Issue of the Week: War

Miscue After Miscue, U.S. Exit Plan Unravels, cover story, Sunday New York Times, 8/23/21


As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, sights that are like hallucinogenic Alice-in-Wonderland from hell images have flooded every screen on every device.

From where it all began.


On March 1st, we posted a piece on Afghanistan with Dexter Filkin’s article in The New Yorker, Last Exit From Afghanistan. Here’s the introduction:

It’s difficult to believe that what is often described as America’s longest military engagement, although nowhere near it’s most substantial, but which signaled the beginning of global conflict and enormous consequences ever since 9/11, is like so many global issues generally out of sight and out of mind. The US now has only a virtual handful of troops left in Afghanistan and whether they stay or go to zero could have enormous consequences.

The full history, nuances and magnitude of this situation is for another time. For now we focus on Dexter Filkin’s critical article today in The New Yorker on the current situation in Afghanistan and the US at the crossroads, Last Exit From Afghanistan.

After the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 by Al Qaida, based in Afghanistan under protection of the brutal fundamentalist government of the Taliban, the US invaded and attacked the Taliban in force on October 7, 2001, overthrew them, and began a process of hoped-for democratic government and economic development. For many years, it was generally referred to as the “good war” across the political spectrum and largely in the public mind, until for various reasons war-weariness by the US set in. Violence for the Afghanis was far worse than what the coalition forces suffered, particularly in an age of military sophistication that reduced deaths and injuries for soldiers on a scale never seen before, with every death and injury nonetheless being tragic. But for Afghanis, death and bloodshed on an epic scale was in recent times at least normalized back to the virtually genocidal invasion by the Soviets, blunted and defeated by the Afghanis eventually with US arms and assistance, and contributing to Soviet defeat in the Cold War. Tragically, as often was the case, US follow-up was to abandon rebuilding and creating economic social justice, especially at the village level, leaving a generation of Afghanis armed by the US, without future prospects and deeply resentful, which in no small part led to the Taliban take over to begin with and the fueling of increasing extremism and tribalism of various kinds.

The post 9/11 project had been hurt by deflection of resources and focus to Iraq–and lack of sufficient focused resources on basic needs for the majoriy of Afghanis, even with later escalation. Then came de-escalation–now to a low of only 2500 US troops. It ceased being a war in any real or major sense for most US, NATO and coalition troops some time ago. The fight now is mainly between the government and the Taliban, who have been in peace talks with each other, but few believe peace will be the outcome. Over 20 years, democracy and civil society have gained some tenuous ground, with the usual attendant corruption, while the liberation and rights of women, children and other advances in human rights have often been astonishing, if still with miles to go, and the countryside particularly remains woefully underdeveloped. Nonetheless, its a very different nation than 20 years ago. While there has been or is disillusion with the government, the majority supports women’s rights and certainly does not support Taliban positions, while still hoping for a peace settlement. That seems unlikely at the moment in any meaningful way as the Taliban has increasingly been assasinating government officials, journalists and activists–hundreds of them–notably women. The few US troops remaining may determine whether a path forward can continue (although the US posture under Trump of basically abandoning the field to the Taliban–not because the Taliban is any match for US force if applied, but for political reasons–has contributed during peace negotiations to the situation becoming more tenuous), although even with a small force, likely at a price of increased Taliban attacks and some American lives (and the possibility of at least some increased US involvement), or whether all-out civil war dwarfing in blood anything in decades before will occur, which further destabilizes the region, including the nuclear powers that have helped keep the region unstable.

As we often remind, one-dimendional ideological views from right, left or center are just that–one-dimensional, and a disservice to reality.

For a taste of reality we turn to the renowned war correspondent, Dexter Filkins and his article today, Last Exit From Afghanistan. Don’t think you can have an informed opinion without reading his perceptive, instructed by long experience, brilliant article:

Last Exit From Afghanistan

By Dexter Filkins, A Reporter At Large, March 1, 2021

Will peace talks with the Taliban and the prospect of an American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse?

Question answered in 22 weeks.





Although not unimaginable by many in the know, not listened to.

