With the Taliban advancing across rural parts of Afghanistan, and criticism mounting over what some view as an overly hasty departure, the Biden administration is staring down a few short weeks to make a handful of critical decisions it’s put off until the last minute.
How will it safely evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters and their families? What policy will it implement on drone strikes? How will it secure the largest civilian airport in Kabul? And, perhaps most importantly, what will it do with the hundreds of American contractors in the country who service and maintain complex, expensive military equipment the Afghans need to fight the Taliban?
The answers to those questions will essentially determine the kind of relationship the US has with Afghanistan, and by extension the likely fate of the country for the foreseeable future.
President Joe Biden didn’t want to address any of these questions last Friday, growing visibly frustrated when asked by reporters. But after meeting with his national security team Thursday, Biden defended his decision to end the war and pledged to evacuate Afghan interpreters who have worked with US troops, along with their families.
“Our message to those men and women is clear: There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose, and we will stand with you, as you stood with us,” the President said in remarks from the White House, noting that his administration has “dramatically accelerated” the procedure time for these Afghans to secure visas and that relocation flights would begin this month to US facilities overseas and third countries as their visa applications are processed. Biden added that the operation has “identified facilities outside the US as well as in third countries to host our Afghan allies, if they choose.”
However, his remarks Thursday did not fill out any more details surrounding the US withdrawal.
“The war appears to be forcing the administration to make some quick decisions,” said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan.
Although the Biden administration has stressed that it will maintain its commitment to Afghanistan through diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian support, Jones said, “The Afghans haven’t gotten the message. They see essentially abandonment. That has a lot of consequences if we see fragmentation [of Afghan security forces].”
“If we see that fracturing, they’re not going to care about US financial assistance. They’re not going to care about over-the-horizon support,” he added, using the military’s term for support from outside the country.
The orange-red radar dish near Bagram Air Base’s two-mile runway was still spinning four days after the final US flight took off in the early morning light last Friday, one of the few signs of activity at the sprawling complex that was the heart of the American military presence in Afghanistan for two decades. Empty white pickup trucks sat next to abandoned white buses, a ghost fleet to match this newly deserted ghost town.
The speed of the US withdrawal from Bagram caught many by surprise, including even the Afghan military. One senior Afghan officer told CNN that he was given less than 24 hours to secure the perimeter of the massive compound before the last Americans left.
The Biden administration said last week it would take up to two additional months to withdraw the last few remaining troops from Afghanistan. Pentagon officials denied there was any slowdown, but multiple officials told CNN the complete drawdown had been expected to be completed by mid-July, a faster timetable than what now seems planned.
This week, Gen. Scott Miller visited Brussels to update NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the withdrawal of US forces. But several US officials have indicated their frustration to CNN with Miller in the final steps of the drawdown, which led to some disjointed messaging on the departure from Bagram and may have damaged US relations with the Afghans.
“The way that the handover of Bagram Air Base went down appears to have been very poorly coordinated and that reality and perception is not helpful to American interests. It’s almost a microcosm of what we’ve seen more broadly, and that is poor planning,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
“The truth is that their success is our success,” Bowman told CNN. “We want and need them to be successful for our national security interests.”
The fight is now largely in the hands of the Afghan military, even as it rapidly loses ground to the Taliban, which has advanced with a narrative of inevitable victory, announcing its successes on Twitter as it pushes toward multiple district capitals.
The Taliban has already taken more than 100 districts in Afghanistan, including in the north and northeast, but has yet to launch attacks on major cities. The Afghan military has retaken some districts, but the ongoing fighting speaks to a country that is and will remain the site of ferocious battles for territorial control.
Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann said it remains to be seen whether popular militias join the fight against the Taliban, but “there’s no real reason why the Afghan army should lose those battles.”
“They have the forces, they have the equipment, so it’s a question of Afghan morale and leadership,” Neumann said.
There’s also the question of expertise when it comes to the Afghan forces being able to use all the equipment left by the US.
For 20 years, America’s troops fought al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while its contractors trained the Afghan military and maintained its equipment.
A few hundred US contractors remain in Afghanistan, largely to support and maintain the Afghan Air Force’s fleet of Black Hawk helicopters. The powerful but complex helicopters rely on contractor support, without which the entire fleet could be grounded within months.
The Doha Agreement, signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020, called for the removal of these contractors, not just the troops. Even as the Biden administration, criticized the agreement, it stuck by the terms of the withdrawal, shifting only the deadline for its completion.
“The decision to withdraw all contractors at the same time you’re withdrawing all troops was not the right decision,” said Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, “but the administration recognizes that now and the Pentagon has been looking for a way to maintain some contractors to help with repairs and maintenance and assist with air missions.”
Curtis, who was the National Security Council director for South and Central Asia from 2017 to 2021, said it’s her understanding that the administration aims to keep “about 200 contractors to perform maintenance and repair for the US Black Hawks.”
The US has consistently advocated for an end to the fighting and a peaceful resolution between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but that possibility seems more remote by the day, as negotiations in Doha between the two sides appear at a standstill.
About 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled to neighboring Tajikistan earlier this week as the Taliban gained ground. Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes in several parts of the country and sought refuge in major cities, and the US is still working on plans to relocate 18,000 Afghan interpreters and translators, along with their families, many of whom fear for their lives of Taliban retribution.
Though Biden acknowledged Thursday that some US facilities overseas had been identified to temporarily house the Afghans, Pentagon officials declined to specify which. Some sites are on US territory, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday, while other potential facilities belong to host nations and would require that government’s approval.
Biden made a key commitment to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani late last month to support Afghan forces with strikes against the Taliban, officials told CNN, but it’s unclear if or how often the US will carry out such strikes after the withdrawal is complete. Defense officials were also skeptical the strikes could stem Taliban advances, though they could give a short-term boost of much-needed morale to the Afghan military.
Meanwhile, the US is still developing the framework for much of the defense support and logistics work, as well as the counterterrorism operations, which will have to be carried out from outside of Afghanistan.
The UAE has emerged as one part of that plan, according to two sources, where contractors will provide maintenance and logistics support to at least some of the Afghan Air Force’s fleet of helicopters.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently authorized the delivery of two more Blackhawk helicopters to the Afghan Air Force, with another 35 to come, Kirby said.
In addition, the US will help the Afghans overhaul part of their existing fleet of Russian MI-17 helicopters and provide three more A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft.
“We’re committed in very tangible ways to improving their air force capabilities,” Kirby said. “And we’re also going to be working to provide logistical and maintenance support for their forces going forward.”
Defense officials have stressed that they can carry out counterterrorism strikes from outside Afghanistan, but the Biden administration is still in discussions with countries in the region to maximize the strike capabilities and provide a closer point from which to gather intelligence. Meanwhile, the administration and the CIA are still reconsidering the process and the scope to authorize such strikes.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, as the two countries have tried to come to a final agreement on securing Kabul’s airport. The Turks have led the mission, but they have asked for US financial assistance and additional capabilities.
The airport is a necessary facility for the US to maintain an embassy in Kabul, since there must be a way to move diplomats in and out of the country. A senior defense official was “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement would be reached, but it is one more piece of a complex diplomatic, political, and military puzzle that has not yet been solved.
This story has been updated with remarks Thursday from President Joe Biden.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Seth Jones’ title.