Friday, September 03, 2021

Timeline: Why Biden's Call With Ghani Matters


AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Joe Biden came into office inheriting the war in Afghanistan. But unlike previous presidents, he inherited a war that was relatively quiescent by Afghanistan standards, involved few American troops on the ground, and was in a phaseout due to an agreement his predecessor had struck with the Afghan government and the Taliban. Under that deal, the U.S. would remove its troops by May 1, 2021, if the Taliban and Afghan government met certain conditions.

Biden has played both sides of the Trump deal, both arguing that it tied his hands and that he would have sought a similar deal himself. This, plus Biden’s campaign to overturn as many Trump policies as possible after he took office, tosses out any Biden argument that attempts to blame Trump, however flawed Trump’s deal with the Taliban might have been. Biden’s hands were not tied, and he might have done the exact same thing Trump did — according to Joe Biden. Biden has also offered a false choice to do exactly what he did or dramatically escalate the war. This leaves out many alternatives including not unilaterally leaving Afghanistan during its well-established summer fighting season.

There were about 3,500 American troops in Afghanistan when Biden took office, according to the New York Times, concentrated at the massive Bagram Air Base, mostly providing intelligence and air support for the Afghan military. Maintenance contractors kept the Afghan military’s trainers/combat aircraft, Embraer’s U.S.-made A-29 Super Tucanos, flying. Combat aircraft require extensive ongoing maintenance just to be able to fly. The U.S. had used the A-29 to train Afghan pilots to conduct reconnaissance and close air support. They provided a key advantage for the Afghan military over the flightless Taliban.

According to Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Biden discussed whether to keep to Trump’s plan or come up with his own before he announced, in April 2021, that he was adjusting the May 1 date back — to Saturday, September 11. That’s no random date, of course, it’s the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, which originated on Afghan soil and precipitated the war there that lasted 20 years. This was a communications/optics strategy, not a military, strategy. Biden wanted the photo-op of ending the war on the 20th anniversary of the attacks that launched it. Biden overruled the advice of his military leaders, according to Wallace, demanding a full withdrawal by that date. The military, according to Wallace, wanted to maintain a small presence at Bagram to provide intelligence and some key air support to the Afghan military against the Taliban.

Biden announces withdrawal with that date certain on April 13, 2021.

The Taliban advances, capturing villages and territory.

On June 16, an elite group of Afghan commandos led by a legendary warrior was captured. They had called for air support from the U.S. military, but those strikes never came. Brad Taylor, an Afghanistan veteran and retired Army Lt. Col. writes that the capture and execution of those commandos and their leader, Sohrab Azimi, shocked the Afghan military. He was a superhero in their eyes, writes Taylor. When even he didn’t get the air support he needed, the message was sent to the Afghan military that neither would anyone else. The Afghan military depended on U.S. intelligence and airstrikes in its ground war with the Taliban.

Only July 5, 2021, the U.S. military abandons Bagram in the dead of night without warning the Afghan military or any of our NATO allies. The base was operational on July 4, then dark on July 5. AP reported the Afghan military’s surprise at the time. July 5 was a Monday; the Biden administration didn’t announce the exit from Bagram until the following Friday (July 9) but by then the Afghan commander had discovered that the U.S. was gone and shown media around the base. The departure in the night without a handoff to the Afghan command violated U.S. protocols. Typically, U.S. units will hold and operate while an incoming unit or command gets stood up and only hand off command once the incoming unit is ready to lead. This was not done at Bagram.

The U.S. conducts a formal closure ceremony on July 12 and the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, departs and is not replaced. Command of Afghanistan reverts to CENTCOM with Gen. Frank McKenzie, based in Tampa, Florida.

The Taliban continues to gain ground.

When Joe Biden speaks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on July 23, the Taliban is marching fast.

In the phone call, Biden first asks Ghani to lie about the facts on the ground, and promises him air support if he will lie, according to Reuters’ transcript of the July 23 call.

“I need not tell you the perception around the world and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” Biden said according to the call leaked to Reuters. “And there is a need, whether it is true or not, there is a need to project a different picture.”

Biden continues: “If you empower Bismillah [Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi] to execute a strategy focused on key parts of the population centers, and I’m not a military guy, so I’m not telling you what that plan should precisely look like, you’re going to get not only more help, but you’re going to get a perception that is going to change in terms of how , um…[unclear].. our allies and folks here in the States and other places think you’re doing.”

Biden has just pressured Ghani to lie — “whether it is true or not…project a different picture” — and then the U.S. would help. But Ghani had to lie first.

Biden also tells Ghani that the U.S. promises to make sure the Afghan air force can continue to fly, which is a lie. Biden had cut off aircraft maintenance for the U.S.-made A-29 attack aircraft it had given to the Afghan military.

“We are also going to continue to make sure your air force is capable of continuing to fly and provide air support,” Biden falsely says. “In addition to that we are going to continue to fight hard, diplomatically, politically, economically, to make sure your government not only survives, but is sustained and grows because it is clearly in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, that you succeed and you lead. And though I know this is presumptuous of me on one hand to say such things so directly to you, I have known you for a long while, I find you a brilliant and honorable man.”

Biden fulfilled none of these promises to Ghani. Diplomacy outside Afghanistan was of little use while the Taliban took territory inside Afghanistan.

