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Essential Politics: Leaving Afghanistan was always going to be hard. Look at the 1980s

A military transport plane takes off while Afghans watch from a field
A military transport plane takes off in Kabul while Afghans stranded outside the airport watch.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

As the exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan unfolds, the question of who to blame has taken over the discourse.

But what’s unfolding in Afghanistan is the culmination of decades of foreign policy. It’s many decisions — some effective, others not — compounded over years. For now, the fallout of a lost war and an international tragedy of this scale begs for context. When the dust finally settles, there will be plenty of blame to go around.

President Biden is the current favorite target. He did, after all, oversee the exit. But rewind to 2019, when the Washington Post published its investigation “The Afghanistan Papers” — a thorough catalog of military mismanagement in Afghanistan akin to the Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam War. The documents implicate officials from the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.

My colleague Tracy Wilkinson had an excellent piece last week that explores in detail how four presidential administrations led to this moment. And if you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, you may also recall that I wrote an edition in April exploring how the decision to withdraw was punted from one president to the next.

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But to understand the events of this month, it’s perhaps helpful to go back much further than April 2021, or even 2001. This isn’t the first time a foreign government invaded Afghanistan with disastrous consequences, nor is it the United States’ first attempt to disentangle itself.

I spent this week reading through The Times’ coverage of Afghanistan as the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in the late 1980s, under pressure from the Reagan administration. Here’s what I learned.

The first withdrawal

Let’s start with a history lesson: In 1979, a pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan faced strong resistance from opposition groups inside the country. The Soviet Union hoped to keep Afghanistan on its side of the Cold War and sent troops to suppress the uprising.

It was ultimately a costly move. The invasion ballooned into a decadelong occupation without clear objectives and with disastrous consequences for all involved. Two years into the military intervention, 2.5 million Afghans had fled into Pakistan and thousands of Soviet soldiers had been killed, according to The Times.

The conflict was made more complicated by the U.S.'s involvement. President Reagan took great interest in the conflict, accusing the Soviet Union of “barbaric methods of waging war.” A 1980 Times story quotes then-candidate Reagan as calling for the U.S. to funnel weapons to the anti-Soviet rebel groups. The Reagan administration would make good on these promises, flooding rebel groups with arms and cash, plus enacting embargoes that required the Soviet Union to ship food into Afghanistan.

“The Soviets must be made to understand that they will continue to pay a higher and higher price until they accept the necessity for a political solution,” Reagan said in 1986.

By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union had begun the back-and-forth dance the U.S. now knows well: promising to leave, pulling out troops, then backtracking. Publicly, Soviet officials blamed the U.S.-armed groups for holding up their withdrawal and creating dangerous conditions as their troops attempted to leave.

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And the U.S. had been sucked in, too: A 1988 Times story reported that the Reagan administration was confronting a new series of questions about how involved it should be in the future of Afghanistan.

The last Soviet soldiers left in 1989. The American government, too, urged its remaining citizens to leave Afghanistan, citing deteriorating security conditions that would later break out into civil war.

The legacy of this episode remains complicated. Both governments were criticized for their roles in the conflict and their abrupt exits, leaving displaced refugees with little support, as a 1995 Times story reported.

As former Times staffer Shashank Bengali and former special correspondent Sultan Faizy reported in 2019, the Afghan resistance — with CIA backing — sapped Moscow’s finances and morale. It’s seen as one of the factors that hastened the downfall of the Soviet Union.

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The 2021 withdrawal

The prospective exit also has been years in the works. Obama promised to scale back U.S. involvement, but first, he sent a surge of troops. Trump vowed several times to withdraw all troops, making chaotic progress that stopped short of a full exit. Biden is now the third president to make a similar commitment.

April 14: Biden formally announces a Sept. 11 deadline to end military involvement in Afghanistan. He argues that the 2001 terrorist attacks that led Bush to launch the U.S. invasion can no longer justify prolonging an unwinnable war, The Times’ David Cloud and David Lauter report.

July 2: The Pentagon announces that the military has vacated Bagram Airfield, its biggest air base in the country, in preparation for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of August.

July 30: The first group of Afghan interpreters and contractors who aided U.S. military and diplomatic missions arrive in the U.S. at Dulles, Va. The flight was part of a frantic Biden administration effort to evacuate thousands of people potentially facing retribution in Afghanistan from a resurgent Taliban, Eli Stokols reports.

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The first arrivals came just hours after Congress took action to expand the Afghan special immigrant visa program by approving $1.125 billion in additional funding.