No one more importantly than Sarah Chayes, who was featured tonight on PBS NewsHour. Her story, her experience and the facts she brings to our attention, are partly widely-understood by anyone with a modicum of education on the subject. But even for those of us paying attention, much of what she has revealed is as shocking as anything could be, and given the impact on the world for the past two decades–and before, and to come–this is a story that is going to make and break many, and eventually, as it becomes more broadly understood, have historic impact.

We are posting it here, followed by a just posted New York Times article (updated here on August 21) which will run in print on Sunday on the cover, Miscue After Miscue, U.S. Exit Plan Unravels. As in some ways only the Times can do, written by nine of their best reporters, this is their in-depth report on what has happened to date in Afghanistan over this momentous week.

Here’s the PBS NewsHour story:

The U.S. ignored corruption within the Afghan government. Did that lead to its fall?, Aug 20, 2021, PBS NewsHour

As the Taliban faces protests and dissent across Afghanistan, William Brangham explores the collapse of the country’s government — built and supported by the U.S. and allies for 20 years. For a deeper perspective, Brangham speaks with Sarah Chayes, who covered the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 for NPR and served as advisor to several senior U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our top story, as the Taliban struggles to rule amid protests and dissent in Kabul and across the country.

    William Brangham explores the collapse of the country’s government, which was built and supported by the U.S. and its allies for 20 years.

  • William Brangham:

    That’s right, Judy.

    For some deeper perspective on how we got here, I’m joined now by someone who’s had years-long involvement in Afghanistan.

    Sarah Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 for NPR. She then started and ran several NGOs in the country. She served as adviser to several senior U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan and then to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    She is the author of several books. The most recent is “On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake.” And she joins us now from Paris.

    Sarah Chayes, great to have you back on the “NewsHour.”

    You recently published an essay called “The Ides of August,” and, in it, you laid out several factors that you argue helped get us where we are today. And the first element was corruption that you pointed to.

    Can you explain the mechanism? How is it that corruption leads to the fall of the Afghan government?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    In simple terms, why would a population take risks to fight the Taliban on behalf of a government that is treating them almost as badly as the Taliban do?

    So, Afghan government officials would shake people down at every interaction. The massive international funding that was arriving in the country was being siphoned off or captured by government officials and their cronies.

    And from Afghans’ perspective, it almost looked like the United States was in favor of this system, because our officials were always seen partnering with these venal Afghan leaders. And no matter how much the population complained, they really couldn’t get us to address the serious — the issues seriously.

  • William Brangham:

    What role did the U.S.’ actions play in this? Did we hinder the corruption? Did we help the corruption? Did we try to stop the corruption?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    I have to say, on balance, we enormously helped the corruption, as I say, first of all, by allowing local strongmen to capture the revenue streams.

    So, for example, you would have one local strongman who is providing security at that — at a U.S. base, and then he would only allow his people in to our contracting conferences, for example. We never held any of the officials that we were partnering with to account.

    I would say that, toward 2009-2010, we began to catch on to this as a serious issue. And so a decision was made to do a test case, with plenty of evidence. It was brilliantly mounted, and it had to do with a haul of approximately $900 million in Kabul Bank, right?

    So we’re talking a significant issue here. And the person targeted who was taking a bribe was in the palace, was close to President Karzai. Well, as soon as President Karzai threw a fit about the arrest from his henchman, warrants executed a U-turn, and the U.S. never took corruption seriously after that. That was in 2010.

    In 2011, when I was working with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there was an interagency policy process that would arrive at a determination, how was the United States going to address corruption? And, explicitly, it was decided that we were not going to focus on any of the high-level corruption, only — quote — “street-level” police corruption, which, of course, was the purview of the military.

    So, from my perspective, there was a real dereliction of duty on the part of civilian leaderships in the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    Another factor in the essay that you posted was the role that Pakistan played in all of this.

    Can you explain? For people who are not familiar with the dynamics between the two nations, what role did Pakistan play?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    The Taliban did not initially arise inside Afghanistan the way we have often heard, in 1994.

    The Taliban were, in fact, basically concocted across the border in Pakistan. At that time, Afghanistan was a pretty chaotic, violent place, because it was after the Soviets had withdrawn and there were a lot of different PTSD-suffering militia commanders who were shooting at each other.

    And Pakistan was very interested in the long-distance trade routes that crossed Afghanistan. And it was really hard to get convoys, get goods across the country. And so their idea for how to secure their own interests, which both were in trade and were in having some what is often called strategic depth with respect to India, right?

