Trump and Pompeo Set Afghanistan Fiasco in Motion
They've got a lot of gall blaming Biden for this mess.
Slate’s Will Saletan claims “Pompeo Is Lying About Afghanistan.” But the real charge is in the even more damning subtitle: “He laid the groundwork for the Taliban takeover. Now he’s blaming Biden.”
Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s former secretary of state, blames President Joe Biden for the chaos in Afghanistan. “We’re letting the Taliban run free and wild,” he complained a few days ago on Fox News. Pompeo, who is laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential campaign, argued that the insurgents were taking over the country “because we have an administration that has refused to adopt a deterrence model, the one that President Trump and I had.” He claimed that he and Trump had kept Afghanistan “stable,” that they had “never trusted the Taliban,” and that thanks to their steely resolve, “the Taliban didn’t advance on capitals” in Afghan provinces.
None of this is true. Like many other Republicans who now profess anguish over the Taliban’s victory, Pompeo supported the U.S. withdrawal. But he didn’t just endorse the pullout; he directed it. He cut a deal with the Taliban to remove all American troops and to release Taliban fighters from Afghan prisons. He vouched for the Taliban’s assurances, even as the insurgents staged hundreds of deadly attacks. And he defended the ongoing troop withdrawals, undercutting the Afghan government in its own talks with the Taliban, as the militants besieged provincial capitals.
Two years ago, Pompeo began pushing for a deal with the Taliban. Hawks urged him to stipulate in the agreement that the Taliban had to turn over al-Qaida operatives. They also asked him to reject any demand for a “premature release of Taliban prisoners.” He did neither. Under the deal, signed on Feb. 29, 2020, the U.S. government pledged “to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners … within fourteen (14) months.” The deal also specified that the Afghan government would release 5,000 prisoners, five times as many as the Taliban had to release. There was no requirement to hand over al-Qaida operatives.
That much has long been knowable but, given the dumpster fire of a shitshow that was the Trump administration, garnered very little attention. Not that most Americans were paying much attention to the war in Afghanistan by that point, anyway. We pretty much took our eyes off it with the Iraq invasion in March 2003, with periodic check-ins when particularly noteworthy events, like President Obama’s 2009 “Surge,” took place. The last year in which the United States lost more than 50 dead was 2014 and the number has been 22 or fewer since; in 2020, it was just 9.
Pompeo promised that the Taliban would rein in their carnage. “We have come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant reduction in violence,” he declared. A day after the signing ceremony, he asserted that “the Taliban have now made the break” from al-Qaida. On Face the Nation, Margaret Brennan asked him whether the Taliban were “terrorists.” Pompeo declined to use that word, assuring her that “the [Taliban] gentleman whom I met with agreed that they would break that relationship and that they would work alongside of us to destroy” al-Qaida. On Fox News, Pompeo spoke of a personal connection with the Taliban: “I looked them in the eye. They revalidated to that commitment.” The interviewer, Bret Baier, pointed out that immediately after signing the deal, the Taliban had announced a resumption of attacks on the Afghan government. Pompeo brushed aside the announcement. “If the violence levels come down,” he told Baier, “then and only then” would the United States draw down its troops.
American forces immediately began to vacate bases and pull out. But the Taliban, contrary to its commitments, escalated its attacks. Pompeo responded by making excuses. “We have seen the senior Taliban leadership working diligently to reduce violence from previous levels,” he asserted on March 5, 2020. “We still have confidence that the Taliban leadership is working to deliver on its commitments.” He argued that critics were making too much of the latest attacks, since violence in Afghanistan was “common.”
This point deserves more emphasis than it has gotten. Obama, who both surged the troop numbers but pledged to withdraw by the end of 2011 (a decade ago now) ultimately kept the war going because the low casualty numbers were easier to absorb politically than the fallout of the collapse of the regime and return of the Taliban regime that was not only predictable but predicted. Trump got slow-rolled repeatedly by the military brass in his attempts to withdraw but ultimately persevered and had Pompeo “negotiate” an end—and no price was too high.
