Who’s Accountable for Afghanistan?

Heritage Explains

Who’s Accountable for Afghanistan?

In August of 2021, the Biden Administration botched the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, leading to needless chaos and bloodshed.

Heritage Vice President Victoria Coates sat down with Jerry Dunleavy and James Hasson to discuss their new book: Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden’s Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End.

Mark Guiney: Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of Heritage Explains. You may notice that today’s introduction doesn’t come from our studio, but from a minivan on a sunny highway in central Texas. Our team is on the road, filming a documentary for The Daily Signal, which we are very excited to share with you in the coming weeks, we’ll make sure to let you know when it comes out. But I’d like to start today’s episode with a clip, a little bit of a historical recreation put together by our very gifted audio producer, John Popp, back at the Heritage offices. Take a listen.

John Popp: The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.

Guiney: If you were sitting by a radio in the city of Saigon in South Vietnam in April of 1975, you may have heard these cryptic words come through the speaker. It was the very end of the Vietnam War. The communist North Vietnamese army was coming south, preparing to take Saigon and crush the American Allied South Vietnamese opposition. The withdrawal was messy and chaotic, with hundreds of Americans and thousands of Allied South Vietnamese attempting to evacuate the city via a helicopter. President Gerald Ford, foreseeing the chaos, pled with Congress for aid, but received none. The North Vietnamese military machine rolled over the country, taking Saigon, murdering its opposition and silencing democracy in Vietnam for generations. Interestingly, one of the public officials who opposed the president’s plea for help was then Senator Joe Biden.

The fall of Saigon was brought back to the minds of Americans in August of 2021, when the Biden administration ordered a withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan. Apparently lacking a clear plan, the operation was a chaotic and violent disaster, allowing the country to fall back into the hands of the Taliban after 20 years of fighting, abandoning Afghan allies to a vicious enemy, and leading to the death of 13 American servicemen and women at the hands of a suicide bomber at the Kabul Airport. The Afghanistan withdrawal was a major blow to the standing of America in the world, causing reverberations around the globe.

But why would the Biden administration decide to do this? Our best guess: apparently they wanted to end the war in Afghanistan in time for September 11th, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. That’s right, this disaster probably happened because our president and his advisors wanted a political talking point. So, what do we make of all this? For that, we turned to Victoria Coates, Vice President of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. She sat down with Jerry Dunleavy and James Hasson, authors of the new book Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden’s Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End. Take a listen.

Victoria Coates: Hello, I’m Victoria Coates, the Vice President for the Catherine and Shelby Collin Davis Institute for National Security, here at the Heritage Foundation. And I’m very honored today to have with me Jerry Dunleavy and James Hasson, the authors of the new book, Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden’s Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End, about the Biden administration’s disastrous surrender of Afghanistan almost exactly two years ago today. Jerry and James, welcome.

Jerry Dunleavy: Thanks for having us. It’s great to be here, Victoria.

Coates: So as a retired army captain, James, and Afghanistan veteran, deeply involved obviously in Veterans Affairs, and Jerry, an investigative reporter, many years with the Washington Examiner, how did you two come together to write this badly needed book?

Hasson: Well, we’ve been friends for a long time, and Afghanistan, obviously I have a deep personal connection to, and it was something that Jerry and I kind of bonded over after we became friends and talked about a lot, Jerry’s brother has served several deployments in Afghanistan as well. And while this was all kind of coming down the pipeline, we were talking about it, and even before, when the Biden administration announced they’re going to abandon Bagram, Jerry and I kind of talked about how the writing’s on the wall, this is just going to happen. And so we were tracking it as things slowly, and then very quickly, fell apart. And at the end of it, we just thought that the American people don’t know the full story and the Biden administration has no interest in giving the American people the full story, and we wanted to make sure that both for the people on the ground and for the families and just for the American public, that everyone knew exactly what happened and that what happened there was completely avoidable.

Dunleavy: And just to add to that, because it was extremely eloquent, is that part of the book is not just to get to the truth of what happened, but to ensure that there is some accountability, because there has been none. No one has resigned, no one was fired, there have been no political consequences or otherwise for anybody in the Biden administration from the president on down. And accountability is important. And I think that a book like this, which I think is searing indictment of President Biden’s failures and the Biden administration’s failures, I think that this book is a step towards accountability.