    Like, India is their big rival, and they wanted a little bit of room behind them and control over territory and population. So they came up with this idea of Taliban. And they actually market-tested it. And I know this from interviews with locals over a number of years.

    Golly, wouldn’t you — how would you feel about some religious students coming to bring this violence to a stop? And, frankly, people said, anything, you know?

  • William Brangham:

    This was Pakistani military intelligence doing this?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    That’s exactly right.

    And then, in 2003, I watched them begin reconstituting the Taliban. So, Pakistan was playing — or the Pakistani military intelligence agency was playing this remarkable double game with the United States, where they were playing at being our ally and helping us conduct operations, but they were also essentially arming, equipping, training, and directing the Taliban.

    And if you look today at the reactions from Pakistani officials, I mean, they are crowing about the current results, the current outcome.

  • William Brangham:

    Your essay also touches on the role that former Afghan President Hamid Karzai played in this eventual undoing that we have witnessed. Again, how so?

  • Sarah Chayes:

    Again, it’s very counterintuitive, but it was Karzai who initially negotiated the entry of the Taliban into Kandahar back in 1994.

    He was basically operating on behalf to have the Pakistani military intelligence agency. Karzai got into a fight with his father about it. Others disagreed with him about it. But that was the role he played. And so, again, it stunned me when I learned this, that our choice to be the first president of Afghanistan was the very one who had ushered the Taliban into power in the first place.

    And, today, we see him again emerging as the head of some coordinating committee. And so it makes me ask myself, has he not been conducting this type of negotiations, just like he did back in 1994, with the leaders of the northern cities, who all surrendered almost in unison, and all the other kind of local power brokers that we saw surrender in such quick succession?

    That doesn’t just happen by itself. That was prepared.

  • William Brangham:

    Sarah Chayes, always great to see you.

    Your latest book is “On Corruption in America.”

    Thank you so much for joining us.

  • Sarah Chayes:

    Thanks for having me, William.

. . .

Now to the article just posted for The New York Times, which will appear in print on the cover of the Sunday edition:

Miscue After Miscue, U.S. Exit Plan Unravels

Michael D. Shear, David E. Sanger, Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Julian E. Barnes and Aug. 21, 2021, The New York Times

President Biden promised an orderly withdrawal. That pledge, compounded by missed signals and miscalculations, proved impossible.

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top national security officials assembled at the Pentagon early on April 24 for a secret meeting to plan the final withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. It was two weeks after President Biden had announced the exit over the objection of his generals, but now they were carrying out his orders.

In a secure room in the building’s “extreme basement,” two floors below ground level, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with top White House and intelligence officials. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken joined by video conference. After four hours, two things were clear.

First, Pentagon officials said they could pull out the remaining 3,500 American troops, almost all deployed at Bagram Air Base, by July 4 — two months earlier than the Sept. 11 deadline Mr. Biden had set. The plan would mean closing the airfield that was the American military hub in Afghanistan, but Defense Department officials did not want a dwindling, vulnerable force and the risks of service members dying in a war declared lost.

Second, State Department officials said they would keep the American Embassy open, with more than 1,400 remaining Americans protected by 650 Marines and soldiers. An intelligence assessment presented at the meeting estimated that Afghan forces could hold off the Taliban for one to two years. There was brief talk of an emergency evacuation plan — helicopters would ferry Americans to the civilian airport in Kabul, the capital — but no one raised, let alone imagined, what the United States would do if the Taliban gained control of access to that airport, the only safe way in and out of the country once Bagram closed.

The plan was a good one, the group concluded.

Four months later, the plan is in shambles as Mr. Biden struggles to explain how a withdrawal most Americans supported went so badly wrong in its execution. On Friday, as scenes of continuing chaos and suffering at the airport were broadcast around the world, Mr. Biden went so far as to say that “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or what it will be that it will be without risk of loss.”

