Aug 14, 2022 - World

White House left Kabul evacuation decisions to final hours, GOP probe claims

Afghans await evacuation at the Kabul airport. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty

The Biden administration left key decisions on how to evacuate civilians from Kabul until the final hours before the city fell to the Taliban, a new report from Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee claims.

Why it matters: President Biden acknowledged after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal that his administration had not anticipated that Kabul would fall so quickly, but insisted that "we planned for every contingency." The report, released ahead of the one-year anniversary of Kabul's collapse, contends that delays in that planning proved costly.

  • In a lengthy statement to Axios, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson claimed the report was "riddled with inaccurate characterizations, cherry-picked information, and false claims."

Between the lines: The investigation was conducted only by the committee's Republican minority, which is clearly intent on highlighting Biden's failures on Afghanistan.

  • It was led by Ryan Browne, a former CNN national security reporter who works as the lead Afghanistan investigator for the committee's minority.
  • Because the White House and State Department were largely uncooperative, the report notes, the main sources are public records, a separate investigation by the U.S. military, and the accounts of whistleblowers.

Zoom in: According to the report, the U.S. military was ordered to begin planning for a civilian evacuation operation in April, four days before Biden announced the unconditional withdrawal.

  • Multiple tabletop exercises were held to review the possible scenarios, including one on Aug. 6, the week before Kabul fell, which senior administration officials attended.
  • But one of the generals tasked with planning the evacuation, Brig. Gen. Farrell J. Sullivan, told Army investigators “there seemed to be a disconnect between what we were seeing on the ground and the urgency [State Department officials] were displaying." That lack of urgency would be a continual frustration among military leaders, the report claims.
  • In the White House statement, Watson rebuts that characterization: "We did extensive contingency planning throughout the spring and summer of 2021 and pre-positioned troops in the region, which enabled us to facilitate the evacuation of more than 120,000 people."

Behind the scenes: On the afternoon of Aug. 14 — hours before the Taliban took Kabul — the National Security Council convened a meeting during which officials discussed who should be given priority for evacuation.

  • One key decision was to task the State Department with establishing transit hubs in third countries where evacuees could be temporarily housed. Those agreements with countries like Qatar, reached on the fly as the evacuation got underway, were crucial to the evacuation effort.
  • Such decisions could have been taken much earlier, the report contends.

Aug. 14 was also the day the administration formally decided to proceed with the civilian evacuation. The military was prepared to move earlier, the report claims.

  • At the time, Biden blamed the decision not to begin the evacuations sooner in part on the Afghan government, which he said was worried about a "crisis of confidence."
  • The White House statement blames the collapse in morale among Afghan troops, and the abbreviated timeline to withdraw U.S. forces, on the deal former President Trump struck with the Taliban in 2020.
  • According to the committee's report, even when the evacuation effort was at its peak, there were just 36 consular personnel at the airport in Kabul, leaving soldiers without training on visa matters to triage the tens of thousands of people arriving at the airport.
  • The report attributes that to the administration's "failure to plan." The White House statement notes that the Trump administration "made no preparations to evacuate our Afghan allies," while the Biden administration "surged resources" into that effort.

One decision that still has not been made, the report claims, is whether and how to evacuate U.S.-trained Afghan commandos "who possess sensitive knowledge about U.S military operations."

The report also contrasts the relatively optimistic public statements from the State Department and Pentagon ahead of and during the evacuation with events on the ground and discussions behind the scenes.

  • In particular, it contends that while administration spokespeople were stressing that the Taliban was cooperating with the evacuation effort, military personnel on the ground were witnessing "beatings, shootings, harassment" and the intentional blocking of American citizens by the militants.
  • A committee staffer who worked on the report told Axios they were struck by the "disconnect" between public statements describing an "efficient" evacuation and the chaos actually unfolding at the airport.
  • "You'd have to believe that either the spokespeople were not receiving these reports, or the spin had just gotten out of control," the staffer who worked on the report told Axios.
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