President Biden’s choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor. When President Trump took office in 2017, there were more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. Eighteen months later, after introducing more than 3,000 additional troops just to maintain the stalemate, President Trump ordered direct talks with the Taliban without consulting with our allies and partners or allowing the Afghan government at the negotiating table. In September 2019, President Trump emboldened the Taliban by publicly considering inviting them to Camp David on the anniversary of 9/11. In February 2020, the United States and the Taliban reached a deal, known as the Doha Agreement, under which the United States agreed to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 2021. In return, the Taliban agreed to participate in a peace process and refrain from attacking U.S. troops and threatening Afghanistan’s major cities—but only as long as the United States remained committed to withdraw by the agreement’s deadline. As part of the deal, President Trump also pressured the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters from prison, including senior war commanders, without securing the release of the only American hostage known to be held by the Taliban.
Over his last 11 months in office, President Trump ordered a series of drawdowns of U.S. troops. By June 2020, President Trump reduced U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 8,600. In September 2020, he directed a further draw down to 4,500. A month later, President Trump tweeted, to the surprise of military advisors, that the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be “home by Christmas!” On September 28, 2021, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley testified that, on November 11, he had received an unclassified signed order directing the U.S. military to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan no later than January 15, 2021. One week later, that order was rescinded and replaced with one to draw down to 2,500 troops by the same date. During the transition from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration, the 2 outgoing Administration provided no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies. Indeed, there were no such plans in place when President Biden came into office, even with the agreed upon full withdrawal just over three months away.
As a result, when President Biden took office on January 20, 2021, the Taliban were in the strongest military position that they had been in since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country. At the same time, the United States had only 2,500 troops on the ground—the lowest number of troops in Afghanistan since 2001—and President Biden was facing President Trump’s near-term deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 2021, or the Taliban would resume its attacks on U.S. and allied troops. Secretary of Defense Austin testified on September 28, 2021, “the intelligence was clear that if we did not leave in accordance with that agreement, the Taliban would recommence attacks on our forces.” This experience underscores the critical importance of detailed and effective transition coordination, especially when it comes to complex military operations for which decisions and execution pass from one administration to the next, and consequential deals struck late in the outgoing administration whose implementation will fall largely to the incoming administration.