When Fox News reporter Pete Hegseth asked whether Pompeo was willing to let Kabul fall—“We’re not going to intervene ultimately two, three years from now, if the Afghan government can’t defend itself?”—Pompeo replied, “That’s right.” Three weeks after his deal with the Taliban, he threatened to pull all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and to choke off U.S. aid—which would have brought the country to its knees—if to the government didn’t move faster in talks with the Taliban. He also repeatedly pressed for the release of jailed Taliban fighters.
The troop reductions continued, even as the Taliban carried out dozens of attacks per day. On July 1, 2020, the Department of Defense reported that al-Qaida “routinely supports and works with low-level Taliban members” and “assists local Taliban in some attacks.” This matched a separate report from United Nations Security Council investigators. Some of the evidence, later published by the Washington Post, indicated that throughout this period, Taliban leaders had collaborated militarily with al-Qaida partners and had pledged not to betray them. When Pompeo was asked about the DOD report, he claimed to have secret evidence that the Taliban was working against al-Qaida. “I can’t talk about the things that I have seen,” he said.
This was almost certainly a bald-faced lie.
Critics warned that the ongoing U.S. troop withdrawals, in the face of continued Taliban aggression—including an attempt to assassinate Afghanistan’s vice president—signaled American weakness and undermined the Afghan government in its talks with the Taliban. But Pompeo blamed the attacks on rogue insurgents—“spoilers,” he called them—and insisted that “the Taliban has every incentive to get this right.” When he was asked about the U.N. report and other evidence that the Taliban was still sheltering al-Qaida, he stood by the Taliban. “We have every expectation that they will follow through,” he said.
As the United States closed its air bases and stripped its troop presence to a minimum, the Taliban advanced, seizing provincial capitals. In November, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned that the American retreat was undercutting the Afghan government. Trump responded by firing Esper. The Afghan government asked Pompeo to slow the U.S. withdrawal and press the Taliban for a cease-fire. Pompeo, in reply, offered only to “sit on the side and help where we can.” He argued that because terrorist networks were global, the Unites States didn’t need troops in Afghanistan.
The last point is, by the way, absolutely true. Experts were making that argument even while Bush was in office. But, again, the fact that a hasty withdrawal of American forces would inevitably lead to the Taliban’s return was a surprise to no one.
Pompeo maintained this position after leaving office. Last month, when he was asked about warnings from U.S. military officials “that Kabul could fall within a few months,” he scoffed that “President Trump had the same kind of resistance from the military … to reducing our footprint in Afghanistan.” He ridiculed Afghan men who talked of fleeing their country instead of “fighting for” it. Then, as the American pullout came under political attack in the United States, Pompeo switched sides. On Aug. 9, he said he was “a little bit surprised at the speed” of the Taliban’s advances. Three days later, he accused Biden of “poor leadership.” By Sunday, he was calling on American forces to “go crush these Taliban who are surrounding Kabul.” He claimed that he and Trump had “deterred” the insurgents and that Biden’s “absence of resolve” had caused the Taliban onslaught.
I suppose it’s possible that Trump would have reversed course had he still been in office. Maybe the scenes of horror at the airport in Kabul on “Fox and Friends” would have been met with an impulsive order to send in more troops. But getting the hell out of Afghanistan was one of few policy positions where Trump as consistent from the campaign through his time in office.
Now, none of this means that Biden doesn’t own the disaster. He inherited an absolute mess from Trump and Pompeo but had no obligation to abide by their deal; the Afghan government was begging us to stay.* His intelligence and military advisors were warning him of the situation, even if they weren’t quite right on the timing. But the notion that things were going great under Trump and got messed up because of Biden’s incompetence is simply not based in reality.
*The original version incorrectly stated that Biden “escalate[d] the timetable” he inherited from Trump but he actually extended it from the 1 May deadline to 31 August.
Pompeo is a feckless, unserious, self-serving man.
Honest question: I thought the Trump-negotiated deadline was May, and Biden extended it to Sept. What am I missing? (not that 4 months is that big of a difference).
@Steven L. Taylor: You’re right–I had remembered it as by the end of the year and took Biden’s “before September 11” as symbolic messaging.
Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.
@Michael Reynolds: Except that we have the DNA tests, as has been noted in the article.
