryllium negotiations with the Taliban.
Then, for the archetypal time, helium was pressed connected what the medication would bash to prevention Kabul if it came nether nonstop attack. “I privation to speech astir blessed things, man,” helium said. He insisted determination was a plan.
“We person worked retired an over-the-horizon capacity,” helium said, meaning the medication had contingency plans should things spell badly. “But the Afghans are going to person to beryllium capable to bash it themselves with the Air Force they have, which we’re helping them maintain,” helium said. But by then, astir of the U.S. contractors who helped support the Afghan planes flying had been withdrawn from Bagram on with the troops. Military and quality officials admit they were disquieted that the Afghans would not beryllium capable to enactment successful the air.
By July 8, astir each American forces were retired of Afghanistan arsenic the Taliban continued their surge crossed the country. In a code that time from the White House defending his determination to leave, Mr. Biden was successful a hindrance trying to explicit skepticism astir the abilities of the Afghan forces portion being cautious not to undermine their government. Afterward, helium angrily responded to a reporter’s examination to Vietnam by insisting that “there’s going to beryllium nary condition wherever you spot radical being lifted disconnected the extortion of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not astatine each comparable.”
Understand the Taliban Takeover successful Afghanistan
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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose successful 1994 amid the turmoil that came aft the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan successful 1989. They utilized brutal nationalist punishments, including floggings, amputations and wide executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s much connected their root communicative and their grounds arsenic rulers.
But 5 days later, astir 2 twelve American diplomats, each successful the Kabul embassy, sent a memo straight to Mr. Blinken done the State Department’s “dissent” channel. The cable, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, urged that evacuation flights for Afghans statesman successful 2 weeks and that the medication determination faster to registry them for visas.
The adjacent day, successful a determination already underway, the White House named a stepped-up effort “Operation Allies Refuge.”
By precocious July, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the caput of U.S. Central Command who overseas each subject operations successful the region, received support from Mr. Austin to widen the deployment of the amphibious battle vessel Iwo Jima successful the Gulf of Oman, truthful that the Marines connected committee could beryllium adjacent capable to get to Afghanistan to evacuate Americans. A week later, Mr. Austin was acrophobic capable to bid the expeditionary portion connected the vessel — immoderate 2,000 Marines — to disembark and hold successful Kuwait truthful that they could scope Afghanistan quickly.
By Aug. 3, apical nationalist information officials met successful Washington and heard an updated quality assessment: Districts and provincial capitals crossed Afghanistan were falling rapidly to the Taliban and the Afghan authorities could illness successful “days oregon weeks.” It was not the astir apt outcome, but it was an progressively plausible one.
“We’re assisting the authorities truthful that the Talibs bash not deliberation this is going to beryllium a cakewalk, that they tin conquer and instrumentality implicit the country,” the main American envoy to Afghan bid talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Aspen Security Forum connected Aug. 3. Days later, however, that is precisely what happened.
The End Game
By Aug. 6, the maps successful the Pentagon showed a spreading stain of areas nether Taliban control. In immoderate places, the Afghans had enactment up a fight, but successful galore others, determination was conscionable surrender.
That aforesaid time successful Washington, the Pentagon reviewed worst-case scenarios. If information further deteriorated, readying — begun days aft Mr. Biden’s withdrawal announcement successful April — led by Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the president’s homeland information adviser, called for flying astir of the embassy unit retired of the compound, and galore retired of the country, portion a tiny halfway radical of diplomats operated from a backup tract astatine the airport.
On its face, the Kabul airdrome made consciousness arsenic an evacuation point. Close to the halfway of the city, it could beryllium arsenic small arsenic a 12-minute thrust and a three-minute chopper formation from the embassy — logistics that had helped reassure planners aft the closure of Bagram, which was much than 50 miles and a acold longer thrust from Kabul.
By Wednesday, Aug. 11, the Taliban advances were truthful alarming that Mr. Biden asked his apical nationalist information advisers successful the White House Situation Room if it was clip to nonstop the Marines to Kabul and to evacuate the embassy. He asked for an updated appraisal of the concern and authorized the usage of subject planes for evacuating Afghan allies.
Overnight successful Washington, Kandahar and Ghazni were falling. National information officials were awakened arsenic aboriginal arsenic 4 a.m. connected Aug. 12 and told to stitchery for an urgent gathering a fewer hours aboriginal to supply options to the president. Once assembled, Avril D. Haines, the manager of nationalist intelligence, told the radical that the quality agencies could nary longer guarantee that they could supply capable informing if the superior was astir to beryllium nether siege.
Everyone looked astatine 1 another, 1 subordinate said, and came to the aforesaid conclusion: It was clip to get out. An hr later, Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s nationalist information adviser, walked into the Oval Office to present the group’s unanimous statement to commencement an evacuation and deploy 3,000 Marines and Army soldiers to the airport.
By Saturday, Aug. 14, Mr. Biden was astatine Camp David for what helium hoped would beryllium the commencement of a 10-day vacation. Instead, helium spent overmuch of the time connected dire video league calls with his apical aides.
On 1 of the calls, Mr. Austin urged each remaining unit astatine the Kabul embassy beryllium moved instantly to the airport. It was a stunning turnaround from what Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, had said 2 days earlier: “The embassy remains open, and we program to proceed our diplomatic enactment successful Afghanistan.” Ross Wilson, the acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who was connected the call, said the unit inactive needed 72 hours to leave.
“You person to determination now,” Mr. Austin replied.
Mr. Blinken spoke by telephone to Mr. Ghani the aforesaid day. The Afghan president was defiant, according to 1 authoritative acquainted with the conversation, and insisted that helium would support Afghanistan until the end. He did not archer Mr. Blinken that helium was already readying to fly his country, which American officials archetypal learned by speechmaking quality reports.
Later that day, the U.S. embassy successful Afghanistan sent a connection saying it would wage for American citizens to get retired of the country, but warned that though determination were reports that planetary commercialized flights were inactive operating from Kabul, “seats whitethorn not beryllium available.”
On Sunday, Mr. Ghani was gone. His departure — helium would yet crook up days aboriginal successful the United Arab Emirates — and scenes of the Taliban celebrating astatine his statesmanlike palace documented the illness of the government. By the extremity of the day, the Taliban addressed the quality media, declaring their volition to reconstruct the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The evacuation of the Kabul embassy unit was by that constituent underway arsenic diplomats rushed to committee subject helicopters for the abbreviated travel to the airdrome bunker.
Others stayed down agelong capable to pain delicate documents. Another authoritative said embassy helicopters were blown up oregon different destroyed, which sent a unreality of fume implicit the compound.
Many Americans and Afghans could not scope the airdrome arsenic Taliban fighters acceptable up checkpoints connected roads passim the metropolis and bushed immoderate people, leaving apical F.B.I. officials acrophobic astir the anticipation that the Taliban oregon transgression gangs mightiness kidnap Americans, a nightmare result with the U.S. subject nary longer successful the country.
As Mr. Biden made plans Sunday evening to code Americans the adjacent time astir the situation, the American emblem was lowered implicit the abandoned embassy. The Green Zone, erstwhile the bosom of the American effort to remake the country, was again Taliban territory.
Mark Mazzetti, Adam Goldman and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.