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White House Afghanistan planning lacked ‘urgency,’ report finds

Biden defends the withdrawal of U.S. forces

U.S. troops board an Air Force plane at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021.
U.S. troops board an Air Force plane at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration lacked “a sufficient sense of urgency” when planning for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, according to an after-action report released Friday by the State Department.

The unclassified version of the report, spanning 24 pages, lays out in detail the obstacles the government encountered in planning for the withdrawal, which grew chaotic as Afghanistan became overrun by Taliban fighters far more quickly than officials had expected.

The report will likely provide ammunition to congressional critics of the Biden administration who have spent months investigating alleged missteps by the State Department. Confusion and desperation on the ground in Kabul ultimately led to the death of 13 U.S. servicemembers and dozens of Afghans. It also left thousands of Afghans with ties to the U.S. government stranded in Afghanistan.

Asked about the State Department report on Friday, President Joe Biden defended his administration’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “I was right,” he told reporters, adding that currently U.S. forces are “getting help” from the Taliban and al-Qaida is “not there.” While the new report acknowledges that mistakes were made, Biden did not.

The shambolic withdrawal has drawn widespread condemnation, mostly from Republicans but including some Democrats, who contend that the several key missteps and poor decisions by the administration resulted in a disastrous end to the two decades of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

A previous report, released by the National Security Council, that largely blamed the conditions surrounding the withdrawal on decisions made by the Trump administration was not well-received by Republicans on the Hill.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has repeatedly pressed the State Department for documents related to the withdrawal. On Wednesday, McCaul wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stating that the department needs to comply with the committee’s request for certain Afghanistan After-Action Review files by July 14 or face a subpoena.

Planning and politics

The report pointed to problems with interagency planning.

The U.S. military had largely left the country by mid-August, leaving the Kabul embassy in charge of the situation until troops could be sent back in. Coordination between the military and the State Department were “hindered by the fact that it was unclear who in the Department had the lead,” according to the report.

Issues also arose when the State Department decided to stick to its normal rotation procedures for Kabul embassy staff despite the impending withdrawal deadline. That meant significant numbers of officers, including the senior regional security officer and head of the consular section, had arrived “only weeks and in some cases days” before the Taliban arrived in Kabul.

“The fact that so many personnel were new placed a tremendous burden on them to get up to speed on post-specific crisis planning and responsibilities as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated,” the report said.

The administration’s worries about political perceptions also limited contingency planning, the report contended. Officials avoided accelerated departure of at-risk Afghans in the months leading up to the withdrawal deadline for fear of publicly undermining then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

That left officials scrambling when Taliban fighters began to rapidly advance toward the capital. Concerns about a loss of confidence in Ghani “impeded preparations for a worst-case scenario in Washington and Embassy Kabul,” according to the report.

The report included a series of recommendations, mostly focused on the State Department’s overall crisis preparation and response procedures. It also urged the insulation of contingency planning from political concerns and an improved leadership structure for the handling of complex crises.

Ultimately, the Biden administration’s plans were based on a “permissive environment,” the report suggested, and crucial decisions about how a possible evacuation would unfold had not been made when the situation began to deteriorate.

The Biden administration has largely defended its handling of the withdrawal, noting widespread public support for ending the 20-year conflict and blaming former President Donald Trump for striking an agreement with the Taliban that boxed in the next administration with little planning for the withdrawal’s realities.

“The Department itself had been slow in setting up its own task force structure,” the report cautioned, “but there may have been no way to prepare fully for the situation once Kabul fell to the Taliban and the NEO morphed into the largest humanitarian evacuation since the fall of Saigon.”

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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