The latest: In a list of reasons cited by the US President Joe Biden’s administration, through classified reports, for the chaotic August 2021 US pullout from Afghanistan, the most prominent one was the blame on Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, for failing to plan for the withdrawal he had agreed on with the Taliban. From accepting that the withdrawal was hasty to accepting intelligence failure, a lot has been revealed through the newly released US National Security Council document.
- The US administration acknowledged that its evacuations from Afghanistan in 2021 should have begun sooner — but largely blamed the Trump administration.
- The sweeping, 12-page summary 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.” But the Trump administration “provided no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies,” the White House said. “President Biden had committed to ending the war in Afghanistan, but when he came into office he was confronted with difficult realities left to him by the Trump Administration.”
- The White House said the lack of communication from the Trump administration underscores why effective coordination for the transition process is critical, “especially when it comes to complex military operations,” the summary says.
- 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.
- It also placed some responsibility for the chaos of the pullout and evacuation operation on flawed U.S. intelligence and military assessments that failed to foresee the speed of the Taliban takeover and predicted that Afghan security forces would hold Kabul. “As late as May 2021, the assessment was still that Kabul would probably not come under serious pressure until late 2021 after U.S. troops departed,” the summary said.
- 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. The document states that it now errs on the side of “aggressive communication” about risks in a destabilized security environment.
- 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 document says that in the months before the military pulled out, the Biden administration chose “to not broadcast loudly and publicly about a potential worst-case scenario unfolding in order to avoid signalling a lack of confidence” in the Afghan government.
- John Kirby, a White House spokesperson acknowledged that the US government did not manage to predict “how fast the Taliban were moving across the country” or “the degree to which they were constructing these deals in the hinterlands that kind of fell like dominos.”
- The United States acknowledged that the government should have started evacuations from Afghanistan earlier at the end of the war in 2021, and said the government has changed policies to carry out such evacuations sooner when security conditions worsen. The acknowledgment by the Biden administration that they should have started the evacuation sooner than they did is a reversal from the repeated denials by Biden; Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser; and other top officials. They had insisted that evacuating sooner would not have prevented the chaos at the airport and would have undermined confidence in the already shaky Afghan government.
- On the issues of military equipment being left behind, Kirby remarked that it had been the responsibility of Afghanistan’s former government to account for it. The actual amount of military equipment left behind in Afghanistan, most of it given to Afghan security forces who abandoned the battlefield, was just over $7bn, according to a US Defense Department report.
- Another reason was that the US’ contingency plans were “inhibited” by a concern that such open preparation “might send the wrong signal to Afghans and to the government that we’d lost confidence in it and precipitate exactly what we hoped to prevent, which was its collapse”.
- Other findings included a lack of clear authority of who led the evacuation operation, “competing and conflicting guidance” from Washington on evacuation priorities and a lack of clear tracking of Americans in Afghanistan.
- In the end, nothing “would have changed the trajectory” of the exit and “ultimately, President Biden refused to send another generation of Americans to fight a war that should have ended for the United States long ago,” the report said.
Between the lines: However, despite the reasons listed, the report summary said, “There were no signs that more time, more funds, or more Americans at risk in Afghanistan would have yielded a fundamentally different trajectory.”
- Still, it acknowledges that the US had not been able to adequately account for psychological factors within the Afghan military, could have more aggressively communicated about the growing risks and begun the evacuation process quicker.
- The US 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 US, 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.” “Transitions matter. That’s the first lesson learned here. And the incoming administration wasn’t afforded much of one,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told a White House briefing.
Why it matters? The withdrawal that ended America’s longest war saw tens of thousands of Afghans desperate to flee a return of hardline Taliban rule besiege Kabul’s international airport, some handing babies to U.S. troops or breaking in and hanging onto departing aircraft.
- The Trump administration also “gutted” refugee support services and virtually halted the processing of Special Immigration Visas for thousands of Afghans seeking evacuation.
- The 20-year war in Afghanistan, the longest conflict involving U.S. troops, was started under President George W. Bush and furthered under President Barack Obama. Over 100,000 people were killed and about 3 million displaced, according to data from the nonpartisan Costs of War project at Brown University.
- Biden pledged during his 2020 campaign to end “forever wars” and withdraw from Afghanistan, although he postponed the pullout to which Trump had agreed by three months until the end of August 2021. The U.S.-backed Kabul government collapsed on Aug. 15 as the Taliban were entering the city.
- The disorganization and chaos as the U.S. left raised questions about Biden’s leadership, the quality of U.S. intelligence and America’s commitment to human rights and thousands of Afghan citizens it had relied on.
Back story: The Trump administration agreed in a February 2020 accord with the Taliban on the pullout of all U.S.-led international forces by May 2021. The Islamist militants agreed to stop attacking American troops and hold peace talks with the Western-backed Kabul government.
- Ghani also agreed to release 5,000 Taliban detainees as part of the agreement to end the conflict.
- Biden, who pledged to end the war while campaigning for president, later altered the deadline to say that U.S. forces would be out by Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of terrorist attacks on the United States that precipitated the invasion.
- In laying out the withdrawal chronology, the summary said that successive troop reductions ordered by Trump had left 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan when Biden took office in January 2021. The result was that the Taliban controlled or contested half the country.
Zoom out: There have been many reactions to the document. Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee, strongly criticized the administration. Biden ordered the pullout and was “responsible for the massive failures in planning and execution,” McCaul said in a statement.
- “John Kirby’s comments during today’s White House press briefing were disgraceful and insulting. President Biden made the decision to withdraw and even picked the exact date; he is responsible for the massive failures in planning and execution,” McCaul said in a statement.
- McCaul, who is overseeing the Republican probe, charged that his multiple threats to subpoena the State Department and Pentagon reviews, which were completed last year, finally compelled the administration to send them to Congress.
- Roger Wicker (R.-Miss.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also condemned the White House’s framing of the Afghanistan withdrawal. “Instead of addressing honestly and openly the substantial flaws in its decision-making process, the Biden administration has provided the public a full-throated and deeply partisan explanation of its indefensible Afghanistan policy,” he said.
- Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s re-election campaign, said that the Biden administration was “trying to gaslight the American people for their disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan that directly led to American deaths and emboldened the terrorists.”
- “More could and should have been done” by the US State Department to prepare for a worst-case scenario in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Blinken said the department was in the process of delivering its own review to Congress in the hour-long meeting. But he didn’t commit to releasing the report publicly, stating that he preferred the department look forward instead of creating a “fixation” on the past.