Coates: It’s a great read, strongly recommended to everyone. It’s a very fast-paced read, what I like, which are a lot of different little sections, so you know what you’re reading, it’s very clear. There’s a very clear timeline, ticktock, and I know you’ve got a lot of things declassified through the FOIA process for this. Can you talk a little bit about how you went about writing the book?

Dunleavy: Yeah. Well, the most important thing for writing this book was the people that we talked to on the ground. We talked to dozens of people who were on the ground at Kabul Airport, the Marines and other service members on the ground, and...

Hasson: Probably over a hundred, when you get to the broader scope of everyone involved in everything else, from the States to everywhere else.

Dunleavy: Exactly right. So that was, I think, the most important part, because the service members who are on the ground, I think, have actually been largely voiceless up to this point. And their perspectives shine through throughout the book, all of the different things that they had to deal with and the impossible situation that they were put in at Kabul Airport because of President Biden’s decision making. I know James talked to a ton of them as well and might have something to add.

Hasson: Yeah, there’s a lot that you can glean from FOIA and we definitely, we mined everything that we possibly could, I think. I think we might be the only two people that have read every single page of the multi-thousand page reports that The Pentagon put out about it. And there’s a lot that you can find from that. And there was a lot that we did find from that. But there’s nothing that replaces the perspectives of the men and women and what they were seeing and allowing them to tell that story through their eyes. And there was a lot that they told us that didn’t make it into reports for one reason or another. And we kind of combined both approaches and we spent a lot of time. There were some days where basically we had a poster board on the wall, trying to track different events and make sure that we had a correct timeline for every single thing that happened, because it was important for us to provide a complete narrative.

Coates: No, that really shines through in the book, the combination of documentary, but then very much that firsthand perspective from people who were actually there. Let’s jump into the decision that I think continues to confound everyone. I remember the day it happened in July of 21, when we woke up to news reports that the United States had abandoned Bagram Air Base, and anyone with a rudimentary understanding of what goes on in Afghanistan knew how important that base was, both historically and in terms of what we had turned it into. And so I was wondering if you could just dive into how you guys got after the decision that was made, how it was made, who was involved, and who actually should ultimately be held responsible.

Dunleavy: Let me take a crack at that. So obviously, the closing of Bagram Airbase, that right there was, I think, the point of no return. That terrible decision, I think, made Afghanistan essentially unsalvageable because of everything else that we had done up to that point. So President Biden made his conditionless withdrawal decision, April 14th, 2021, rapid US troop withdrawal. And as US troops are being pulled out, that also meant that contractors and logistics and ISR advisors were also being pulled out; all of the things that the Afghan military and Afghan Air Force had been designed around and built around. So those things are pulled, US troops are pulled, and you see the Taliban sweeping forward and the Afghan military, basically, it was already a very weak Afghan military, and we kicked their legs out from under them on our way out. And closing Bagram though was really the point of no return because Bagram, from everybody that we talked to, would’ve been such a better place to try to do an evacuation from.

Obviously, it was extremely defensible, you never would’ve seen the scenes and the chaos and devastation that you saw at Kabul Airport. Maintaining Bagram and maintaining some of our US air assets there would’ve helped us a lot with potentially stopping the Taliban from taking Kabul as well, which would’ve made our lives incredibly easier as well in terms of getting Americans and our Afghan allies out. And another very under-reported thing that we emphasize in the book is that at Bagram Airbase, there were prisons there that held thousands of terrorists, something like 2000 ISIS-K terrorists alone, dozens of members of Al-Qaeda, thousands of Taliban fighters, were all in prison at Bagram. And among those prisoners was a man by the name of Abdul Rahman Al-Logari, who the Biden administration refuses to say his name, but he was the bomber who would be at Abbey Gate and kill those 13 Americans, wound dozens of them, kill 200 Afghans.

