Washington Under the Cloud of Kabul

Julia Ioffe
August 17, 2021

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, you would’ve thought that Washington, D.C. had fallen, too. After twenty years of grinding and nebulously defined combat, enough people in this town’s small and closely-knit foreign policy circles had rotated through Afghanistan—as soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, and journalists—and so the images of desperate Afghans rushing the tarmac and falling to their deaths from a plane’s wheels hit this town especially hard. “I think folks in D.C. are feeling this more than the American people,” said one Obama administration defense official. “A lot of us who served there, we have a real visceral connection to the country that a lot of people in America don’t have. This was not a great weekend for anybody’s mental health.”

All weekend and into Monday, the American foreign policy establishment was glued to their phones, tracking developments in Afghanistan, hosting and attending policy conference calls, swapping analysis and shock in private messaging threads, and apportioning blame for the chaos. Pentagon people blamed the State Department people for not getting the Afghans’ visas done in time—“couldn’t plan a two-car funeral”—while State people blamed the White House for not setting the process in motion when the pull-out was announced in the spring. Meanwhile, the White House blamed the Trump administration for locking them into an agreement with the Taliban, and Trump blamed the Biden administration for not following his plan. And almost everyone, it seemed, blamed “an intelligence failure.” How else did we not see this coming?

This infuriated some old counter-terrorism hands at the C.I.A. If anything, according to the people I spoke to, they felt that they’d gotten the analysis right. In their view, they had been the pessimists throughout, and the Afghan units they trained had fought hard to the end. “This narrative that this was a massive intel failure is getting really annoying,” said one retired C.I.A. counter-terrorism official who served in Afghanistan. “Democrats were so critical of Trump’s treatment of the intelligence community, and at the first sign of a foreign policy crisis, they threw us under the bus. It’s a little annoying.”

If anything, these former C.I.A. people said, this was all Biden’s fault. He received the assessments, including one saying that Kabul would fall in 30 days—what did he think was going to happen? “That doesn’t mean that there’s a trade deficit,” fumed the retired C.I.A. officer. “That’s the light blinking red. That means the shit is going to hit the fan!” The administration, said another retired C.I.A. counter-terrorism operative, “rushed it to make the 20th anniversary of 9/11, maybe for the bragging rights of it. From my experience, whenever leaders rush to make an arbitrary deadline, that’s when we do things wrong. Rushing is never a reason to make a decision.” A third retired C.I.A. counter-terrorism hand told me, “It’s really fucking disappointing. I’m sick to my stomach.” (When I asked the White House for comment, a senior administration official said, “the President’s national security team has been engaged in months of extensive scenario planning, and was ready for this challenge.”)

Others also came to the intelligence community’s defense. “This is the scenario that, for the last 20 years, we have had to sit in the Situation Room and listen to from D.O.D., that’s why nobody would pull the trigger and pull out the troops,” said one former National Security Council staffer. “I think this scenario was inevitable and they absolutely expected it and factored it into the price of actually pulling the U.S. out of Afghanistan. But I don’t think they expected it to go quite so badly, so quickly, and so obviously.”

Others suggested that this was predictable. “We have noted the troubling trend lines in Afghanistan for some time, with the Taliban at its strongest, militarily, since 2001,” said a senior intelligence official. “Strategically, a rapid Taliban takeover was always a possibility…We have always been clear-eyed that this was possible, and tactical conditions on the ground can often evolve quickly.” A former Pentagon advisor on Afghanistan put it more succinctly: “This is a policy failure. I’m sure someone wrote somewhere that there’s a possibility of a quick collapse, but did whoever read it take it seriously? At its heart this is not an intelligence failure. It’s that you don’t understand the Afghans.” (The Departments of Defense and State did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

Biden, for his part, blamed the Afghans. During a nationally televised speech on Monday, the president said the buck stopped with him—but that it started with the Afghan government. “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” the President said. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.” American soldiers, he said, “cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.” America spent over a trillion dollars, trained a force of 300,000, paid their salaries, bought their gear, the president lamented. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future,” he said. “What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.” He was not angry with the Afghans, but he was certainly disappointed.

But that didn’t solve the problem on the ground. Tens of thousands of Afghans who had helped American or allied forces or who had worked for international aid organizations or as journalists, as well as their families, and were trapped in Afghanistan. There were already reports of Taliban fighters going door to door, making lists. The Afghan education minister, a woman who had grown up in America and had returned to help her native country, gave desperate media interviews from a hallway in her home, wondering if she’d live till morning. The first female mayor of Kabul was saying she was waiting for the Taliban “to come…and kill me.” Journalists shared messages from their panicked Afghan friends and colleagues, who were either trying desperately to flee, or making their peace with an imminent death.

