The runup to the U.S. turning down a chance to control Kabul

(AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

Yesterday, Allahpundit dug into the stunning news that was buried in a lengthy Washington Post analysis of the fall of Kabul. (If you haven’t read the full WaPo piece yet you should give it a look. It’s full of previously unreported material that’s both stunning and alarming.) The top line that sent up all of the red flags was the news that the Taliban had offered the United States the option of retaining control of the city of Kabul until the evacuation was complete but we turned them down. On the surface, that decision sounds so comically inept that Mark Thiessen had the only take on it that seemed required.

The incompetence is stunning.”

That may still prove to be the correct analysis, but there are a lot of layers to this onion. Today I wanted to dig into some of the activities that preceded this decision in the final weeks of Ghani’s government, but first I’ll add a couple of observations to AP’s analysis.

Allahpundit makes a valid case that the Biden administration will be able to defend the decision to cede control of the city by saying they barely had enough troops to control the airport and couldn’t have covered all of the required checkpoints on the routes leading to the gates. Perhaps, though it didn’t take more than a day for Biden to ship in a few thousand extra troops to help with the evacuation. With a couple more days that number could have been expended to tens of thousands if the will had existed to maintain control. As AP suggested, there will almost certainly be congressional hearings in the aftermath of this fiasco where all of that will be sorted out.

I would also remind everyone, however, that the Taliban’s “offer” to leave Kabul under American control was made in Doha by their political office. As we’ve observed here repeatedly, the promises made in that office rarely match up with the actions taken by the Taliban leaders and fighters on the ground inside the country. In order to buy this version of events, we would have to believe that all of the Taliban fighters, fresh off of their sweeping victories in taking back the rest of the entire nation would happily sit on their hands outside of the city for weeks while the Americans roamed the streets of the Capital. Color me dubious about that scenario.

With that out of the way, I wanted to touch on the rather lengthy history the WaPo provided of the final weeks of Ashraf Ghani’s presidency. Little had been reported on these events before this, with the only news we were seeing dealing with the way that he suddenly ghosted his nation just as the Taliban arrived. But it turns out that there had been plenty of warning about the Taliban’s imminent takeover for weeks, if not months in advance. And while many of his aides were warning him that action was required, Ghani mostly ignored them and focused on other things.

Even as a cascade of provincial capitals fell — starting with Zaranj in the far southwest on Aug. 6, and continuing through two dozen others over the nine days that followed — the president appeared distracted.

“Ghani would want to talk about digitization of the economy,” said the official, referring to the president’s plan for a government salary payment system. “It had nothing to do with the dire threat.”

As late as the Saturday afternoon before Kabul fell, Ghani did not suggest any urgency around departure arrangements or the safety of senior staff.

Receiving one adviser in the palace gardens, and speaking in his characteristic soft tones, he made arrangements to shore up the country’s economy. He was supposed to address the nation later that night. But he never did.

This pattern had been going on for weeks. Ghani’s security officials had come to him asking permission to shift some troops around to shore up entry points to the city and key junctions inside. Ghani waved them away, saying there would be plenty of time to do that later. Even as the Taliban were approaching the outskirts of Kabul, he was in the palace preparing a speech that he planned to give that evening on how he would shore up the nation’s economy. If there is a better analogy to Nero fiddling while Rome burned, I can’t think of one.

And then, in the middle of the following day, Ghani was gone. He took his wife and some key aides out to a helicopter and departed for Uzbekistan. From there they headed to the UAE. If the Russian embassy is to be believed, he lifted well over $100 million in cash to go with him. Even the Americans were taken by surprise.

Within the palace, too, the illusion of calm was being punctured. Around midday, much of the staff had been dismissed for lunch. While they were gone, according to officials, a top adviser informed the president that militants had entered the palace and were going room to room looking for him.

That does not appear to have been true. The Taliban had announced that while its fighters were at the edges of Kabul, having entered through the city’s main checkpoints after security forces withdrew, it did not intend to take over violently. There was an agreement in place for a peaceful transition, and the group intended to honor it.

Yet that wasn’t the message that was being delivered to Ghani. The president was told by his closest aides that he needed to get out — fast.

The takeaway from that portion of the coverage is a story of two presidents, Joe Biden and Ashraf Ghani, who were completely in denial. Up to the very end, they both seemed to believe that the Afghan government would hold up for weeks, if not months and that there would be some sort of orderly transition. Ghani’s final decision to flee is perhaps a bit more understandable when you consider what happened to the Russian-backed Afghan president after the Soviet Union departed. (The Taliban disemboweled him and hung his body from a traffic light.) But even still, there was a total collapse of leadership and a failure to read the warning signs and take preventative measures. Kabul was probably always going to fall, but it didn’t have to work out the way it did.