This is the first part of a Fox News Digital Originals series about the fall of Kabul and the hectic and heroic 96-hour effort to evacuate Afghans fearing retribution from the Taliban.
America’s war in Afghanistan ended in calamity. Around 120,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in just a matter of days, but the herculean, if chaotic effort made the airport a prime target for a terrorist attack that killed nearly 200, including 13 U.S. service members.
But exactly how did Afghanistan, a nation with a military the U.S. trained for 20 years, so quickly fall to the Taliban and instability? How did Kabul become a frenzied site where tens of thousands of people were simultaneously trying to flee the country through the same escape route?
“It was just a compilation of events that led to this precipitous fall,” a former senior Defense Department official, Mick Mulroy, told Fox News.
President Biden repeatedly reiterated his commitment to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, even as the Taliban swept through the country at a speed that, according to a spokesperson, surprised even the Taliban.
Biden also repeatedly blamed the Afghan army for giving up rather than fighting the Taliban once the U.S. troops began to depart.
But the reality is more nuanced.
Afghanistan’s fall and a bottleneck at the Kabul airport were results of a combination of complementary factors, laid out by experts who spoke with Fox News: the peace deal’s effects on the Afghan government and military’s morale and confidence; the U.S.-trained Afghan army’s reliance on air support; the Taliban’s highly effective military and diplomatic strategies; and the U.S.’ failure to hold a crucial air base and keep the Taliban out of Kabul until it completed its evacuation.
A peace agreement violated
The Trump administration’s February 2020 peace deal crushed the Afghan government and military’s confidence, according to the Afghanistan experts. When Biden reaffirmed his commitment to the deal in April 2021, morale decayed further and simultaneously emboldened the Taliban just as the fighting season began.
“I think it was a mistake to negotiate with the Taliban,” Mulroy, the Trump-era deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, told Fox News. “It was essentially a negotiation for our surrender.”
“It was clear that the way the U.S. treated the negotiations to depart essentially excluded [the Afghan government] as even relevant in it,” Mulroy continued.
The peace deal required the Taliban and the Afghan government to enter peace talks, which ultimately fell apart.
“The current administration had no obligation to carry through on that agreement,” said Mulroy, an ABC News national security analyst. “It had been violated, and they chose not to carry through on a lot of agreements of the previous administration.
“So, the idea that their hands were tied, I think is just not true.”
Regardless, Biden announced that he would still withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
“When President Biden announced the complete troop withdrawal on April 14, it really registers among Afghans as a vote of no confidence in the Afghan government, as well as the Afghan army,” Elliot Ackerman, an author and a former Marine and CIA intelligence officer, told Fox News.
“What you begin to see is a crisis of confidence and a complete collapse of those institutions, particularly as this announcement is made in the lead-up to the fighting season,” Ackerman continued. “When that fighting season begins, we see a very intense Taliban offensive that leads to one city in one key bit of strategic terrain falling after another, culminating in the fall of Kabul in August.”
Taliban fighters pose for photograph in Kabul on Aug. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
Americans largely supported withdrawing from Afghanistan, polls conducted during the Trump administration and into Biden’s presidency found, though a recent survey showed they disfavored how Biden handled the pullout.
Ackerman pointed to a 2018 Rasmussen poll that found 42% either believed the U.S. was no longer at war in Afghanistan or didn’t know. Mulroy noted that surveys have shown decreasing support when respondents are asked if they would favor withdrawal if it meant the return of the Taliban or al Qaeda.
“This idea of an ‘endless war’ is more of a political slogan,” Mulroy told Fox News.
Ackerman said: “Somewhere in our American narrative, we seem to have got in our head that wars end when all the troops come home, that it’s a prerequisite for a war ending. If you look historically, that has never been the case.”
Ackerman and Mulroy both pointed to Germany, South Korea and Japan – all nations where U.S. forces fought during war and remained afterward.
“In fact, the troops only all come home when we lose wars,” Ackerman said. “We leave troops behind to secure peace.”
“And that is what led to this calamitous situation in Afghanistan,” he continued.
Mulroy said U.S. casualties could remain low and stability could be maintained if the military kept 7,500 troops in Afghanistan.
“The Afghans were doing 98% of the fighting by the time we entered this so-called peace agreement,” Mulroy, a former Marine and retired CIA paramilitary operations officer, told Fox News.
“The way we set up their military had them essentially dependent on our support,” he continued, specifically highlighting U.S. air operations.
It was an Afghan army facing declines in both morale and air support that faced the Taliban’s emboldened aggression.
A strategic, swift sweep
The Taliban rapidly seized rural territory – sometimes by force, sometimes through negotiated surrenders – giving them control over the highways and the ability to prevent supplies from reaching more fortified outposts and urban centers.
It proved highly effective.
The Taliban controlled 77 of Afghanistan’s 421 districts when Biden announced his commitment to withdraw the troops by Sept. 11 (though he’d later move that to Aug. 31), according to the Long War Journal.
By early August, that nearly tripled to 223 districts. They were contesting another 116.