A helicopter leaving the United States Embassy in Kabul on Sunday, which was shut down by the end of the day, its flag lowered and removed.
A helicopter leaving the United States Embassy in Kabul on Sunday, which was shut down by the end of the day, its flag lowered and removed.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
 American soldiers trying to restrain the crowds on Monday at the Kabul airport.
American soldiers trying to restrain the crowds on Monday at the Kabul airport.Credit…Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
An Afghan family sitting on the tarmac on Monday. Flights were eventually suspended temporarily for safety reasons.
An Afghan family sitting on the tarmac on Monday. Flights were eventually suspended temporarily for safety reasons.Credit…Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Interviews with key participants in the last days of the war show a series of misjudgments and the failure of Mr. Biden’s calculation that pulling out American troops — prioritizing their safety before evacuating American citizens and Afghan allies — would result in an orderly withdrawal.

Biden administration officials consistently believed they had the luxury of time. Military commanders overestimated the will of the Afghan forces to fight for their own country and underestimated how much the American withdrawal would destroy their confidence. The administration put too much faith in President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, who fled Kabul as it fell.

And although Biden White House officials say that they held more than 50 meetings on embassy security and evacuations, and that so far no Americans have died in the operation, all the planning failed to prevent the mayhem when the Taliban took over Kabul in a matter of days.

Only in recent weeks did the administration change course from its original plan. By then it was too late.

A protest in front of the White House on Sunday. President Biden’s top intelligence officers privately offered concerns about the Afghan abilities but predicted that a complete Taliban takeover was not likely for at least 18 months.
A protest in front of the White House on Sunday. President Biden’s top intelligence officers privately offered concerns about the Afghan abilities but predicted that a complete Taliban takeover was not likely for at least 18 months.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Five days after the April meeting at the Pentagon, General Milley told reporters on a flight back to Washington from Hawaii that the Afghan government’s troops were “reasonably well equipped, reasonably well trained, reasonably well led.” He declined to say whether they could stand on their own without support from the United States.

“We frankly don’t know yet,” he said. “We have to wait and see how things develop over the summer.”

The president’s top intelligence officers echoed that uncertainty, privately offering concerns about the Afghan abilities. But they still predicted that a complete Taliban takeover was not likely for at least 18 months. One senior administration official, discussing classified intelligence information that had been presented to Mr. Biden, said there was no sense that the Taliban were on the march.

In fact, they were. Across Afghanistan the Taliban were methodically gathering strength by threatening tribal leaders in every community they entered with warnings to surrender or die. They collected weapons, ammunition, volunteers and money as they stormed from town to town, province to province.

In May, they launched a major offensive in Helmand Province in the south and six other areas of Afghanistan, including Ghazni and Kandahar. Back in Washington, refugee groups grew increasingly alarmed by what was happening on the ground and feared Taliban retribution against thousands of translators, interpreters and others who had helped the American war effort.

Leaders of the groups estimated that as many as 100,000 Afghans and family members were now targets for Taliban revenge. On May 6, representatives from several of the United States’ largest refugee groups, including Human Rights First, the International Refugee Assistance Project, No One Left Behind, and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service logged onto Zoom for a call with National Security Council staff members.

Displaced families in Kandahar early this month. Refugee groups estimated that as many as 100,000 Afghans and family members were now targets for Taliban revenge.
Displaced families in Kandahar early this month. Refugee groups estimated that as many as 100,000 Afghans and family members were now targets for Taliban revenge.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
Long lines in July for the passport department in Kabul. Members of advocacy groups pleaded with White House officials for a mass evacuation of Afghans.
Long lines in July for the passport department in Kabul. Members of advocacy groups pleaded with White House officials for a mass evacuation of Afghans.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The groups pleaded with the White House officials for a mass evacuation of Afghans and urged them not to rely on a backlogged special visa program that could keep Afghans waiting for months or years.

There was no time for visas, they said, and Afghans had to be removed quickly to stay alive. The response was cordial but noncommittal, according to one participant, who recalled a sinking feeling afterward that the White House had no plan.

Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, veteran and ally of Mr. Biden, echoed those concerns in his own discussions with the administration. Mr. Moulton said he told anyone who would listen at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon that “they need to stop processing visas in Afghanistan and just get people to safety.”

But doing what Mr. Moulton and the refugee groups wanted would have meant launching a dangerous new military mission that would probably require a surge of troops just at the moment that Mr. Biden had announced the opposite. It also ran counter to what the Afghan government wanted, because a high-profile evacuation would amount to a vote of no confidence in the government and its forces.

