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.