It’s strange to me that the Taliban would liberate a prison filled not just with their own fighters but with enemy jihadis and then not bother to scrutinize the prisoners before releasing them en masse back into Kabul. Didn’t they fear they might end up as targets of the ISIS members whom they freed?
Or was the attack at the airport part of an arrangement between the new regime and ISIS, maybe a condition of the latter’s liberation from the Bagram prison?
Either way, we shouldn’t bury the headline. A man who was in U.S.-Afghan custody and no threat to anyone was permitted to go free by American strategic bumbling and ultimately slaughtered American soldiers.
It’s hard to believe anything might top the drone strike on an aid worker and Afghan children in the final days of the war for sheer catastrophic incompetence, but there’s at least a debate now.
When the U.S. shocked the Afghan government and the rest of the world by bugging out of Bagram in the wee hours on July 1, there were some 5,000 prisoners in the base’s Parwan prison. (The Afghans had been responsible for running the prison since 2013 but of course the U.S. was responsible for securing the base.) “A few hundred were criminals,” an Afghan source told CNN, “but the vast majority were terrorists, the spokesman said, including members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS.”
Why was there no plan for them when we evacuated?
Biden bears ultimate responsibility, of course, not just because he’s the commander-in-chief but because it was his insistence on drawing down to just a few hundred troops nationwide that forced the military to surrender Bagram. Thousands of Americans would have been needed to defend the base and Biden wasn’t willing to authorize that number. In the end, not only did he give up a prized airfield ahead of a mass evacuation, he handed full custody of thousands of dangerous prisoners to a national government whose ability to hold off the Taliban was in grave doubt.
If he had been willing to commit the troops needed to keep Bagram secure and to stage the evacuation of Americans and Afghans from there, the jihadis would have stayed locked up until the last plane was out. Thirteen American soldiers and scores of Afghans who died in the bombing at Karzai airport would have survived.
His commanders may bear some responsibility too:
During the exercise [in early May], top Pentagon leaders including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley stressed the need for American troops to get out of the country as quickly as possible to protect against renewed Taliban attacks.
Their plan called for the military to draw down to zero within 60 days of Biden’s official order, or roughly mid- to late-June — far sooner than the Sept. 11 deadline the president originally set. One of the most crucial decisions involved handing over Bagram Air Base to the Afghans as the last step of the withdrawal once U.S. forces were so depleted that they could no longer reasonably secure what had been the hub of the American military effort there for the past 20 years.
“All of them made the same argument,” said one defense official, who was in attendance at the drill on May 8, and whose account includes previously unreported details. “Speed equals safety,” the person said, referring to the message conveyed by the military leaders…
“They just decided they lost the argument, and OK fine let’s get the heck out of dodge,” said one former senior defense official.
If the drawdown had proceeded more slowly, Americans might still have been in control of Bagram by mid-August, when the Taliban arrived at Kabul. That also would have prevented the fateful jailbreak.
A more complicated question: Why weren’t the prisoners, or at least some of the prisoners, transferred out of the country? Maybe the answer is as simple as there being no nation that was willing to take them. Five thousand inmates are a lot to care for, even with the U.S. calling in favors from Middle Eastern allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. But the non-Taliban jihadis like ISIS-K could have been transferred, at least; presumably the Taliban wouldn’t have been sad to see them go. If that had happened, the bloodshed at Karzai airport would have been averted.
There’s a bleak symmetry in the bomber turning out to have been a U.S. prisoner not long before he struck. The new Taliban government includes four men who were imprisoned for years at Gitmo before being exchanged by Barack Obama for Bowe Bergdahl. Mullah Baradar, one of the highest-ranking leaders in the new government, was imprisoned for most of the past decade by Pakistan until he was released upon a request from the U.S. Many of our enemies in Afghanistan were in our grasp at one time or another, only to be let go as Washington grasped for ways to end the conflict. In the end the animal who killed our troops at the airport gate wound up in that category too.
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