Instead, the State Department sped up its efforts to process visas and clear the backlog. Officials overhauled the lengthy screening and vetting process and reduced processing time — but only to under a year. Eventually, they issued more than 5,600 special visas from April to July, the largest number in the program’s history but still a small fraction of the demand.

The Taliban continued their advance as the embassy in Kabul urged Americans to leave. On April 27, the embassy had ordered nearly 3,000 members of its staff to depart, and on May 15, officials there sent the latest in a series of warnings to Americans in the country: “U.S. Embassy strongly suggests that U.S. citizens make plans to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.”

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan meeting with Mr. Biden in Washington in June. They expressed mutual admiration even though Mr. Ghani was fuming about the decision to pull out American troops.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan meeting with Mr. Biden in Washington in June. They expressed mutual admiration even though Mr. Ghani was fuming about the decision to pull out American troops.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

On June 25, Mr. Ghani met with Mr. Biden at the White House for what would become for the foreseeable future the last meeting between an American president and the Afghan leaders they had coaxed, cajoled and argued with over 20 years.

When the cameras were on at the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Ghani and Mr. Biden expressed mutual admiration even though Mr. Ghani was fuming about the decision to pull out American troops. As soon as reporters were shooed out of the room, the tension was clear.

Mr. Ghani, a former World Bank official whom Mr. Biden regarded as stubborn and arrogant, had three requests, according to an official familiar with the conversation. He wanted the United States to be “conservative” in granting exit visas to the interpreters and others, and “low key” about their leaving the country so it would not look as if America lacked faith in his government.

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He also wanted to speed up security assistance and secure an agreement for the U.S. military to continue to conduct airstrikes and provide overwatch from its planes and helicopters for his troops fighting the Taliban. American officials feared that the more they were drawn into direct combat with the militant group, the more its fighters would treat American diplomats as targets.

Mr. Biden agreed to provide the air support and to not make a public show of the Afghan evacuations.

Mr. Biden had his own request for Mr. Ghani. The Afghan forces were stretched too thin, Mr. Biden told him, and should not try to fight everywhere. He repeated American advice that Mr. Ghani consolidate Afghan forces around key locations, but Mr. Ghani never took it.

A week later, on July 2, Mr. Biden, in an ebullient mood, gathered a small group of reporters to celebrate new jobs numbers that he said showed that his economic recovery plan was working. But all the questions he received were about news from Afghanistan that the United States had abandoned Bagram Air Base, with little to no notice to the Afghans.

“It’s a rational drawdown with our allies,” he insisted, “so there’s nothing unusual about it.”

But as the questions persisted, on Afghanistan rather than the economy, he grew visibly annoyed. He recalled Mr. Ghani’s visit and said, “I think they have the capacity to be able to sustain the government,” though he added that there would have to be negotiations with the Taliban.

Then, for the first time, he was pressed on what the administration would do to save Kabul if it came under direct attack. “I want to talk about happy things, man,” he said. He insisted there was a plan.

“We have worked out an over-the-horizon capacity,” he said, meaning the administration had contingency plans should things go badly. “But the Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves with the Air Force they have, which we’re helping them maintain,” he said. But by then, most of the U.S. contractors who helped keep the Afghan planes flying had been withdrawn from Bagram along with the troops. Military and intelligence officials acknowledge they were worried that the Afghans would not be able to stay in the air.

By July 8, nearly all American forces were out of Afghanistan as the Taliban continued their surge across the country. In a speech that day from the White House defending his decision to leave, Mr. Biden was in a bind trying to express skepticism about the abilities of the Afghan forces while being careful not to undermine their government. Afterward, he angrily responded to a reporter’s comparison to Vietnam by insisting that “there’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there.

But five days later, nearly two dozen American diplomats, all in the Kabul embassy, sent a memo directly to Mr. Blinken through the State Department’s “dissent” channel. The cable, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, urged that evacuation flights for Afghans begin in two weeks and that the administration move faster to register them for visas.

The next day, in a move already underway, the White House named a stepped-up effort “Operation Allies Refuge.”

By late July, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command who oversees all military operations in the region, received permission from Mr. Austin to extend the deployment of the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima in the Gulf of Oman, so that the Marines on board could be close enough to get to Afghanistan to evacuate Americans. A week later, Mr. Austin was concerned enough to order the expeditionary unit on the ship — some 2,000 Marines — to disembark and wait in Kuwait so that they could reach Afghanistan quickly.

