Anatomy of a Catastrophe

REVIEW: ‘Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden’s Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End’ by Jerry Dunleavy and James Hasson

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September 17, 2023

America marked a grim anniversary on August 30. That was the date, two years ago, when the United States ended its military presence in Afghanistan. The war that began there in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks lasted a full two decades. The war ended with a botched American retrograde that led directly to the deaths of 13 brave servicemen and thousands of stranded American citizens and Afghan allies.

The collapse of U.S. resolve to win the war reflected an impatience on the part of the American public, spurred on by populist and isolationist rhetoric that has steadily grown since the financial crisis of 2008. The negotiated defeat, which culminated with the Pentagon embarrassingly referring to the Taliban as our "Afghan partners," began with President Barack Obama but continued through the administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The duplicitous government of Qatar hosted the negotiations and guided the process of American surrender through all three administrations.

In the final analysis, however, the disastrous withdrawal—leading directly to unnecessary deaths, unmitigated chaos, and the return of the brutal Taliban government—is the responsibility of one man: President Joe Biden.

Authors Jerry Dunleavy and James Hasson explain in painful detail how the decisions of our commander in chief led inexorably to the deaths of those 13 servicemen, the abandonment of an untold number of innocents, and the humanitarian crisis that endures today, with Afghanistan back under the draconian Sharia rule of the Taliban. Theirs is a well-written book, resulting from dozens of interviews and well-documented research. But readers should be forewarned: Kabul is as much an ad hominem indictment of Joe Biden and his callousness in the face of human suffering as it is a chronicle of America’s final days in the Afghan theater.

The authors offer infuriating details about the Biden administration’s outright lies and cynical spin as the American withdrawal unraveled. The scene at Hamid Karzai International Airport was utter chaos as thousands of Afghans attempted to get out of the country as the government collapsed. Men, women, and children were crushed to death by the crowds outside the fence. Desperate Afghans climbed onto departing aircraft, falling to their deaths. American citizens and Afghans who assisted America’s war effort were stranded while Taliban fighters hunted them.

Former military personnel and good Samaritans launched informal efforts outside of U.S. government channels to extract their colleagues because the U.S. government had failed to do its job. Yet the White House boasted of its purported successes. Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, "I would not say that [the evacuation] is anything but a success." The chargé d’affaires from the Afghan embassy, Ross Wilson, said he was "proud of the work" his team was doing "to assist U.S. citizens and Afghans as part of our historic relocation effort."

Conceit and dishonesty may be commonplace in Washington and therefore often ignored. But the administration—and the Pentagon—cannot be given a free pass for their failure to support the Marines who struggled in the sweltering heat to complete their ill-fated mission in its final days. On August 26, the intelligence community knew that an attack was set to occur at the airport’s Abbey Gate. The intelligence conveyed remarkable granularity about the perpetrator. Nevertheless, virtually nothing was done to prevent Abdul Rahman al-Logari from detonating his 20-pound explosive vest packed with hundreds of ball bearings. The result was the third deadliest day for U.S. forces during the entire two-decade war.

The 13 fallen servicemen—David Espinoza, Nicole Gee, Darin Hoover, Ryan Knauss, Hunter Lopez, Rylee McCollum, Dylan Merola, Kareem Nikoui, Daegan Page, Johanny Pichardo, Humberto Sanchez, Jared Schmitz, and Maxton Soviak—bravely served their country. But their country failed to serve them. Little was done to prevent their deaths, and there was no military response. Indeed, the White House wanted to get out and stay out. This was made abundantly clear to families of the fallen, who later claimed that Biden checked his watch "at least five times" as flag-draped coffins were escorted from the plane at Dover Air Force Base.

Dunleavy and Hasson don’t hold back in expressing their disdain for the president. At times, the rebuke borders on partisanship. Yet, two years later, it is difficult to ignore the role that Biden played in this disastrous episode—even if both Obama and Trump paved the road for him.

Unfortunately, the impact of America’s botched exit from Afghanistan is evident today. It emboldened Vladimir Putin, whose Russian Army subsequently invaded Ukraine in 2022. It also gave China’s Xi Jinping an opportunity to gloat about American decline. Chinese outlets began to refer to the United States as a "paper tiger" that would "abandon Taiwan in a crisis given its tarnished credibility."

The authors justifiably devote two full chapters of the book to the impact of America’s ignominious Afghanistan withdrawal on these two theaters. They rightly observe that our pivot from the Middle East to "great power competition" began with self-inflicted wounds. Two years later, it’s unclear whether we have regained our footing.

With the political debate in the rearview, it will now be upon historians to assess the American experience in Afghanistan. It was a just war, launched in response to the worst terrorist attack on the homeland in our country’s history. It was, however, a war that America failed to win, despite the fierce dedication and immense sacrifices exhibited by our men and women in uniform. The long-term impact of the defeat is not yet known. But one lesson is clear: Asymmetric wars can mire our military for longer than most Americans are willing to bear. Our enemies have taken note.

Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden’s Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End
by Jerry Dunleavy and James Hasson
Center Street, 368 pp., $29

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at the nonpartisan think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.