The Biden administration acknowledged on Thursday that it should have started the 2021 evacuation of Afghanistan sooner, while placing much of the blame for the deadly and chaotic US departure from the country with the Trump administration.
The US retreat, which took place eight months into President Joe Biden’s tenure, was marked by images of Afghans hanging from airplane landing gear and a deadly bombing at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate that killed 13 US troops and 170 Afghans, many of whom were trying to flee the resurgent Taliban.
In a 12-page document released to reporters summarizing aspects of a comprehensive government review of the withdrawal, administration officials largely pointed the finger at former President Donald Trump for giving the Taliban a set date for the US pullout of troops and setting other conditions that led to the Biden administration’s hasty departure from the country.
The Biden administration’s description of the withdrawal, written by the National Security Council, comes as the State Department and the Pentagon have delivered to Congress their own lengthy, classified studies of the US’s unexpectedly quick departure from the country in August 2021, as Taliban insurgents rolled over the Afghan national army faster than US intelligence analysts had predicted. Lawmakers will only be able to read those studies inside highly-secured rooms on the Capitol grounds.
The catastrophic withdrawal has continued to serve as one of the biggest black marks on Biden’s record as President, as it undermined one of his main pitches to voters—that he would bring sound decision-making and professionalism back to the White House after four years of messy disruption under Trump. As both Biden and Trump gear up for a potential rematch in 2024, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is sure to resurface as a focus of attack lines, as each tries to pin the blame for the ugly departure on the other.
The White House report acknowledged that not starting evacuations from Afghanistan earlier was a mistake, as well as not sharing intelligence more broadly about the deteriorating security situation on the ground and not doing enough planning for a worst case scenario in Afghanistan. The Biden administration says it learned lessons from those experiences that it applied in other conflict zones soon after.
“We now prioritize earlier evacuations when faced with a degrading security situation,” the White House report says, pointing to subsequent evacuations in Ethiopia and Ukraine as threats mounted in those countries. In November 2021, amid escalating violence around Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, the US withdrew most personnel from the Embassy, over objections from the Ethiopian government. In Ukraine, the US withdrew personnel about two weeks before Russia began rolling tanks toward Kyiv.
The experience in Afghanistan also affected how the administration handles intelligence amid escalating threats. “In a destabilizing security environment, we now err on the side of aggressive communication about risks,” the White House review says. Regarding Ukraine, the administration released intelligence early to allies, and eventually made their concerns public weeks before the Russian invasion. Ukrainian government officials objected to that approach at the time, the review states, over concerns it would spark panic inside the country. Biden did it anyway, and believes it helped mobilize allies and support for Ukraine.
Also during that period in early 2022, as Russian troops were mustering on Ukraine’s borders, the experience in Afghanistan inspired the Biden administration to set up a small group of experts which they called a “tiger team” to make plans for worst-case scenarios.
The White House review reserved its most scathing assessments for the Trump Administration, blaming Biden’s predecessor for agreeing to the US withdrawal in the first place and leaving it to the next administration to execute it.
Trump told the Taliban that the U.S. military would leave the country in 2021, but Trump left “no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans or Afghan allies,” the review said. When Biden took office, the review states, “the Taliban were in the strongest military position that they had been in since 2001, controlling or contesting half of the country” and “the United States had only 2,500 troops on the ground—the lowest number of troops in Afghanistan since 2001.”
The report also dinged the previous administration for gutting the US visa process, thereby creating a massive backlog that held up the departures of thousands of Afghans who had worked with Americans and needed to seek safety from the Taliban outside the country.
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