Updated Apr 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

U.S. admits Afghanistan evacuation should have begun sooner

 American soldiers guard the East Gate into the Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021.

American soldiers guard the East Gate into the Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The U.S. acknowledged its evacuations from Afghanistan in 2021 should have begun sooner — but largely blamed the Trump administration, according to a newly released National Security Council document outlining key moments.

Why it matters: The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in summer 2021 — a pain point in Biden's presidency that's drawn bipartisan criticism — has also become a growing target of GOP-led congressional investigations.

  • The Afghanistan withdrawal changed the U.S. protocol on evacuations during other global conflicts, per the NSC's summary of the Biden administration's review of the withdrawal released Thursday.
  • "We now prioritize earlier evacuations when faced with a degrading security situation. We did so in both Ethiopia and Ukraine," it said.
  • The Biden administration sounded the alarm early over the deteriorating security situation in Ethiopia in November of 2021, warning there would be no airlift. It took a similar approach leading up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.
  • The Biden administration was expected to give Congress detailed, classified information on the U.S. decision-making behind and execution of the withdrawal, officials said Thursday.

Between the lines: "There were no signs that more time, more funds, or more Americans at risk in Afghanistan would have yielded a fundamentally different trajectory," the summary states, in defense of Biden's decisions.

  • Still, it acknowledges that the U.S. had not been able to adequately accounted for psychological factors within the Afghan military, could have more aggressively communicated about the growing risks and begun the evacuation process quicker.
  • "No agency predicted a Taliban takeover in nine days," NSC spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. "And no agency predicted that the more than 300,000 trained and equipped Afghan national defense forces would fail to fight for their country, especially after 20 years of American support."

What they're saying: The sweeping, 12-page summary released on Thursday lays much of the blame for the chaotic withdrawal on former President Trump — stating Biden's choices were "severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor."

  • The summary criticizes Trump's negotiations with the Taliban leading to the Doha Agreement, which officially began the process to end the United States' longest war.
  • The document points to these decisions, the rapid withdrawal of troops and lack of planning as reason for Biden taking office while "the Taliban were in the strongest military position that they had been in since 2001."
  • It also accuses the Trump administration of providing "no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies" during the transition.
  • It blames the former administration for gutting the U.S. refugee network and allowing a backlog of more than 18,000 Afghan allies who had applied for Special Immigrant Visa status.

The big picture: The situation in Afghanistan directly informed decisions made in respect to Ukraine, according to the report:

  • "Our experience in Afghanistan directly informed the Administration’s decision to set up a small group of experts (“tiger team”) for worst-case scenario planning on Ukraine—including simulation exercises—months ahead of Russia’s invasion."
  • "In a destabilizing security environment, we now err on the side of aggressive communication about risks. We did this in advance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine."

By the numbers: The U.S. has now evacuated more than 6,000 American citizens from Afghanistan and is "continuing to facilitate the departures of American citizens who chose to stay or returned to Afghanistan despite our grave warnings," according to the summary.

  • Operation Allies Welcome has resulted in more than 100,000 Afghans being welcomed to the U.S., as well.
  • The summary calls on Congress "to act on legislation, such as the Afghan Adjustment Act, to support those joining new communities to become well settled and integrated."

What to watch: House Republicans are currently subpoenaing a 2021 dissent cable from U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan warning that Kabul could collapse if American troops withdrew.

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