What We Know and Still Don't Know About the U.S. Exit from Afghanistan and the Country's Future
The final stages of the long-planned U.S. military exit from Afghanistan unfolded in chaos over the weekend and into this week as the Taliban — which had for years had been kept at bay by American forces — engaged in an almost immediate takeover of the country.
In a statement over the weekend, President Joe Biden said that the terms and timing of the withdrawal were largely set in place by predecessor Donald Trump, who had campaigned on ending America's involvement in Afghanistan and whose administration negotiated directly with the Taliban before sealing an agreement with them last year.
But in a speech from the White House on Monday, Biden, 78, admitted there had been mistakes in how the withdrawal was handled because the U.S. was caught off guard by how quickly Afghanistan fell. He described scenes of panic, confusion and escape as "gut-wrenching."
"The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated," Biden said.
Still, he said, he stood by his decision to remove American troops after two decades of war that, in his words, had come to nothing.
"If anything," he said, "the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was the right decision."
He continued: "I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces."
Here's what we know and what we don't about the road ahead.
What We Know
Who is in charge of Afghanistan
The Taliban is now in charge after completing its takeover of the country's key cities. It's a return to power: The militant group, who emerged in the mid-'90s amid Afghanistan's decades-old civil war, controlled the country in the late 1990s prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The Islamist group ruled brutally, carrying out public executions, barring the general population from listening to music and banning girls from attending school.
The Taliban, newly empowered, is insisting they are a more moderate force, recently promising peace and women's rights. But Afghans and national security experts alike are doubtful of the those assurances.
What the U.S. military is doing right now
Though flights out of Kabul were temporarily halted in the chaos of the Taliban takeover, the Pentagon said Tuesday it had secured the capital's airport and was continuing the process of evacuating American diplomats, allied personnel and certain Afghans seeing refuge.
Also on Tuesday, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the Taliban had committed to providing "safe passage" for civilians looking to flee the country but also acknowledged that the government has heard reports of people being "turned away" or "even beaten" as they attempted to leave.
"We are taking that up in a channel with the Taliban to try to resolve those issues," Sullivan said. "And we are concerned about whether that will continue to unfold in the coming days."
CNN's Clarissa Ward, reporting from Kabul, described in a segment on Wednesday the many challenges facing those trying to even make it to the airport.
"This was mayhem, this was nuts. This is impossible for an ordinary civilian, even if they have their paperwork, no way they're running that gauntlet, no way they're going to be able to navigate that," she said. "It's very dicey, it's very dangerous and it's completely unpredictable. There's no order, there's no coherent system for processing people."
Such issues are likely to fuel concerns about how and how quickly the U.S. can assist those looking to escape: Chief among the criticisms of Biden's military withdrawal has been the problems with evacuations.
How the Taliban took over and how quickly
As the U.S. was set to complete its long planned troop withdrawal, the Taliban rapidly seized power as part of a major offensive across Afghanistan beginning in May.
The first provincial capital fell in early August as the group captured all major cities in the region — including the capital — in mere days, often meeting little resistance from the Afghan government or the army, despite their numbers.
Before the withdrawal, Afghan forces relied on the U.S. military for key support, including crucial air forces, and their soldiers were long built up by U.S. funding and expertise.
But they had been worn down by systemic corruption, such as lack of pay, and bore the brunt of all casualties in the fighting.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday, with the Taliban taking control of the presidential palace soon after.
Ghani's whereabouts remain unclear (Reuters cited reports indicating he and his wife were in neighboring Uzbekistan), but in his first statement released after he fled, Ghani said he did so "to avoid bloodshed."
"The Taliban won victory in the judgment of sword and gun and they have responsibility to protect the honor, prosperity and self-respect of our compatriots," Ghani said.
What We Don't Know
How the Taliban will rule
Despite the Taliban's promises to maintain peace and be more tolerant than in years past, many Afghans are worried and there are already reports of violence.
Women have made major gains in the country in the past 20 years, though the Taliban's reemergence could lead to religiously based oppression and a severe rollback of rights for them as well as ethnic minorities.
The Associated Press reports that, as Taliban insurgents reached Kabul on Sunday, a photo began to circulate on social media depicting a beauty salon owner painting over posters of women, while young men could be seen hastily changing out of their jeans and into a more traditional style of dress.
On Wednesday, fighters responded with deadly force to a protest in Jalalabad, according to the AP. One person died.
There are also fears about the organization's close ties to al-Qaida, which masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S, and worries that it could harbor terrorists.
Last year, the Taliban signed a peace deal with the U.S. under President Trump in which it pledged to fight terrorism and distance itself from al-Qaida, though the U.S. has little mechanism to enforce that.
What the U.S. will do with Afghanistan going forward
In his Monday remarks, President Biden said the U.S. will continue to monitor terrorist threats and human rights abuses without a permanent military presence in the region, just as it does in other parts of the world.
"We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don't have a permanent military presence," he said. "If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan. We've developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed."
But how that will ultimately play out — including how and how often the U.S. might carry out military operations like airstrikes in Afghanistan — remains to be seen, as the situation remains so fluid.
How many people will be able to leave
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been sharply critical of how slowly, they say, the U.S. has moved to help American citizens and personnel and vulnerable Afghans leave the country.
The Biden administration was reportedly told Wednesday that between "10,000 and 15,000 U.S. citizens" remain, though officials did not respond to PEOPLE's request for a specific estimate. It's also unclear which groups make up that total, including aid workers, military contractors and dual citizens.
Amidst reports of holdups with processing and the evacuation procedure, the military says it hopes to get thousands more people out of the country per day between now and Aug. 31, which is the deadline currently set by the Biden administration.
Several thousand more troops were temporarily deployed to Kabul to assist.
After the evacuations, Biden said Monday, the military will finish its exit.
Former President George W. Bush — who invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and whose decisions as commander-in-chief until 2009 shaped the war — issued a Monday statement in which he and former First Lady Laura Bush offered support for the Afghan people and military veterans while urging speedier evacuations.
"The Afghans now at greatest risk are the same ones who have been on the forefront of progress inside their nation. President Biden has promised to evacuate these Afghans, along with American citizens and our allies," President Bush said, speaking on behalf of him and his wife.
He continued, "The United States government has the legal authority to cut the red tape for refugees during urgent humanitarian crises. And we have the responsibility and the resources to secure safe passage for them now, without bureaucratic delay. Our most stalwart allies, along with private NGOs, are ready to help."