“When National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan relayed the news to Biden that former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, he writes, Biden exploded in frustration and said, “Give me a break.”
In the excerpt, Foer depicts a scene that went viral of the withdrawal: when dozens of Afghans climbed onto the side of a jet to escape the country.
“Only after the plane had lifted into the air did the crew discover its place in history,” Foer writes. “When the pilot couldn’t fully retract the landing gear, a member of the crew went to investigate, staring out of a small porthole. Through the window, it was possible to see scattered human remains.””
“When former ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass touched down in Afghanistan after the plane’s departure to lead the evacuation effort, he toured the gates of the airport where he was greeted “by the smell of feces and urine, by the sound of gunshots and bullhorns blaring instructions in Dari and Pashto.”
“Dust assaulted his eyes and nose. He felt the heat that emanated from human bodies crowded into narrow spaces,” Foer writes.
Biden would shower Bass with ideas to evacuate more people.
“The president’s instinct was to throw himself into the intricacies of troubleshooting,” Foer writes. “‘Why don’t we have them meet in parking lots? Can’t we leave the airport and pick them up?’ Bass would kick around Biden’s proposed solutions with colleagues to determine their plausibility, which was usually low. Still, he appreciated Biden applying pressure, making sure that he didn’t overlook the obvious.”
“In total, the United States had evacuated about 124,000 people, which the White House touted as the most successful airlift in history,” Foer writes. “Bass also thought about the unknown number of Afghans he had failed to get out.””
“The 3,000 sailors and Marines arrived in the Middle East on August 6 alongside a deployment of US fighter jets to the region.
What exactly they’ll be doing isn’t yet clear: If US troops were to board commercial ships, the details would need to be worked out with the companies and countries in question. US officials told the Associated Press that such a policy is under consideration. (The Department of Defense did not respond to Vox’s questions for this story by press time.)
The Biden administration says that the Iranian threat to tanker traffic is the reason for the deployment of sailors and Marines. Iran seized two oil tankers in a week this past spring. Iran also intercepted a Tanzanian-flagged tanker on July 6, a day after the US Navy intervened to dissuade Iran from nearly seizing two ships. Iran has said that it sees itself as responsible for the security of the Gulf, not least because of its long coastline, and claimed it has not illegally seized tankers.
Other factors may be contributing to Biden’s decision-making: The US might be thinking about balancing China’s increased presence in the Middle East, as epitomized by the spring’s surprise rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US also might be responding to concerns from other partners in the region, especially as the US is pushing for Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations. “The noise has increased a lot from Gulf partners, especially as the [Biden] administration is pressuring Gulf partners on a number of different issues, including normalization with Israel,” Simone Ledeen, who served as a senior defense official in the Trump administration, told me. “It’s certainly connected.”
Above all, Iranian actions in the Gulf could affect oil prices. For President Biden, keeping oil prices low has been a priority of utmost importance. It’s partly why he traveled to Saudi Arabia last summer to make up with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. And since then, the Biden administration has sought to reassure Gulf partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of US commitment to the Middle East.
This “forward-deployed presence provides US officials with options,” writes analyst Bilal Saab, that would make Iran “think twice before using violence to achieve its political aims.””