“But I really think, I don’t know whether you’re aware, just how much the perception around the world is that this is looking like a losing proposition, which it is not, not that it necessarily is that, but so the conclusion I’m asking you to consider is to bring together everyone from [Former Vice President Abdul Rashid] Dostum, to [Former President Hamid] Karzai and in between, if they stand there and say they back the strategy you put together, and put a warrior in charge, you know a military man, [Defense Minister Bismillah] Khan in charge of executing that strategy, and that will change perception, and that will change an awful lot I think.”

With the Taliban on the march, Joe Biden wanted Ghani to convene a meeting and do a press announcement.

Ghani responds that the military situation is worse than Biden has admitted.

“Mr. President, we are facing a full-scale invasion, composed of Taliban, full Pakistani planning and logistical support, and at least 10-15,000 international terrorists, predominantly Pakistanis thrown into this, so that dimension needs to be taken account of.” For the record, Pakistan denies this. Pakistan also denied knowing Osama bin Laden had been living in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for years. If Ghani was right, the Taliban’s ranks had swelled to about 90,000 while the Afghan army was dissolving.

Related: PHOTOS: Here Are Just Some of the Capabilities Thrown Away by US Commanders at Bagram Air Base

Ghani asks for U.S. air support.

“Second, what is crucial is, close air support, and if I could make a request, you have been very generous, if your assistance, particularly to our air force be front-loaded, because what we need at this moment, there was a very heavily reliance on air power, and we have prioritized that if it could be at all front-loaded, we will greatly appreciate it.”

“Front-loaded” sounds like a request for U.S. aircraft to provide close air support. If that’s the case, Ghani is asking for A-10s to rejoin the fight and punish the Taliban on the ground. They had been used for years out of Bagram Air Base.

Ghani asks for Afghan military pay to increase to improve morale and “rally” them and for help to rebalance the military situation on the ground, not just the “perception” Biden is focused on. The U.S. had been paying the Afghan military’s salaries.

“And third, regarding procedure for the rest of the assistance, for instance, military pay is not increased for over a decade,” Ghani said. “We need to make some gestures to rally everybody together so if you could assign the national security advisor or the Pentagon, anyone you wish to work with us on the details, so our expectations particularly regarding your close air support. There are agreements with the Taliban that we [or “you” this is unclear] are not previously aware of, and because of your air force was extremely cautious in attacking them.”

Ghani makes his request for U.S. close air support much clearer. He wants the A-10s and other aircraft, probably including Apache and AC-130 gunships, back in the fray.

“And the last point, I just spoke again to Dr. Abdullah earlier, he went to negotiate with the Taliban, the Taliban showed no inclination. We can get to peace only if we rebalance the military situation.”

Of course, the Taliban showed no inclination to negotiate. Why would they? They were winning on the ground and the U.S. was gone. Bagram was dark. Airstrikes and close air support had both been halted. The Afghans couldn’t fly and had no intelligence, while the Taliban may have been getting assistance from Pakistan. Despite the troop numbers, the Taliban had several key advantages.

Ghani seemed to understand all of this clearly and is explaining it to Biden, who refuses to listen. Biden flatly denied Ghani’s request for close air support. Ghani wants to turn the tide.

“No, well, look, I, thank you,” Biden replied. “Look, close air support works only if there is a military strategy on the ground to support.” Biden has offered Ghani no military strategy himself, just tactics and meetings to change “perception.” Biden wanted Ghani to play Baghdad Bob when Ghani knew his country was being engulfed by terrorists.

That was the last known call between Biden and Ghani before Kabul fell to the Taliban and Ghani fled the country.

Biden’s treatment of Ghani is a betrayal. Biden had already unilaterally pulled the plug on most U.S. capability in Afghanistan when he shut down Bagram, against the advice of his generals. Having done that, the U.S. had given the Taliban a stronger hand with respect to the Afghan military and the U.S. was in a much poorer position to provide vital support.

About two weeks after the Ghani call, with the Taliban’s march undeniable, Biden stubbornly stuck to his deadline, which he had inexplicably moved up to August 31 instead of Sept. 11. The Pentagon provided no airstrikes or close air support and had pivoted to pushing all responsibility onto the Afghan president and military despite Ghani’s plea for help. But the fact was, by that point the U.S. had deeply undercut the Afghan military by denying it intelligence support, airstrikes, and even aircraft maintenance support for the A-29 Super Tucano light aircraft the U.S. had given to the Afghans.

Biden had blinded the Afghan military by cutting off intelligence and grounded it by denying it aircraft maintenance.

When he spoke with Ghani on July 23, all of that was already either done or in motion. This doesn’t absolve the Afghan units that chose not to fight, or Ghani for fleeing the country. But Biden made key choices that made their task far more difficult. When Ghani pressed him as the walls closed in on Afghanistan on July 23, Biden instinctively pressed Ghani to lie to change “perception” without regard for the military facts on the ground.

In the July 23 call, Biden explicitly lays out a quid pro quo in the form of pressuring Ghani to lie in exchange for military support — support Biden had no evident intention of delivering. Biden also displays much more focus on “perception” and optics than the actual military situation on the ground — a situation he had made far worse with his April announcement, with pegging the withdrawal to September 11, with the denial of support in June, closing Bagram in July, and the retraction of intelligence and aircraft maintenance support following Bagram’s closure.

Biden denied Ghani’s request for U.S. close air support in the same call, as the Taliban advanced.

The Taliban captured Kabul on August 15, 2021.