When President Joe Biden delayed the Afghanistan withdrawal timeline from May to September, some observers were left scratching their heads.
After all, it’s well documented that summertime is traditionally the peak fighting season in Afghanistan. According to a study from the Small Wars Journal, this trend exists for two main reasons.
The first and most obvious factor is that harsh Afghan winters make travel challenging. In 2017, for instance, Afghanistan received five feet of snow within 24 hours—killing more than 100 people as a result.
“The confluence of extremely difficult terrain, limited improved road networks and substantial snowfall make overland travel next to impossible in parts of the country,” the Small Wars Journal stated.
Second, many Afghan fighting forces fund their efforts via harvesting opium poppy. Once this cultivation finishes in early spring/late winter, fighting increases, according to the Small Wars Journal.
“The Taliban rely on the cultivation and trafficking of opium poppy to finance their insurgency,” the Small Wars Journal stated. “As such, fighting occurs around opium poppy cultivation cycles.”
Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) asked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about this issue last week during the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) hearing on the withdrawal.
“What was the military rationale for leaving by the end of August, when the Taliban are in their strongest during the fighting season—as opposed to waiting to the winter months when it’s more of a lull in the Taliban fighting season, when they’re at their weakest?” Langevin asked.
Austin emphasized that the decision to withdraw by the end of August was made by Biden—though he did say Biden delayed to give the military more time for an “orderly” withdrawal.
“Obviously a number of things went into his decision calculus, but we came onboard. The agreement that had been made was that we were going to depart by May 1. We were able to work to get more time to ensure that we could conduct a deliberate and safe and orderly retrograde,” Austin said.
“But again, the president made the decision that we would leave in the summer as opposed to going into the next year. And I’ll leave it at that, sir, pending any more questions.”
Others are skeptical that the withdrawal date would have made much of a difference. U.S. combat veteran Dr. Omar Hamada said the disaster was due to how—not when—the withdrawal was conducted.
“I would have said March instead of May if they’re using the fighting season as an argument. But I don’t think it was necessarily the timeline or the effect of getting out. I think it’s the way it was done,” said Hamada, who was deployed to Afghanistan in the early months of the war following 9/11.
“Instead of focusing on getting troops out, we should have focused on getting people out. And then the equipment, and then the troops—leaving a small footprint to support the Afghan police,” Hamada told The Epoch Times.
On this latter point, Austin has laid blame at the feet of the State Department. The defense secretary told the HASC last week that State Department officials decided not to withdraw their assets because they thought doing so would lower the morale of the Afghan government.
“Again, the call on how to do that and when to do that is really a State Department call. Their concerns were, rightly, that they were being cautioned by the Ghani administration that if they withdrew American citizens and SIV [special immigrant visa] applicants at a pace that was too fast, it would cause a collapse of the government that we were trying to prevent,” Austin said.
“But again, we provided our input, and we certainly would have liked to see it go faster and sooner. But they had a number of things to think through as well.”