Former President Donald Trump recently gave a colorful recounting of his historic call with Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada last year in the shadow of potential peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
"We're going to come back and hit you harder than any country has ever been hit," Trump said he told Akhundzada, recounting the threatened consequences if the Taliban failed to make peace. "And your village, where I know you are and where you have everybody, that's going to be the point at which the first bomb is dropped."
A few hours after that March 2020 call, Trump put an insurance payment down on the threat. When the Taliban attacked an Afghan checkpoint shortly after Trump hung up, U.S. fighter jets rained down fury on the attackers. A stung Taliban immediately called for de-escalation, saying it was committed to the "plans to implement all parts of the agreement one after another to prevent conflict escalation."
Both Trump and his successor, President Joe Biden, have been committed to the same goal of getting the United States out of a 20-year war in Afghanistan. But on execution, they have vastly differed.
Trump and his advisers relentlessly used air power to keep the Taliban in check, making the appearance of a deadly Predator drone or warplane a constant threat. In 2019, the year before the Taliban agreed to peace talks, U.S. aircraft flew 2,434 strike sorties, releasing 7,423 weapons, the highest total ever recorded by the Air Force's Central Command.
But since the Biden transition, the Taliban have refused the negotiation table and instead marched with surprising speed, capturing control of two-third of Afghanistan after the fall of its second biggest city Kandahar on Thursday.
The U.S. Air Force recently acknowledged a steep decline in air sorties on Biden's watch.
"It hasn't been a consistent year," AFCENT boss Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot told Air Force Times on Aug. 3. "We might go a few days without any strikes, and then we'll go through several days, at the time, in both Afghanistan and in Iraq and Syria, with 50 strikes in a row, and it'll quiet down."
U.S. fighter jets have stepped up their sorties in recent days as the Afghan government was stunned by the success of the Taliban advance. But some U.S. advisers wonder whether Team Biden took their foot off the one pedal that carried the most weight with Taliban insurgents, devastating air attacks that inflict casualties along with psychological shock and awe.
"A conditions-based withdrawal must be based on the continued overhead air support from the U.S., at least that was part of our plan during the Trump administration," explained former Pentagon chief of staff Kash Patel. "I don't know the rate anymore, but there should be far more Predators overhead supporting the Afghan national security forces, to assist in doing what we did, that is get the Ghanis government to the negotiating table with the Taliban and secure a lasting peace.
"Now it seems the Taliban know there is a total lack of tactical support from the Biden administration, and we are seeing the results of this failure daily in Afghanistan."
Fred Fleitz, a longtime CIA analyst and former chief of staff to the National Security Council under Trump, said one clear failure was when the Biden administration abruptly pulled the U.S. out of its longtime air base at Bagram and didn't have agreements for warplanes to launch from neighboring countries.
"Air power is not going to be an issue right now," Fleitz told Just the News on Thursday night.
Fleitz said he believed the long-term outcome of U.S. withdrawal "was going to be bad for Afghanistan no matter which president was in charge" but that Biden exacerbated the situation with a knee-jerk withdrawal that lacked any strategy to prop up Afghan forces.
"We basically walked out on the Afghan military and government, and that gave the advantage to the Taliban," Fleitz said.
The next few weeks promise to be harrowing — for the women of Afghanistan, who face the threat of repression they once escaped; for the Afghan government, which faces overthrow; and for the American people, who will witness the reversal of gains earned by American bloodshed over two decades. Already the Monday morning quarterback analysis has begun.
One early theme is that the U.S. simply didn't understand Afghan culture and politics, and instead tried to shoehorn the country into an American paradigm.
Retired U.S. Army officer Jason Dempsey, now a Senior Fellow with the Center for a New American Security, wrote this week that the U.S. failure in Afghanistan emanated from "political and cultural blindness" and a failure to recognize "the U.S. military could never kill its way to victory in Afghanistan."
"By trying to create Afghan forces that were a mirror image of the U.S. military, the United States designed a national army for its own country, not Afghanistan," he wrote. "And instead of accounting for local politics and incentive structures, many U.S. officers assumed that the Afghans should naturally adhere to the chain of command structure that the U.S. military laid out for them and to follow the lead of Americans in tactical and operational decisions.
"In what should be viewed as a blinding flash of the obvious in retrospect, it takes a political adviser to U.S. military leadership to outline how Afghan commanders weighed the sentiments of local political leaders above those of the American military in pursuing operations."
As history and bloodshed unfold on the Afghan battlefield over the next few fateful weeks, some are beginning to wonder if that American blindness continued with a failure to sustain air attacks that would have provided an incentive for the Taliban to negotiate rather than conquer.