Pompeo attempts to escape his actions will come to naught. He has delusions of being president and we can be sure that his primary opponents will remind the voters of his fecklessness. There will be a steady stream of video and quotes and he’ll suffer an ignominious defeat. He likely won’t make it out of NH and then will slink off as a has been.
@Sleeping Dog: the 2024’s are going to be an interesting GOP primary. A dozen people competing in who can be the biggest asshole. I predict at least one candidate gives an appearance where they Roll Coal. Not to be outdone, another publicly hacksaws the catalytic converter off a Harley and does donuts around Antarctica. His inability to run over a seal will end his candidacy, with OAN calling him a Gay Libtard.
Ive had a little time to reflect but I am still angry that the option Biden selected embarrassed us Militarily and professionally. We didn’t deserve the Taliban getting worldwide press celebrating on the field with time on the clock. It was avoidable.
I dont give a shit that the Chairman is our covering his Bosses ass by saying they didn’t have intel indicators of rapid collapse. There are Generals outside of the Pentagon and closer to the fight that supervised the formulation of our options. Have you seen them on TV? Guess why not? Because they don’t have the plausibility to say what the Chairman said without lying. We are not authorized to knowingly lie…but you may omit or deflect.
At any rate, and this is Jim Brown speculation, I think Biden really wanted to follow through on screwing the Afghan political leaders who were our main pillar against our efforts there. Why should you assholes continue to get Fat of our presence if you aren’t going to hold up your end of the bargain? Enjoy your exiles.
Its clear that this wasn’t about stability because we could have maintained that no problem with minimal investment. This was about telling our afghan political partners…fuck you.
The fact that those partners took their cash and fleed the country while telling everyone below them they were staying is proof of what real snakes we were dealing with. You would be surprised the high level of offcials that were in those crowds trying to get flights out. They didn’t know.
Ultimately what did us in is tribalism. Its growing here but is still manageable because our tribes are large and still give way to nationalism on many things to work with other tribes.
There, the Afghan elite formed thier own little tribe to leech money and fuck everyone else. It simply cant work. Throw in the anti-intellectualism baked into many of their cultural practices and you have what amounts to crabs in a barrel… which happens anywhere those 2 factors are present. The higher the level of government, the more the nation as a whole will suffer.
@Jim Brown 32:
We were down to 2500 people on the ground in Afghanistan. Was that tenable over the long haul? Clearly the Taliban were organized and capable, so is the idea that we’d have stuck our 2500 guys on a base, kept them there forever, and the Talibs would just shrug and walk away?
At very least we’d have had to keep enough force to patrol outside the wire, no? Were the Talibs going to let that go on indefinitely? 2500 guys is how many combat soldiers? Maybe 500? You would know, so I defer to your expertise, but on its face the idea of 2500 Americans in fixed locations, at the end of a long supply line, in a country of 37 million people, with an obviously capable opposing force, seems like a very bad idea. It smacks of Lebanon. Or the Alamo.
The Taliban would start firing mortars. They’d kill a couple GI’s. There would be demands to know why they weren’t safe. There would be demands to ramp up, send more guys to ensure the security of our positions. More mortars, more deaths, more calls for more men.
Or we accidentally blow up a wedding somewhere as we do from time to time. Afghan civilians would riot egged on by Taliban. A guard would shoot a ‘protester’ and some ambitious Talib would decide to retaliate and ambush an American patrol. And then come the calls and the whines and the demands for more, more, more.
I don’t believe there’s a world where the Taliban would let themselves be stymied by 2500 Americans. I think that whole thing was a fantasy. It’d be Guantanamo in Afghanistan, except that we don’t use Guantanamo to blow up Castroites we don’t like. If we did, Guantanamo would be untenable.
Credit where credit is due – Trump was right to work toward withdrawal from Afghanistan. As Saletan documents, Trump’s administration went about it in the “Big Hat, No Cattle” that was their way, but the choice was the right one.
But, Pompeo’s (and Trump’s) rhetoric upon seeing the predictable results of the withdrawal demonstrates (once again) the massive downside of having a showman running the government. I think it would be likely that Trump would have reversed course. If not for full restoration of our presence, then at least for a tough guy retribution against the Taliban’s advance to save face for their “deterrence model.” You know the Trump admin wouldn’t have done a better job with our Afghanistan citizen allies, since there’s no indication they moved on that in the 11 months between signing the deal with the Taliban and the end of Trump’s term. (Besides, taking in thousands of Afghanis wouldn’t have played well to the Trumpists, so if even if they decided to give refuge, they’d have done it quietly. And Trump never put his heart into anything he couldn’t do for show.)
