U.S. Acknowledges Afghanistan Evacuation Should Have Started Sooner

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s nearly two-year review of the calamitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan found that U.S. officials should have started the evacuation earlier, but placed extensive blame on President Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump.

The National Security Council on Thursday released a 12-page summary of the government’s findings about the withdrawal in August 2021, which swiftly turned violent. As U.S. officials rushed to evacuate people from the international airport in Kabul, the capital, an Islamic State suicide bomber carried out an attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and as many as 170 civilians.

At one point, a crowd of Afghans, desperate to escape, climbed onto the wings of an American military cargo plane and fell from the sky after the flight took off. Within days of the U.S. withdrawal, the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban took over.

“Clearly we didn’t get things right here with Afghanistan with how fast the Taliban was moving across the country,” said John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, who fielded questions from reporters for more than an hour about the government’s review.

According to the document, the government has changed its policies to carry out such evacuations sooner when security conditions worsen.

But Mr. Kirby emphasized that actions taken by Mr. Trump — beginning with his deal with the Taliban to withdraw American troops by the spring of 2021, his hasty troop drawdowns and his later failure to share relevant transition materials with his successor’s team — left Mr. Biden with few good options. According to the report, when Mr. Biden took office, there were only 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, down from about 10,000 when Mr. Trump took office. Those remaining were outnumbered by ascendant Taliban forces.

“It was a general sense of degradation and neglect there that the president inherited,” Mr. Kirby said. “And do not underestimate the effect that Doha agreement had on the morale and the willingness to fight on the Afghan National Security defense forces,” he added, referring to the agreement that Mr. Trump made with the Taliban to pull forces from Afghanistan.

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“It had a very corrosive effect on their willingness to continue to fight for their country,” Mr. Kirby said. “Now, we didn’t see that. We didn’t see that, and part of the reason we didn’t see that is because we couldn’t see the plans.”

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, said on Thursday 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.”

He added: “The world has become a more dangerous place under Joe Biden.”

The summary released on Thursday does not directly say that officials made mistakes as they discussed evacuating the country and assessing how much time that would take. But in two places, the document says the government will prioritize swift evacuations.

“We now prioritize earlier evacuations when faced with a degrading security situation,” the administration said in the summary. “We did so in both Ethiopia and Ukraine,” it added, referring to continuing conflicts in those countries.

The summary, which was culled from reviews conducted across government agencies, including the State Department and the Pentagon, largely defended the actions of Mr. Biden and his administration. The full, classified reports from agencies will be shared with committees in the House and Senate later Thursday, according to a senior administration official.

Faced with several questions about the chaotic nature of the withdrawal, Mr. Kirby repeatedly defended the government’s efforts to vet evacuees, the military’s efforts to airlift civilians and troops out of Afghanistan, and the quick thinking of medical staff on the ground who provided care: “For all this talk of chaos, I just didn’t see it,” Mr. Kirby said. He also praised the work of soldiers and diplomats and said no one would lose their jobs because of the events during the evacuation.

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“This document isn’t about accountability,” Mr. Kirby said. “It’s about understanding.”

Asked repeatedly if the president took responsibility for the withdrawal, Mr. Kirby said, “He’s the commander in chief, and he absolutely has responsibility for the operations our men and women conduct and the orders that they receive.”

Mr. Biden initially defended the withdrawal as an “extraordinary success” and declared the end of an era in which the American government used military power “to remake other countries.” But polling at the time showed that less than 40 percent of Americans supported how he handled the withdrawal, and Mr. Biden eventually demanded a “top to bottom” review of the pullout.

According to the summary, officials said the speed with which the Taliban took over the country — despite assurances from the Afghan government of its ability to maintain stability — was proof that the U.S. government should err on the side of “aggressive communication” about risks in the future.

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 signaling a lack of confidence” in the Afghan government.

The summary was released amid an inquiry by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee into the Biden administration’s decisions in Afghanistan. Republicans and Democrats have engaged in a bitter and partisan debate over who holds accountability for the deadly withdrawal — the current president who oversaw the operation, or the former one who made agreements with the Taliban.

In recent weeks, some of the service members who survived the blast in Kabul have described the human toll taken by the operation: Aidan Gunderson, a former Army specialist, recounted how he tended to injured service members and the bodies of Afghans who had fallen while trying to cling to the landing gear of planes taking off from the airport, and tried to help stranded civilians enter the airport.

“I tried to save the lives of countless Marines. We all tried our best. It was a nightmare,” Mr. Gunderson, his voice breaking, said during a hearing last month.

Last month, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, a Republican and the chairman of the panel, pursued an investigation of the State Department’s role in the evacuation and issued a subpoena to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, demanding the release of a cable sent by embassy officials in Kabul in July 2021.

“This administration’s brazen whitewashing of their failure in Afghanistan is disgraceful, unjust, and flat-out insulting,” Mr. McCaul wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

The acknowledgment by the Biden administration that it should have started the evacuation sooner is a reversal by top officials, including Mr. Biden and Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, who had insisted that evacuating sooner would not have prevented the chaos at the airport.

In May 2021, several refugee organizations participated in a Zoom call with staff at the White House’s National Security Council to plead for them to start evacuating Afghans who had worked with the United States and would be threatened by the Taliban’s return.

“The United States made a promise of protection, yet it seemed little thought had been given to operationalizing a plan to keep it,” Tim Young, a spokesman for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the groups on that call, said in an interview.

The officials at the time were noncommittal about an early evacuation. While some flights began in the late spring, officials ultimately did not start a full-scale evacuation of Afghans or Americans until much closer to the military’s withdrawal.

On Thursday, when asked if the president was preparing to outline the review’s results to the public, Mr. Kirby said Mr. Biden had already shared his views on the withdrawal.

“You’ve heard from the president; he has talked many times about his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Mr. Kirby said. Mr. Biden was already en route to Camp David for the Easter weekend as Mr. Kirby fielded questions.

Michael D. Shear and Karoun Demirjian contributed reporting.

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