Aug. 1-12: The Taliban begins to swiftly take over cities and provinces, including Herat, a provincial capital that had become an oasis for women and girls, out of which it had once been pushed, Laura King reports. Nabih Bulos writes that the payroll of the corruption-plagued Afghan security forces was stuffed with “ghost soldiers” who didn’t exist or didn’t show up, helping explain why the national forces didn’t stop the Taliban.

Early in the month, the Biden administration announces it will expand a refugee visa program, but the system’s complexities are limiting. On Aug. 12, the Biden administration announces it will pull most U.S. Embassy personnel out of Kabul and urges American citizens to leave the country immediately. Wilkinson reports that several thousand U.S. troops are dispatched, mainly to the Kabul airport, to help with a military-run partial evacuation.

Aug. 14: Taliban fighters seize the Afghan government’s last big northern stronghold, the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, closing in on Kabul. Desperation sets in as refugees try to flee, report Marcus Yam and Molly Hennessy-Fiske.

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Aug. 15: Taliban militants move into the capital, Kabul, and occupy the presidential palace, demanding the unconditional surrender of the Afghan government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flees the country, Yam and Wilkinson report.

Aug. 16: Biden, in an address from the White House, defends the chaotic withdrawal, taking responsibility for ending the 20-year war but deflecting blame for the “hard and messy” events of recent days, write Stokols. “I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face,” Biden said. “But I do not regret my decision to end America’s war ... in Afghanistan.”

Aug. 16-present: Two main narratives take over news coverage.

First, the evacuations. Desperation grows at the airport in Kabul. Images of chaos emerge as crowds try to get the airport, with reports of violence. On Aug. 20, Biden says U.S. forces are making “significant progress” in evacuating U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans. This week, the U.S. military said it pulled off its biggest day of evacuation flights with about 21,600 people flown safely out in a 24-hour period. Meanwhile, CIA Director William Burns secretly went to Kabul on Monday to meet with the Taliban’s top political leader, a U.S. official told the Associated Press.

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Second, the political reckoning. Some Republicans in Congress blame Biden for ending the 20-year war after former President Trump made a deal with the Taliban — but not the Afghan government — to withdraw troops. Some Democrats defend Biden while others call for more aid. Even late-night TV hosts weigh in, criticizing Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. Meena Venkataramanan, Erin B. Logan and Sarah D. Wire report on the attitudes among the California delegation.

As Wilkinson reports, some defense observers now are questioning how an army built with nearly a trillion dollars in U.S. and NATO funding over two decades and tons of materiel — from rockets to Humveescould so quickly collapse. And she reports on what, over the last 20 years, went wrong in Afghanistan. Some defense officials are expressing concerns about a potential rise in terrorist threats. And some jihadi groups are now looking to the Taliban for inspiration, Bulos reports, unleashing yet more disagreement about what the U.S. should have done over the 20 years and four American presidencies during the war in Afghanistan.

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More on Afghanistan

— Biden appeared unwilling Tuesday to bend to pressure, including from European allies, to extend the evacuation effort, planning — for now — to stick to his deadline for troop withdrawal, Stokols and Wilkinson report.

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— The airport in Kabul has become a chaotic way station with scenes of pathos, writes Bulos.

— After two decades of war, Congress now has 34 members who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, including nine Democrats and 25 Republicans. They want answers about what went wrong, Wire writes.

The view from Washington

— Biden has plenty of concerns at home, too, write Stokols and Noah Bierman. Even amid the fall of Kabul, the White House has maintained its overarching focus on the domestic matters it has prioritized for the last eight months, like infrastructure.

— The Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Tuesday upheld a Texas judge’s order that would require the Biden administration to follow Trump’s so-called Remain in Mexico policy, writes David G. Savage.

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— The battle against COVID-19 passed a regulatory milestone Monday when the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer’s vaccine, a decision that could boost Biden’s effort to control the pandemic, write Stokols and Chris Megerian.

— The House on Tuesday approved a budget resolution clearing the way for a massive $3.5-trillion social spending bill later this year, Wire and Venkataramanan write. Ten moderate Democrats had threatened to block the vote until the House first passed a separate bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal.

— The Pentagon has agreed to temporarily extend a program that gives wildland firefighters access to military satellite data, Anna M. Phillips reports.

— The Pentagon also says it will require service members to get the COVID-19 vaccine now that the Pfizer vaccine has received full approval.

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The view from California

— In hopes of plugging the state’s affordable housing shortage, some California government agencies are purchasing buildings, usually luxury ones, and doing the opposite of most real estate buyers. They’re lowering the rent, Andrew Khouri reports.

— The big donors helping Gov. Gavin Newsom fight the recall challenge also have a big wish list in Sacramento, reports Phil Willon.

— There’s a question brewing for some of California’s legal scholars: Could Newsom be ousted by a candidate who technically receives fewer votes than he does? Maura Dolan has the details.

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