He was in prison at Bagram. The US and Indian intelligence had foiled his suicide plot in New Delhi back in 2017, and he was in prison at Bagram along with thousands of his fellow ISIS-K members. And the first thing that the Taliban did when they took Bagram, because we had abandoned it, they took Bagram on August 15th, 2021, the first thing that the Taliban did was open those doors and free all of those ISIS-K prisoners. One of them was Logari, and just a few days later, he would carry out that devastating attack. And so maintaining Bagram was important not just to do a safe evacuation and not just to potentially give us the ability to stave off the Taliban’s onslaught on Kabul, but if we had just maintained Bagram, the bomber that took 13 American lives would have just been sitting behind bars rather than out there killing Americans.

Hasson: And Victoria, I want to add just a little bit of context about how that decision came about. I think it’s been pretty well documented and we lay it out in Kabul, that the military brass repeatedly pushed back against any plan that did not involve Bagram. And in fact, the Obama administration, in several years prior when they conducted a feasibility analysis about a withdrawal, mapped out what it would look like if they abandoned Bagram and used only Hamid Karzai International airport in Kabul, and they concluded that it was basically a non-starter. But to hold Bagram, you need multiple thousand American troops. And there was no political will.

More and more precisely, there was a political agenda to only have a set number of troops under a thousand, it was 600 by the time August, 2021 came about, and President Biden wanted to be able to say, “Hey, we came in here and there were 3000 troops, we’re down to 600 and the rest are coming out.” And you can’t hold Bagram with that number, and so Bagram had to go. And the military pushed back on it. And one thing that we discovered while talking to a lot of the troops and then also while reading through a lot of the primary source interviews that they gave to The Pentagon afterwards, was that during that pushback, there was initially a bit of a sense of wavering from the Biden administration about whether or not they were actually going to go through with pulling out from Bagram.

Then they ultimately did, but they did so just at a moment’s notice. For example, we talked to a non-commissioned officer who was in charge of installing all of the sensitive communications equipment at Bagram and was transporting equipment from Kabul to Bagram to be able to set up secure communications for the withdrawal. And he told us that after he went to Bagram and installed all that equipment and set up basically what would be kind of the command post at Bagram for the withdrawal, less than a week later, the order came down that we were abandoning Bagram and he had to go back and rip it all out. And that just speaks to the ad hoc and the completely just uninformed nature of that decision. And it ultimately was a deadly one.

Coates: You all have a remarkable little section in the book called Jailbreak, I think on page 190, that tells the story of the dispersal of those terrorists in really stark terms. It’s one of the great shames of all of this is, as you were just saying, James, this is clearly being driven by artificial quotas and the date of 9/11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and everything else was subordinate to the numbers and the date, which, I think, most would say is not a great way to plan a strategic military operation.

And I want to get back to the attack on Abbey Gate a little bit later on in our discussion, but one thing that really struck me in the course of this was the appearance of a name I had not expected to read in this book, which is Victor Bout, the so-called Merchant of Death who the Biden administration traded for WNBA star, Brittney Griner, to get her out of Putin’s clutches; a swap which, to me, has always seemed wildly disproportionate. And the fact that Bout was back on the battlefield, went to Ukraine, had been basically Putin’s arms runner. So why does Victor Bout turn up in this book?

Dunleavy: Victor Bout turns up in this book because there’s actually a Taliban connection to Victor Bout as well.

Coates: He’s a really good guy.

Dunleavy: So Merchant of Death is such a great name for him, because look, he was Russia’s arms dealer and basically the Russian government’s global arm for not just dealing in arms, but also for sort of meddling in various conflicts around the world. And one of the things that Victor Bout did back in the 1990s was he was an arms dealer for the Taliban. So Victor Bout was flying planes into Afghanistan in the 1990s to help support the Taliban’s conquering, and then its attempted control over Afghanistan at the same time that the Taliban, of course, was harboring Al Qaeda. And so when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and we’re finding caches of weapons, it was being assessed that some of these weapons were being supplied by Victor Bout.