In Washington, meanwhile, it seemed that everyone was working their networks to get their Afghan friends to safety. Rep. Seth Moulton, a former Marine who served in Iraq, was working with other veterans to get people out. Another Congressman, Andy Kim, who worked in Afghanistan for the Obama administration, was putting out calls on social media, trying to gather names of people to try to get them evacuated—and to put pressure on the White House. “I cannot promise anything but will do everything I can,” he wrote, before tweeting out an email address created for the occasion.

NPR host Scott Simon, who covered the American invasion of Afghanistan, was making desperate calls all over town, trying to help an Afghan friend. Richard Fontaine, who heads the bipartisan Center for a New American Security, was trying to help a friend get their former colleague out. The Afghan man had everything in his application, except a letter of recommendation from his former American supervisor, who now worked at an American industrial conglomerate and wasn’t answering the Afghan’s emails. Long story short, Fontaine knew someone who worked at the conglomerate, who knew the supervisor, who immediately responded and dashed off a recommendation letter.

Kelley Currie, who served as Trump’s ambassador-at-large for women’s issues, had compiled a list of over 700 people and was trying to find American sponsors for them. “There are a lot of former Agency and military folks who are in direct contact with Afghans and who are trying to get people out,” one of the former C.I.A. counter-terrorism officers told me. “I don’t think there’s anything organized. It’s retired folks who are still in touch with their Afghan interpreters, madly working the phones. These are people we knew. It’s pretty tragic.”

In the absence of American government action—or in the face of its calamitous lethargy—the people who know its bureaucracy best are now frantically freelancing, pulling strings, putting the right people in touch, calling in chits. This is the kind of thing usually reserved in Washington for more personal matters: job hunting, wedging their children into the right $50,000-a-year private school, or, when there were ultra-limited supplies of the covid vaccine this spring, getting shots in their arms.

For the last few days, however, the network of networks lit up for a more altruistic purpose. Who knows the right person at State? Could the Pentagon be of help? D.H.S.? Do you know anyone on the Hill? Everyone in Washington was getting pinged with one of these questions, including myself, despite the fact that I’d never set foot in Afghanistan or even written about it much. A guy I’d gone on a couple unmemorable dates with three years ago texted to ask if I could help him rescue four people trapped at the Kabul airport. I wish I could have.

And yet, no one’s power in Washington is unlimited, not the president’s, not the denizens’ of this town. One friend told me about finally helping secure a visa for an Afghan colleague, only to realize that he was stuck hundreds of miles outside of Kabul. How would this person get to the capital? There were no more domestic Afghan flights and the roads were now dotted with Taliban checkpoints. “If they’re stuck somewhere else,” the former C.I.A. counter-terrorism official told me, “they’re dead.”

Fontaine told me that the letter of recommendation he helped secure was able to complete the Afghan man’s visa application and that he was in Kabul. But who would process his visa application now that the U.S. had evacuated its embassy? The people who had handed in their passports to the American embassy for processing before it all collapsed have apparently had their passports destroyed in the rush of document burning that accompanied the embassy’s dismantling. And even if he had a visa in hand, then what? There was no flight for him to board. The airport hadn’t been secured yet, commercial flights had been canceled, and all those chartered flights people in Washington and New York were trying to fund had no permission to fly in or out of Kabul. (The Pentagon announced on Tuesday afternoon that the airport was now open to military and limited commercial flights.)

“I was furiously texting back and forth between a Congressional staffer and an Afghan-American about trying to get money to evacuate some young Afghans,” the Obama defense official told me. “Then over the course of Thursday-Friday night, with some veteran friends, we were able to raise $24,000 to resettle some refugees. It’s a drop in the bucket. It makes us feel better, but the challenge is one you can’t solve on Twitter or absent the means of the state.” He added: “I find the conversations we’ve been having for the last few days are interesting in one way: our shared helplessness. There’ve been a couple instances where we’ve been able to help someone, but we’re probably helping each other more than the Afghans.”

The wall that these experienced and sophisticated Washington operators hit was just a small part of the larger wall the country slammed into in the last few days. Americans believe fervently in America and its power, even if they are ambivalent about being “the world’s policeman.” We are not used to losing and what practice we have had, we don’t know what to do with. Unlike many other nations, Americans tend to believe that every problem has a solution if you just work at it hard enough, and we’re not sure what to do when a problem resists our fixing. Losing, failing is just not part of the national mythology.

Nor is fully reckoning with what kind of damage that deep denial wreaks abroad. And for all the slander heaped upon #thistown by the very politicians who seek its highest and most powerful offices, Washington is real America. It is America at its most cynical but also its most idealistic, its most self-confident and sheltered. And Washington, like America, usually means well. It’s just that both are often surprised by their own limitations and their own privilege.

“I see a tiny glimpse of this, it doesn’t affect me in any real way,” a clearly heartsick Fontaine confessed. “It’s a very jarring thing to think that we’re driving around our nice neighborhoods, while, on the other side of the world, at least in part because of our country’s actions, there are people running for their lives.”