So, had Pompeo and Trump still been in charge, we’d have gotten the worst of both worlds – a very messy withdrawal, a bloody impulsive reversal, and we’d still be in country somehow, but with less stability.
Once again, I am grateful Biden stepped up to do the dirty work. Mistakes were made, Biden has copped to them, but we are out and we’re working to save the people we can. As “disasters” go, this one will balance out favorably in the end.
Every-time I see Pompeo opening his mouth he lies.
@Jim Brown 32: My friend, that idea that we could leave some minimal number of GIs in-country and everything would be hunky-dory…
You know that road that gets into Kandahar from Quetta? That one that we pay tolls to every bandit and tribe so we can drive a truck on it?
And you know what happened at… just pick one. Bien Dien Pho? Khe San?
@Jim Brown 32: What did you in was your profound inability to understand and engage with non-Nation-state cultural models and inability to allow – not tolerate, not work-to-transform to a nation-state model – for a traditional pre-nation-state political-cultural model.
It’s reflected in your very comments, and fantasising about both emergeant pan-ethnic Afghan nationalism aligned with you, the foreigners in complete contradiction to the entire modern national pan-ethnic story, in opposition to the foreigners (British, Russian, etc). It’s competely self-deluding but your fundamental blindness to your own real position made this a failure from the day you all decided to stay.
I am really quite reminded of technical entrepreneurs funded in the past – where we have had to pull the funding plug. They always are blind to market judgment, always one more pivot one more Ideal Plan for turn-around abstracting away from those annoying factors not controllable by them….
For you all that annoying factor, it’s the Afghans. That elite as-tribe, that is merely your cultural blindness and the fundamental reality that unless Americans entirely discarded their technocratic approach (as well as international-engagement-foundational-cultural-myth of WWII & Marshall Plan), your approach generated a detached and dependent elite by said approach’s own fundamentals whether war fighting or state-building around a fundamentally economically unsustainable (for Afghanistan) centralised state model. Hardly the Afghans groups fault.
Of course for an exit strategy that is elegant is possible if one rather abstracts away from the fundamental reality – as proven by observed real market deployment – that the Afghan central government, that Potemkin façade you constructed to please American’s self-conception…. But in the face of an entity that had no real organic Afghan credibility and was quite evidently leaking like a seive, the moment preparations would begin related to Afghan parties, everything would accelerate as there was no internal cohesion, it was all Potekmin façades.
Edit to add:
The irrational concern with embarrassement leading to the assertion you should have stayed to prop up your empty Potemkin village of an Afghan regime also reminds me of the entrepreneurs who, to avoid embarrassement of failure, always want to get another round of funding to turn it around. Emotionally understandable but it is the wrong economic choice.
Good money after bad to assuage ego and avoid embarrassement is bad management.
@Michael Reynolds: “The Taliban would start firing mortars. They’d kill a couple GI’s. There would be demands to know why they weren’t safe. There would be demands to ramp up, send more guys to ensure the security of our positions. More mortars, more deaths, more calls for more men.”
From what I’ve gathered across the internet, it seems like Trump cut a deal with the Taliban, that we’d leave this year, and the Taliban in return dropped their attacks – against us. They, of course, continued to work on taking over the country.
So if we did not leave, they would have returned at attacking us.
@Jim Brown 32:
I suppose it depends on the definition of “minimal investment.” (and for what duration)
@Jim Brown 32:
I don’t think so. I don’t believe the Pentagon would tell the POTUS they could maintain the Afghan government with just minimal investment for long. There was too much corruption, and terrible morale within the ANA, and Trump had stripped our forces to just 2,500 or so, hardly any infantry in that lot. Conversely, the Taliban was constantly gaining ground in the provinces, adding more and more people, including converts embedded within the ANA, and gaining ever more financial support from abroad.
Nope, it would have taken another “surge” to stabilize the place. A wild ass bet that the next government in Kabul would be much, much better.