So we have that connection in this book in part because of Victor Bout’s connection to the Taliban, but also because in our book, I think we make a rock solid case that the Russian invasion of Ukraine obviously has been a long-term goal of Vladimir Putin, but he had not done a full scale invasion of Ukraine yet, but the way that the United States and NATO looked like they were in a total shambles after that debacle, leaving the Taliban back in charge after 20 years of fighting, we make the case, and I think we’re right, that that was the final push that Putin needed to invade Ukraine.

After a year of President Biden doing everything in his power to not deter Russia and to not deter Putin, and then Putin sees the debacle in Afghanistan, he decides to invade. And of course, Victor Bout not only has the Taliban connection, but then he’s swapped for Britney Griner and the first thing that he does when he’s freed is says, “I’m now going to help the Russians again with the war in Ukraine.” And so that’s why trying to separate things sometimes just doesn’t work. This disaster in Afghanistan, as much of a disaster as it was for the Afghan people and for the Americans that we lost and the Americans who were left behind, it wasn’t localized.

Coates: And along those lines, you also have one of your final chapters dedicated to China. I’m so curious to hear why China gets a chapter in your book.

Hasson: Yeah, certainly. I think there are a few different layers to that. Primarily, it’s because China immediately seized on this display of weakness that was just evident to the entire world, where America is abandoning its citizens in full view of the world, abandoning its allies, refusing to stand its ground. And China saw that, and the CCP immediately labeled what happened in Afghanistan as the Kabul moment. And that was part of all of their propaganda. And they immediately started targeting Taiwan saying, “Hey, look, this is going to happen to you and America can’t be counted on to stand up for its allies.”

And they actually recently repeated that formulation of the Kabul moment just now in the second anniversary of the withdrawal. But also, China has stepped into this void as well, and has been partnering and allying with the Taliban quite a bit, to the extent that, as we outlined in the book, they were helping the Taliban track down interpreters who had worked with the United States. And so it conveyed a very clear message, and I think it’s going to lead to a much more dangerous world, especially when, in our view, inevitably China tries to move on Taiwan.

Coates: You all do a really good job of pointing out how these episodes and movements which the administration is trying as hard as it can to stovepipe, are actually very intimately intertwined. And that if we try to separate out an attempt to make a deal with China on climate from China’s very overt support for Putin on Ukraine, both those things are going to fail, because they’re not based on reality. I’d like to turn in our remaining time to some things that have happened since the book was wrapped for publication.

The end of the book is called Thirteen, it is a deeply moving account of the 13 heroes that were lost at Abbey Gate in August of ‘21, and as we’ve already covered, this attack did not need to happen. We had the extraordinary congressional testimony in March, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, about what actually happened with the opportunities to stop it, which was pretty incredible. And what’s shameful to me, but perhaps not surprising, is the fact that we’re only hearing these stories because we have a slim Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which is finally bringing these people into a little bit of a limelight. But clearly very important to the two of you to conclude the book with these 13 stories, I was very moved to meet some of the family members at your book party, this is obviously deeply personal. And so I wondered if you could talk about how you came to that decision.

Dunleavy: Yeah. Well, in the course of writing the book, we had the pleasure and really the honor of getting to talk to a lot of the Gold Star families. And in my new position on the House of Foreign Affairs Committee where I’m helping lead the Afghanistan withdrawal investigation, and just a disclaimer, I’m just talking to my personal capacity as the book author, but I’ve also gotten to know the families as well and we’re going to be having a round table with those families at the end of August here on Capitol Hill. It was important to tell their stories, their powerful stories, tragic. They talked with us about obviously the dignified transfer ceremony at Dover, where to a person, they talked about President Biden just continuing to check his watch.

They talked about their meeting with President Biden in person where they, again, said that President Biden didn’t really seem to know the names of their children, but that he would say something to the effect of, “Well, but I know how you feel, my son Beau.” And obviously, President Biden’s son, Beau, dying of brain cancer is tragic, but Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015, he didn’t die on the battlefield and he hadn’t died the day before like these families’ children had. And these families largely hold President Biden responsible for what happened to their children. And so they are demanding answers and they are demanding accountability, and I’ll just add that something that we found in our book, we talked earlier about if we had just maintained Bagram, the bomber would’ve been behind bars. Sergeant Tyler Vargas-Andrews testifying about believing that he had the suicide bomber in his sights, but not being given permission from his commanding officer because of this unbelievably unclear rules of engagement.

