After a long period of silence from the White House about how the withdrawal from Afghanistan went so far off the tracks, we’re starting to get some details of the chaotic events that unfolded before the eyes of the world. One story revealed by NBC News this week seems to be particularly emblematic of the loss of control the United States experienced and the White House’s failure to anticipate how the Taliban would behave. This report provides details of a meeting in Qatar in late August between General Frank McKenzie (who is testifying before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees this week) and Taliban “political leader” Abdul Ghani Baradar. During the meeting, McKenzie brought a map of the region around Kabul with a large circle defining a perimeter around the city stretching tens of kilometers beyond the edges. He informed Baradar that until we finished evacuating our people, the Taliban would need to stay out of that region or we would hit them with airstrikes. Sounds like a solid plan, right?
In the final days of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a top American general met Taliban leaders in Qatar and warned them to keep their forces out of Kabul for a few more days or else face the threat of U.S. airstrikes.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, sat across from Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar and showed him a map with a circle around Kabul, about 20 to 30 km outside the city.
McKenzie told Ghani that Taliban fighters had to stay outside the circle or the U.S. would strike them. McKenzie explained the U.S. would finish its withdrawal as soon as possible and the Taliban must not interfere, three senior defense officials told NBC News.
After some back and forth, Baradar told McKenzie he could agree to not bringing any more Taliban fighters inside the circle, but there were some there already who would likely not agree to leave. The General found this to be a reasonable compromise and they settled on that plan. Baradar even offered to provide a liason to coordinate activities outside the airport and ensure the ability of the Americans to safely fly out.
The next day, Taliban fighters entered the city in force. As noted in the linked report, there were no airstrikes against the Taliban either inside the city or the large circle surrounding it in response to the breaking of the agreement. We all know what happened after that.
There’s no way to know if Baradar every actually meant what he said or if he was just trying to pacify the General while the Taliban finished organizing their forces. In retrospect, it probably doesn’t even matter. This is something we discussed here multiple times since the Taliban first started retaking territory across Afghanistan. That “political office” they set up in Qatar to conduct negotiations was strictly for show in terms of the actual situation on the ground inside the country.
There has been little indication that Baradar’s office was even able to communicate with their fighters in Afghanistan and even less that the fighters would have listened to any “orders” that Baradar issued as a result of the talks. He had two primary jobs to fulfill. One was to buy time for the Taliban fighters and convince the Americans not to inflict too much damage as they approached. The other was to negotiate with America, our allies in the country, and the international community to arrange for cash payments, foreign aid agreements, and anything else they could con their way into.
Looking back on what’s happened since then, we would have to grudgingly admit that Baradar’s office was pretty much a spectacular success on both counts. There were only a couple of American strikes for the remainder of the time the evacuation was going on and both of them were announced as being against ISIS-K, not the Taliban. Also, the money and aid are flowing in from multiple countries already and we still have no idea how much money and other aid the Biden administration gave them to buy more time.
Perhaps more of these questions will be answered during this week’s hearings. But don’t get your hopes up for any shining moments of success. It seems increasingly clear that we were played by the Taliban and they got the best of the deal in nearly every regard.