@Barry: Yes that is indeed a fact that is not in question, the Talebans avoidance of attacking Americans was predicated (is predicated) on the Trump deal. Should that be scrapped, well…
Basing a calculation of ongoing cost on a set of conditions dependent on the very set of circumstances you wish to scrap, well…. There is specific name for the analytical error but it is escaping me right now.
@Steven L. Taylor: @dazedandconfused:
M. Brown reminds me so very strongly of the classic Can Do technical entrepreneur in the face of the finance people demuring on continuing financing. Always with a bit more money – not too much – one can iterate. Ego. Recognition of Loss Avoidance. Avoidance of embarrassment – the very telling word he used – override a dispassionate appraisal. That the Product has no sustainable market… Here the product being the Afghan Potemkin Façade State dreaming up a pro-American pan-Afghan nationalism in support of the fine foreigners’ white saviors project… (and built on the peripheral ethnic minorities).
Although perhaps one should also think of the military success of the King of Epirus….
It comes to mind that had you opted for a single party state like the Sovs – rather than trying for an Afghan Mini-Me pluralistic democracy – you might have bought yourself the Soviet option of a faux confident Exit, rumbling across the Friendship Bridge…. but queerly enough it turns out that only delays the recognition of failure and the embarrassment.
Alternatively a Pashtun centric dictatorship built around the largest and core Afghan ethnicity, but then that would have meant compromising with the reality of Pashtun culture and conservatism and rather awkward relative to the actual American more-or-less-allies, the northernish ethnic minorities.
The former guy left Biden with having to manage the largest mobilization in history, for vaccines, and now likely the largest airlift in history in Afghanistan. Not to mention the economic recovery we are currently in the midst of.
We are barely over 200 days into Biden’s Presidency.
Frankly – I wish Afghanistan were going more smoothly – but I have no idea how that would happen. This was probably always going to happen.
I would ask anyone to point me to a historical example of a Government collapse that was neat and orderly.
Just came across this slightly off topic thread on getting the translators out:
I said in an earlier comment:
Trump was just to stupid to understand the situation, and to malevolent to care.
But Pompeo knew full well, damn his pustulent soul
And that weaselly little sod Khalkhizad was in the mix as well.
We’ve heard quite a few people saying “how could this collapse have been predicted?” and also “this collapse proves the impossibility of any alternative”.
I give you the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence report, 13 Jan 2021.
This seems to have been based on (very) sanitised reports from Army on the situation, as well as general evidence, and simple common sense from some experienced players.
There are also reports from within the Army: when the Doha Agreements were published, Andover Staff was screaming upstairs that this was terminal for the Afghan government.
Above all this (which I missed when I first looked at it) from Doha:
“You might as well take the Afghan Army out the back and shoot it in the head.”
This was an army dependent on external support US/NATO/contractors massive areas of its vital operational capacity. It could not survive without them; the garrison units deployments often dependent on air transport and air fire support, and intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance.
Afghan elite forces required air support for mobility and firepower, especially due to their lack of viable ground artillery.
The message was explicitly passed on to General Staff:
– this will result in the Afghan army being placed in tactically and logistically untenable positions
– it will result in morale collapse within Afghan forces and govt
– this will lead to a massive increase in already high looting of funds and materiel, and desertions due to morale and pay; both military and civil government arms will increasingly degrade
– subsequently local leaderships and individual garrisons will negotiate local terms with the Taliban
– we face systemic collapse within a relatively short but undeterminable timespan unless this is reversed
Another general assumption: if the Taliban had been denied their walkover, they would have escalated, requiring the US/NATO to deploy multiple battalions of combat troops plus support i.e. multiple tens of thousands of personnel.
However, since 2014, the total number of US troops has been under 10,000 (and incidentally, in some years there have been more non-US than US NATO forces in country)
Does anyone seriously contend that the Taliban from 2014 to 2020 held off out the goodness of their hearts?
Or because they could foresee a Trump surrender in 2020?
Incidentally, should have added: the above re. reports to the Lords and to Army Command explains the cold fury directed at govt. in Parliament last week.
Accounts are that DefSec Wallace was attempting for past year to get this raised at Cabinet level, but neither PM Johnson or Foreign Sec. Raab would pay attention.