We also found in the course of our book, in Pentagon documents, that one witness said that US intelligence knew that ISIS-K was staging in a hotel right by the Kabul Airport and that US military leaders asked the Taliban to assault that location, but that the Taliban obviously never did. We also found that it looks like according to another witness, that a US airstrike against ISIS-K in Afghanistan was requested before the Abbey Gate bombing, but that it didn’t happen, at least in part according to the testimony because of a negative response from the Taliban. And so these families want answers, and I think more than wanting answers, they want accountability because there’s been none.

Hasson: And they deserve both. And I think that was incredibly well put, and the only thing that I’ll add to that is that President Biden, to this day, still has never spoken the names of the 13 service members killed at Abbey Gate. And I think that that alone is just an incredible disrespect and just a punch to the gut to those families, and they deserve better. And that was one of the reasons that we decided to write Kabul.

Coates: It struck me on the anniversary, the president went out to Milwaukee and made remarks about the great state of our economy. And I watched the whole thing because I was curious to see if he would acknowledge the anniversary and speak the names of the fallen. And he got to it one point in the speech and he started talking about how there were still too many empty chairs around dinner tables. And I thought maybe that would be the moment, but no, he was talking about people who were lost to Covid, which is obviously also a grievous loss, but to start talking about the empty chairs around dinner tables on that day and not even acknowledge that this happened really seemed quite remarkable to me.

And along those lines, a lot of folks have asked why the families of the victims of the bombing don’t sue, in a word, why there’s no civil suit for these families. And I know there’s a law in the books that prohibits suing the federal government, I guess, for the loss on a battlefield, but there isn’t a law in the books to prevent the victims of terrorism from suing for money that’s held by the US government.

Hasson: From collecting it.

Coates: Yeah. Yeah, from collecting that. So that could be a possible recourse. The other thing I was wondering about is we’ve had this bizarre, very heavily redacted state after-action report that was dropped, like burying a bone, on the Friday before 4th of July weekend, apparently from 2022, and it took them more than a year to redact two thirds of it and then put it out there. Was there anything that jumped out at you about that report that corroborated your reporting or extended your arguments?

Hasson: Well, there’s plenty that corroborated it. The thing that jumped out to me was how strenuously they attempted to whitewash their own failures. I think we lay out in Kabul, over and over, how the State Department failed to act and how their failure to act put a lot of lives in danger and ultimately led to Afghan allies being left behind and led to American citizens being left behind. And one thing that’s come up at different points is the dissent memo sent by members of the Embassy, Embassy officials, to Secretary Blinken, in July 2021, warning him that the government was going to fall, the embassy was going to be overrun, and things needed to be in motion yesterday.

And it’s well known that Secretary Blinken received that, he stated that, but then essentially ignored it altogether. And the State Department went to great lengths to avoid providing the contents of that dissent memo to Congress. And one thing that we can tell you is that we were able to determine that the two principal authors of that dissent cable were, believe it or not, Obama National Security Council alums. So this wasn’t just people on the right screaming and them dismissing it because they think it’s partisan, which would’ve been wrong anyway, this was anybody with a lick of sense would’ve known that what happened was going to happen and they just didn’t act.

Dunleavy: And all that I would add to that is obviously at the end of the day, this was President Biden’s decision, top to bottom. This was President Biden. He’s the one that made this decision. He’s the one that gave the marching orders. He’s the one that picked September 11th, 2021 as the anniversary date for whatever reason, obviously an insane date to pick. As Americans, I think anybody that heard that felt sick to their stomach. And it was a political decision, not a strategic one. And of course what it meant was that we would be rapidly withdrawing all of our troops in the middle of Afghan fighting season. Well known over 20 years of fighting that that is exactly what would happen, and well known that it was a terrible idea. And by picking that date, the end result was that on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban was back in charge.