By Aug. 3, top national security officials met in Washington and heard an updated intelligence assessment: District capitals across Afghanistan were falling rapidly to the Taliban and the Afghan government could collapse in “days or weeks.” It was not the most likely outcome, but it was an increasingly plausible one.

“We’re assisting the government so that the Talibs do not think this is going to be a cakewalk, that they can conquer and take over the country,” the chief American envoy to Afghan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Aspen Security Forum on Aug. 3. Days later, however, that is exactly what happened.

By Aug. 6, the maps in the Pentagon showed a spreading stain of areas under Taliban control. In some places, the Afghans had put up a fight, but in many others, there was just surrender.

That same day in Washington, the Pentagon reviewed worst-case scenarios. If security further deteriorated, planning — begun days after Mr. Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April — led by Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the president’s homeland security adviser, called for flying most of the embassy personnel out of the compound, and many out of the country, while a small core group of diplomats operated from a backup site at the airport.

On its face, the Kabul airport made sense as an evacuation point. Close to the center of the city, it could be as little as a 12-minute drive and a three-minute helicopter flight from the embassy — logistics that had helped reassure planners after the closure of Bagram, which was more than 50 miles and a far longer drive from Kabul.

By Wednesday, Aug. 11, the Taliban advances were so alarming that Mr. Biden asked his top national security advisers in the White House Situation Room if it was time to send the Marines to Kabul and to evacuate the embassy. He asked for an updated assessment of the situation and authorized the use of military planes for evacuating Afghan allies.

Overnight in Washington, Kandahar and Ghazni were falling. National security officials were awakened as early as 4 a.m. on Aug. 12 and told to gather for an urgent meeting a few hours later to provide options to the president. Once assembled, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, told the group that the intelligence agencies could no longer assure that they could provide sufficient warning if the capital was about to be under siege.

Everyone looked at one another, one participant said, and came to the same conclusion: It was time to get out. An hour later, Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, walked into the Oval Office to deliver the group’s unanimous consensus to start an evacuation and deploy 3,000 Marines and Army soldiers to the airport.

By Saturday, Aug. 14, Mr. Biden was at Camp David for what he hoped would be the start of a 10-day vacation. Instead, he spent much of the day on dire video conference calls with his top aides.

On one of the calls, Mr. Austin urged all remaining personnel at the Kabul embassy be moved immediately to the airport. It was a stunning turnaround from what Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, had said two days earlier: “The embassy remains open, and we plan to continue our diplomatic work in Afghanistan.” Ross Wilson, the acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who was on the call, said the staff still needed 72 hours to leave.

“You have to move now,” Mr. Austin replied.

Mr. Blinken spoke by phone to Mr. Ghani the same day. The Afghan president was defiant, according to one official familiar with the conversation, and insisted that he would defend Afghanistan until the end. He did not tell Mr. Blinken that he was already planning to flee his country, which American officials first learned by reading news reports.

Later that day, the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan sent a message saying it would pay for American citizens to get out of the country, but warned that although there were reports that international commercial flights were still operating from Kabul, “seats may not be available.”

On Sunday, Mr. Ghani was gone. His departure — he would eventually turn up days later in the United Arab Emirates — and scenes of the Taliban celebrating at his presidential palace documented the collapse of the government. By the end of the day, the Taliban addressed the news media, declaring their intention to restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The evacuation of the Kabul embassy staff was by that point underway as diplomats rushed to board military helicopters for the short trip to the airport bunker.

Others stayed behind long enough to burn sensitive documents. Another official said embassy helicopters were blown up or otherwise destroyed, which sent a cloud of smoke over the compound.

Many Americans and Afghans could not reach the airport as Taliban fighters set up checkpoints on roads throughout the city and beat some people, leaving top F.B.I. officials concerned about the possibility that the Taliban or criminal gangs might kidnap Americans, a nightmare outcome with the U.S. military no longer in the country.

As Mr. Biden made plans Sunday evening to address Americans the next day about the situation, the American flag was lowered over the abandoned embassy. The Green Zone, once the heart of the American effort to remake the country, was again Taliban territory.

Mark Mazzetti, Adam Goldman and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.