IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Biden's Afghanistan troop withdrawal reveals risky obsession with deadlines

This managerial style has robbed the administration of political victories and undermined its objectives at home and abroad.
Photo illustration: Red squares with dates over a close up shot of Joe Biden. The dates read, \"04,31,11,01\".
The White House needs to focus more on what it hopes to achieve and less on when it plans to achieve it.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

President Joe Biden loves a good deadline. He sets them regularly, often seemingly arbitrarily, in the pursuit of his core objectives. But so far, those deadlines have made nothing but trouble for him and his administration.

The calamity over which Biden has presided in Afghanistan has been typified from the start by deadlines: two, in fact. Initially, in negotiations with the Taliban to extend a Trump-era plan to leave the country by May 1, Biden timed the full withdrawal of every U.S. soldier to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The calamity over which Biden has presided in Afghanistan has been typified from the start by deadlines.

We can only guess why he chose to adulterate this occasion, of all days. Perhaps the president believed America’s strategic objectives would have been completed by then, though that seems fanciful given what we’re watching. More likely, he and his administration thought the abandonment of Afghanistan would be so popular that it would transform 9/11 from a day of somber remembrance into a triumph. That, too, is unsatisfying, since Biden himself has recently begun to insist that withdrawing from Afghanistan was never going to be painless.

Whatever the administration’s rationale, it wasn’t long-lived. The attempt to garland America’s withdrawal with poetic resonance was soon abandoned. It was replaced with an even earlier deadline to end military operations in Central Asia: Aug. 31. That day — Tuesday — became an incredible headache for this White House. “We’re going to get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured reporters after the fall of Kabul. “And I’ll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”

With that, the Biden administration’s Pentagon chief implied something truly stomach-churning: The White House’s mission in Afghanistan after the collapse of the pro-U.S. American government — getting Americans out safely — wasn’t the only or even the primary objective. The mission didn’t define the timeline; the timeline defined the mission.

The Biden administration has acknowledged what any marginally objective observer of the evacuation concluded long ago: We will be leaving U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents behind enemy lines.

“There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken reassured Americans last week. White House press secretary Jen Psaki agreed. “There are some Americans who may not have decided to leave by the 31st,” shesaid. “Our commitment to them does not end.”

Thus, the administration at long last acknowledged that its objective — withdrawing all Americans and permanent U.S. residents and our allies — wouldn’t be secured on Aug. 31. Indeed, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, noted a lot of "heartbreak" Monday about the final departure flights. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out,” he said. “But I think if we stayed another 10 days, we wouldn’t have gotten everybody out that we wanted.”

The administration also seems to be arguing, or at least implying, that U.S. citizens left behind have made a personal choice to stay. That argument is unlikely to age well. Some Americans have decided to stick around, but stories of U.S. citizens’ being harassed, beaten and blocked by the Taliban from entering into U.S. custody also abound. Those stories won’t end when U.S. soldiers aren’t around to impose moderation on our new partners in the Taliban.

It wasn’t long ago that Biden himself described how disastrous setting artificial deadlines for such a sensitive mission could be. “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit,” he contended in April. “We’ll do it — we’ll do it responsibly, deliberately and safely.” But as The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov reported this month, NATO’s withdrawal left behind an Afghan army that was unable to secure its objectives. “In the wake of President Biden’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters,” Trofimov reported. “That meant the Afghan military simply couldn’t operate anymore.”

The slapdash contingencies the White House implemented after the fall of Kabul left U.S commanders utterly dependent upon the Taliban’s good graces to ensure the evacuation of as many Americans and U.S. allies as possible. McKenzie said we have put our faith in the power of “mutual self-interest” — specifically, the desire shared by U.S. and Taliban officials to see America fully out of the country by Tuesday. If we extend our operations beyond that deadline, a Taliban spokesman claimed, the vengeful fundamentalist militia we’ve entrusted with our security will stop playing nice.

Thus Biden’s deadline — not our operational capabilities or a lack of political will — has rendered the U.S. hopelessly reliant upon and subservient to the Taliban. And this isn’t the first time a timeline has imperiled White House objectives. The president’s fondness for timetables has also robbed the White House of victories in its campaign to control the coronavirus pandemic.

In the spring, the Biden administration sought “to imbue Independence Day with new meaning,” as The Associated Press put it. It set an arbitrary date — July 4 — to mark the beginning of our “summer of freedom” from the virus. On March 12, White House chief of staff Ron Klain highlighted the administration’s goals for the summer: ensuring that the fully vaccinated could enjoy “gatherings with close family” by Independence Day. But the trajectory of coronavirus infections started to decline long before the summer, and large-scale events — to say nothing of small gatherings — were resuming around the country well before that date. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention withdrew its recommendation that the vaccinated continue to wear masks in public. July 4 came and went without the fanfare Biden had expected, because his own executive agencies had moved on weeks earlier.

July 4 was also supposed to be when the White House would celebrate the full or partial vaccination of at least 70 percent of the country. But that arbitrary date proved too optimistic. It wasn’t until Aug. 3 that the U.S. reached that milestone. That fantastic achievement was muted only because Biden set and missed an arbitrary deadline. By pretending as though the pace of the pandemic can be dictated from the White House, the Biden administration set unrealistic expectations. Once again, the timeline had defined the mission rather than the mission’s having defined the timeline.

Even in a matter of such geopolitical importance as determining the origins of the coronavirus, the White House is sabotaging itself with its adherence to deadlines. The intelligence community delivered a report last week about the origins of the pandemic that Biden commissioned in May. It came back with “low confidence” in both prevailing theories about the virus’s providence. Did this plague emerge naturally, or was it released as a result of a lab accident? The intelligence community didn’t know. Why? The timeline can’t have helped. As an unnamed source told CNN, “The White House and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines were very focused on making the deadline.”

Biden’s style of executive management places a premium on meeting dates, even if that comes at the expense of the deliverables. That is a bad managerial style. It has robbed the administration of political victories, undermined its objectives at home and abroad and resulted in the sacrifice of U.S. national interests. If the administration is going to successfully course-correct, it needs to focus more on what it hopes to achieve and less on when it plans to achieve it.