Hence read-between-lines of why Wallace was not savaged in Commons when Johnson and Raab were.
@Michael Reynolds: 2500 was below recommendations for a security stability force. We got to that number AGAINST military advice for enough to handle a contingency should the Taliban broke their word. With a typical package 500 would be a good estimate of trigger pullers but for this situation there are fewer admin and support people per shooter because they left out in July. Shooters go in first and come out last. Id guess 8-900 before the surge.
The number Biden sent back in wasn’t pulled out of a hat. It came from the original best military advice. Exactly like the “surge” in Iraq was ‘oh shit, those military estimates were more right than Rumsfelds numbers”
Michael, a thousand SpecOps with air support took the ENTIRE country. Stability ops is a little different but for carving out a hamlet around Kabul the number surged there now with army air assault and air force close air support would get it done.
We kinda did something similar for the Iraqi Kurds with the No Fly Zones under Saddam. Yes, casualties would be taken. What people don’t understand is a lot of young men join because they want the adrenaline rush of a gun fight. These people dont want to wear a uniform around the flagpole. They want the opportunity to do real live missions.
We have the technology to counter most of the Talibans most lethal attacks. A mortar is nothing versus the radar guided mini guns. We’d push our perimeter out past effective mortar range anyway. That would leave them with IEDs, VBIEDs, and a couple of assaults here and there that would give our Apaches and A-10s some good target practice.
If my speculation is right, I feel better. I’ve got no issues with screwing the snakes in the Afghan government. If Im wrong we might be tooling up for the next big pissing match and Biden needed the resources.
@Lounsbury: Piss off
Translation: You can’t do what you’ve been doing.
What dont you understand about the difference between political decisions and technical performance? We did it until we decided not to. Period. No one decided for us.
Your blindness is you apparently think I view this through a win or lose proposition. I dont.. anymore than I win when I cut my grass. I see this as a value proposition for the United States…not being particularly aligned with our short term interests. We’re supposed to be about the right of self determination….I guess. We Failed the Afghans after we promised to do better than the other powers.
Go to any poor community and see lots of people that understand their interests without a clue to a values. You build an identity off values not interests. If you have an identity, you can make choices skewed to your interests more often than not. If you have no values and everything os about your interests…you can’t navigate human or geopolitical terrain. Because no one trusts you.
@Lounsbury: Oh did I tell you to piss off? Just checking.
Don’t ever give my position if its not explicitly stated
@Steven L. Taylor: Dr Taylor, beyond the subject of Afghanistan…The question of How Long? is exactly the reason why we will never achieve our objectives in another nonexistential engagement… even ones we actually need to undertake and succeed. Thats not how nation-state competition works. No one plays chess thinking “how long?”
How long will we be in Germany, Italy, Korea? Places where our presence isn’t needed and frankly amounts to GI travel club. The Russians aren’t going overrun Europe and neither are the North Koreans going to swarm South Korea.
Yet, this is exactly the threat those forces are postured against. A mission that ended 30 years ago…courtesy of you the taxpayers. I have great pictures though
I thow shade at politicians but they also are responding to voters who have no idea of what its like to live in a country thats not a superpower….who also think life with America not as a superpower isn’t much different than life woth America not a Superpower. It would be alot different. Military power secures economic power and economic power creates a bigger pie for your citizens. We dont need to be head and shoulders more powerful than anyone on earth…but we need a credible force that gives the nation a high probability of success if we decide to use them.
That cant happen when everyone know you can wait the Americans out for anything short of invading them.
Still not seeing exactly how we would evacuate US citizens w/o having the Afghan leaders pick up their bags of cash and leave too. Once they saw that we were really serious and everyone was leaving they would be gone. With them gone the military was even more likely to fold. When the ordinary Afghan saw everyone else leave what keeps them from having a panic like now? I am certain they knew just as well as we did that the military was not going to protect them.
Going on a slightly different tangent, I think the reactiona to @Jim Brown 32 (generally) get to the tension in the idea that “we” welcome opposing opinions from people we generally respect at OTB.
Because we seem to be missing a certain point of view of late, here is some wisdom from one of my brothers on how departing Afghanistan affects our relations in the world:
My more articulate brother has this to say: