Books: David Sanger’s book explores President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan – Slate

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Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, John Dickerson spoke with author David E. Sanger about his new bookNew Cold Wars. They discussed President Biden’s Middle East moves and the ripple effects of his plan for Afghanistan.

This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

John Dickerson: The Biden team came into office with a whole lot of experience, and Bill Burns, who’s the current director of the CIA, bumps up in the book all over the place in his various roles, or at least there’s references to his various roles, when he was serving in Moscow. Because part of the argument you’re making is that there was some calcified thinking, as you say, it was part of both parties. But wisdom and experience are crucial because Bill Burns knows Putin. 

David Sanger: Better than probably any American in high office.

Exactly. And so, give me a sense of the Biden team and that mix of what’s necessary to have—the wisdom of the past, but also the adaptability of the present. 

The wisdom of the past is definitely there in this group, and it’s a very tight team. They talk mostly to each other, which can, of course, be a downside. But the combination of Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, the Secretary of State, Bill Burns at CIA—who is a CIA director, but is used by Biden for a variety of other purposes, including trying to negotiate the hostage agreement and ceasefire in the Middle East from his time there. I mean, I’ve never seen a CIA director who takes on this range of tasks. And [he] knows Putin really well and is sent to talk to Putin, before the war breaks out and to warn him of how the U.S. would react. And by the way, in the book, you will read Bill Burns describing those meetings with Putin at a level of detail I don’t think you have ever seen before, particularly from a CIA director.

So, it’s a very well-oiled machine that, early in the administration, had a real, near-death experience, which was screwing up the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I argue in the book that the concept of getting out of Afghanistan was right. It was actually one of the few things that Biden and Trump agreed on in the last election, that the U.S. had to get out. The execution of it was miserable, and the fact that it was so miserable actually shook the team up, I think, and put them in a better position to do Ukraine right.

They did the run up to the Ukraine war pretty brilliantly—releasing the intelligence in advance to embarrass Putin into the admission or the revelation that he really was getting ready to invade. Biden did this with the allies; he did it with all of us so that we were able to go publish some of this stuff; we were able to confirm some of it through open source. That was pretty well done. The invasion happened anyway. He brought NATO together in a way that we did not expect, and for a while the Russians were on the run. The problem is Ukrainians didn’t win fast enough, and now we are seeing the full mass of the Russian military come back.

In thinking about Afghanistan. What was the central mistake that the Biden team made?

I think it was this: The president made the decision in April, four months after inauguration, to pull out of Afghanistan. They then had a number of months to actually execute it. During that time, they did not have a plan in place to get everyone who had helped the U.S. military, news organizations, [and] their families out of the country. And they were working on a faulty assumption that the Taliban were not going to make their way into the capital, Kabul, for another year or a year and a half, when in fact, of course, the Afghan military collapsed and the Taliban were there by August. So, they made a wrong assumption about how long the Afghan military would be able to hold off the Taliban. And they made a wrong assumption about how much time they had to get people out of the country. And when that collapsed, everything turned to chaos.

And I remember around the July 4th holiday in 2021, I was pooled with the president and he was making some economic amount announcement at the White House. And the night before, the military had pulled out of Bagram Air Base, this huge base that had been the center of all activity, because they didn’t want the Taliban to be able to take the base fully loaded up. They didn’t tell anybody, including the Afghans, that they were leaving. So, suddenly one day they’re gone. And I asked the president about this, and isn’t he worried that this is going to lead to a chaotic withdrawal? And he said, “no, no, there’s no problem here. We have over the horizon intelligence. It’s really good. We’ve got this all under control.” You can look at the transcript of this answer. Six weeks later, the country’s in full collapse.

That answer echoes, as I recall, the argument he was making within the Obama Administration about how they could withdraw from Afghanistan, even back then, when then-President Obama decided to go another way. 

And by the way, I have no problem with the idea of withdrawing from Afghanistan. I do not think it was a sustainable thing to do. But having made the decision, you wanted to have a completely well-oiled machine here. And, you know, it’s interesting, as copies of this book have begun to recirculate, I thought, “well, this is the chapter that’s going to really raise hackles.” And maybe it will but since I finished that part of the book, the Inspector General’s reports have come out with fundamentally a similar interpretation. So, you know, I don’t feel like this is exactly original or a lone interpretation of events.

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