“We started seeing the Taliban essentially envelope provincial capitals without going in,” Mulroy told Fox News. “And what we saw them doing was essentially letting everybody know that as soon as this withdrawal happened that they would be taking over these towns.
“And there wouldn’t be air support, our air support, to stop them.”
While it’s true, as Biden claimed, that some outposts surrendered without a fight, many others fought until their defeat.
In many places, the Taliban outnumbered Afghan forces, according to Mulroy. More than 1,400 Afghan security forces were killed from May through July, The New York Times reports.
“For those that have fought alongside them, we know that when put to the task, we’ve seen them fight,” Mulroy told Fox News. “We’ve seen them not only give up their lives fighting the Taliban, but save ours.”
“But another aspect … is every time we try to create a military in a mirror image force of our own, it does not do well when we withdraw our support,” he added.
“We’ve designed that force to fight with a significant air component,” Mulroy said. Many Afghan units had “to totally change the way they fought, and they were incapable of doing it.”
An Afghan National Army soldier alert during an exercise near a military base. (AP Photo)
As a result, the Taliban were able to seize rural outposts, often defended by a small number of undersupplied forces who had often not been paid in weeks or months. It also gave them access to the Afghan forces’ weapons and equipment.
“That is some of the most sophisticated in the world, now in the hands of the Taliban,” Mulroy said. “So, their army went from a militia, which is the one we defeated in 2001, to now one of the best equipped militaries out there. It’s a shocking scenario that has played out in the worst possible way.”
The mounting victories and improved armaments became powerful tools when the Taliban demanded surrender.
The Afghan troops “also saw, of course, that the international community didn’t seem to be behind them in any way or any fashion,” Mulroy said.
Taliban commanders would promise not to kill district chiefs and their men if they surrendered. The commanders would also often offer cash payments and even rides home to anyone who agreed.
Additionally, the Taliban were leveraging Afghanistan’s tribal nature.
“It’s never been a really unified country with a strong central government,” Mulroy told Fox News. “It’s always been the tribes.”
“They figure out a way to deal with whichever power happens to be there, and they also have to, for their own survivability, determine when that’s about to change,” he continued. “And I think the constant talk about us wanting to depart, the lack of any real negotiations when it came to not even including the Afghans that were the official government we’ve been working for for 20 years, I think sent a message to the tribes that ‘you better start looking for another alliance.’”
The Taliban surrounded the provincial capitals but didn’t begin seizing them until Aug. 6.
“We started seeing the country fall,” Mulroy said. “We hadn’t even withdrawn yet.”
“They saw they had the momentum from a military perspective and just kept going and going and going because they wanted it to become a fait accompli,” he told Fox News.
Despite the Taliban’s quick sweep across Afghanistan and through the capitals, Biden still refused to extend the U.S.’ withdrawal date. In fact, he told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the “perception” that the country was struggling against the Taliban needed to change “whether it is true or not,” Reuters reported.
The U.S. had ample warning based on intelligence community assessments and should have seen the government’s collapse coming, Mulroy told Fox News.
Ackerman told Fox News: “By Aug. 10, the fall of Kabul is inevitable.”
Ghani fled Kabul on Aug. 15, and the Taliban took the city.
Bogged down without Bagram
The Taliban quickly established checkpoints throughout Kabul, including around the airport – the most practical means for Americans and their Afghan allies to flee the country, since the U.S. closed its airfields, including Bagram Air Base.
“We essentially allowed the Taliban to come into the Kabul region, which threw all of our evacuation plans into disarray,” Mulroy told Fox News. “We certainly had the capacity to keep them out.”
Ackerman said: “With the fall of Kabul, that’s when the cries for help from Afghanistan become overwhelming.”
Beyond the approximately 6,000 American citizens that needed to be evacuated, tens of thousands of Afghans who feared retribution from the Taliban, including interpreters who helped the U.S. military, also sought to flee.
“One need only look at a map to recognize that Afghanistan is a landlocked country,” Ackerman told Fox News. “So any withdrawal is going to have to occur by air.”
“As the United States is collapsing and shutting air bases, it puts itself in a position where there ultimately is only one point of egress, and that becomes Kabul airport,” he continued.
Ackerman also noted how a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Seth Moulton, sent a letter to the White House asking for a plan to evacuate the U.S.’ Afghan allies.
“That letter was met with silence,” Ackerman told Fox News.
The U.S. left Bagram on July 2 in the middle of the night. Ackerman said that decision “only adds to the calamitous nature of the final withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Had it remained in U.S. hands, it could have served as an additional airfield for evacuations – one that the Taliban didn’t control.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the U.S. left Bagram because there weren’t enough troops to defend both it and the embassy in Kabul.
“It’s a false choice,” Ackerman said. “President Biden only need authorize Gen. Milley to have the troops he needs to keep both the U.S. Embassy and Bagram Air Base open at the same time.”
Instead, the U.S. exclusively used the Kabul airport and relied on the Taliban, its enemy for 20 years, for security from other adversaries. ISIS-K, a regional faction of the Islamic State, ultimately carried out the attack that killed nearly 200 people.
Ethan Barton is a producer/reporter on for Digital Originals. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ethanrbarton.