But beyond President Biden, there is a lot of blame to go around. But it is Secretary Blinken and the State Department that dropped the ball the most. They did not prepare for this, they did not plan for this, there was no plan to get Americans out, there was no plan to get tens of thousands of Afghan allies out. And it showed. You could see it on your TV screens, and when you read the book, you’ll see the stuff that we were able to find that wasn’t on TV. And it was even worse than you think. There’s a lot of blame to go around; the military could have done more, the intelligence community could have done more, everybody could have done more, but the State Department has a big black eye over this.

Coates: From that report, the thing that jumped out at me was when the State Department was griping about those awful veterans and American citizens who were trying to get in and help people because they had abandoned them, because it made the State Department people less safe.

Hasson: Yeah, it’s just an incredible thing to read, because it completely turns it on its head, because those veterans groups were there because the State Department didn’t do its job. And one thing that we reveal in Kabul is that Special Operations Command Central was asking veterans groups for help to evacuate Afghan allies because they were out of bandwidth at that point. And these types of evacuations are technically, by doctrine, supposed to be run by the State Department. But the State Department was so behind the ball that you had to have everyday Americans, some of them even going back into Afghanistan, to rescue people. And that’s just a damning indictment all on its own.

And to add one more thing about the State Department, just because this is something that just personally infuriated me when I found out, there were a maximum of, I believe, 36 consular officers there at any one time, which isn’t a whole lot, but they would only work four-hour shifts, sometimes eight-hour shifts, and then they would leave. And if nobody showed up to replace them, oh, well, then the gates just stopped. They treated it like shift work while the Marines and the soldiers there were out there for 24 hours at a time, sometimes 40 hours without sleep. And so there’s just no excuse for what happened.

Coates: No, it’s an incredible story, a very searing story. I think all Americans need to read this, I think we all need to grapple with what happened, come to terms with the fallout. And just in conclusion, what do you all think comes next? Are there more shoes to drop? What’s the next step on from the important work that you’ve done?

Dunleavy: Well, just for me personally, the House of Foreign Affairs Committee is going to continue to investigate this. The investigation hasn’t stopped, the investigation is ramping up. And so it took a Republican majority for an investigation to even begin, because the Democrats didn’t want to look into this. And that’s just the reality that President Biden was able to skate for a year and a half after this disaster, because it’s extremely politically damaging to him, and I think rightly so, because there’s no real way to argue about this, and there’s no real way to have an ideological disagreement about what a disaster this was and how badly it was managed. And so from my perspective, Republicans are going to continue to investigate, and I think that our book is great and eyeopening, I encourage everyone to read it. We see it as a launching pad to continue to investigate and to continue to demand answers and to continue to hold people accountable.

Hasson: Yeah. Only thing I would add to that is that the Biden administration has done its utmost to bury this as much as possible. I think we put together what is so far the complete story, and we uncovered a whole lot more than has been publicly out there. I think there are still some shoes to drop. And personally, what I would like to see out of this in a just world, I think you would have some kind of commission, something similar like a 9/11 commission where we get to the bottom of why we abandoned thousands of Americans to the mercy of the Taliban, how a 20-year war ended this way, and why 13 Americans were killed in one of the largest losses of life in the entire war in a single day, and dozens more wounded, some of them permanently. But that’s going to take some political will that I’m not sure is there from the other side of the aisle. So in the meantime, we’re going to keep digging and I would encourage everyone to read the book because it can’t be forgotten.

Coates: Well, Jerry, James, thank you very much for your time, for your hard work, and look forward to continuing on this journey with you.

Dunleavy: Thank you, Victoria.

Hasson: Thank you very much Victoria.

Dunleavy: Appreciate it.

Guiney: Thanks to Victoria Coates, Jerry Dunleavy and James Hasson for appearing on today’s show. And thank you to all of you for listening to Heritage Explains. Check out our show notes for a link to their book, Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden’s Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End. You can follow them on X, formerly Twitter, with Jerry @JerryDunlevy, James @JamesHasson20 and Victoria @VictoriaCoates. If you have any thoughts, feedback, or suggestions for future episodes, we’d love to hear them, send them our way at [email protected]. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It’s written and produced by Mark GuineyLauren Evans, and John Popp. Production assistance by Alexa Walker and Jeff Smith.