Now that we've talked about the situation in Afghanistan at the time of this retreat, we come to the question of how Joe Biden decided to execute this withdrawal. It should be noted that the president is not necessarily an expert on military strategy, and particularly Biden. The president relies on his advisors and generals to advise him how to proceed, but he does have the final say. When you think about it, there is a valid reason for America to maintain a military presence in places like Afghanistan. First of all, it gives us a foothold from which to operate. Before the calamitous withdrawal, the United States had a sizeable base, Bagram Air Base, about 40 miles outside of Kabul. At one point, it was staffed by 40,000 military and civilian personnel. It was the center of the American counter-terrorism and nation-building effort in Afghanistan.
Why then, you might ask, before the rest of the military and diplomatic resources and personnel were evacuated from the country, did Biden decide to evacuate the base and hand it over to the Afghan government with very little coordination? Good question, and when asked about it, Biden said he was going to celebrate the 4th of July weekend and address the topic later. The Guardian reported on 2 July 2021 that,
The US withdrawal agreement was reached under Donald Trump, but Biden has pushed ahead with the drawdown, saying on Friday it was “on track”, despite warnings about the grave security threats. Some intelligence analysts have warned the government in Kabul could collapse within months.
But alas, this was the strategy that President Biden decided to follow. By the time the evacuation of the US Embassy in Kabul had begun in earnest, there were only 1,000 active troops in-country, all of them centered around the embassy. There’s another problem with leaving Bagram so early: it leaves only Kabul International Airport for evacuation. And herein lies a very serious problem.
As I mentioned, Bagram is about 40 miles away from Kabul. If you look at it on a map, you can see just how different it is from Kabul Airport. Technically, Bagram is a town and Bagram Air Base is located in it, but when you look at a map, the entire town is essentially just the airbase plus a few houses. The main road going through the town (and there really is only one main road) is called Airport Rd. The base itself has an area of 30 square miles. Officially, Kabul has an area of 395 square miles, but the urban area is only about 40% of that. The airport is only 4.5 miles from the presidential palace, which is roughly in the middle of the city. It is surrounded by an urban area, similar to other airports in Miami or Las Vegas, though it is certainly not comparable in size.
Kabul airport is just one runway and two terminals, with limited facilities. At its peak in 2011, just under 2.3 million passengers flew out of Kabul. Meanwhile, Chicago O’Hare’s total was 80 million passengers that same year. Maybe it’s not fair to compare it to one of the busiest airports in the world. But if we take a look at Islamabad International Airport in neighboring Pakistan, we see that it operated about 3.6 million passengers that year, and it’s been trending upwards ever since. Kabul’s numbers fell to just over 1 million in 2019. Islamabad had 5 million. All this is to show how incredibly unattractive Kabul Airport is for an evacuation process. Unfortunately, the president would find this out the hard way.
Next time, we'll go through a timeline of the troop withdrawal that led to the disaster.