Biden administration failed to foresee Afghanistan mayhem, review finds


The Washington Post

July 1, 2023

A State Department report released Friday faults the agency’s crisis management and awareness before and during the fall of Afghanistan, findings certain to be trumpeted by Republicans and other critics who have charged that bureaucratic lethargy played a significant role in the chaos and violence that unfolded nearly two years ago during one of the Biden administration’s darkest moments.

The report says that President Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, each failed to appreciate how a U.S. military pullout would affect the Afghan government’s stability, and that standard summer diplomatic rotations in the weeks ahead of Kabul’s collapse left the U.S. evacuation in the hands of personnel who in some cases had been in the country for only a few days or weeks.

Critical missteps identified in the report present fresh evidence of the mayhem that left Afghanistan’s future in the hands of the oppressive Taliban regime, cost the lives of scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, and sent Biden’s approval ratings tumbling. The timing of its release — with little notice ahead of a long holiday weekend — also is likely to draw anger from those who have said his administration has tried to downplay scrutiny of its actions during the spring and summer of 2021.

The State Department redacted large portions of the report, releasing 23 of its 87 pages, citing security concerns. The analysis focused primarily on actions and reforms inside the agency, rather than at the White House or the Pentagon, each of which already has produced accounts of the 20-year war’s calamitous final chapter.

Read the report: U.S. State Department After Action Review on Afghanistan

The analysis takes aim at failings on multiple levels. At the top, officials gave “insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow” after Biden affirmed Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. military from Afghanistan.

Before the Afghan government’s collapse, “it was unclear who in the [State] Department had the lead” on preparations for a full evacuation of the country, the report found. It called the department’s participation in planning for an evacuation “hindered,” even though the U.S. military had been working on the effort ahead of the pullout.

Once the Taliban drew near Kabul and the United States began the full withdrawal, the Biden administration’s communications made the evacuation more chaotic and dangerous than it would have been otherwise, the report found.

“Constantly changing policy guidance and public messaging from Washington” about who was eligible to be relocated from Afghanistan “added to the confusion and often failed to take into account key facts on the ground,” it said. That exacerbated an already messy situation in which members of Congress, aid workers and others who had connections to Afghans were trying unilaterally to organize rescue missions for individuals and families, rather than allowing U.S. personnel on the ground to concentrate on a more systematic effort.

But there were lower-level problems, too. A June 2021 coronavirus breakout at the embassy led to a strict lockdown there, confining many personnel to their quarters in the bunkerlike facility, and making it harder to collaborate and receive classified briefings as the military pullout intensified, the report noted.

And because the State Department didn’t react to the instability in the country by extending the standard one-year hardship rotations of its diplomats, Kabul’s collapse came at an especially vulnerable moment for the embassy, since much of its staff had just turned over or were still on their way to the country.

The exit from Afghanistan, capped by a chaotic and deadly two-week evacuation from a single airfield in Kabul in August 2021, pulled more than 120,000 people from harm’s way in an extraordinary airlift effort spearheaded by the U.S. military.

Tens of thousands of others who had assisted the American war effort over two decades of conflict were left behind in an effort overshadowed by tragedy, including a gruesome suicide bombing, a botched U.S. drone strike that killed 10 innocent people, and surging crowds that resulted in some people being trampled to death.

The report also notes “differences in style and decision making” between the Trump and Biden administrations, “most notably the relative lack of an interagency process in the Trump administration and the intense interagency process that characterized the initial period of the Biden Administration,” which included an early focus on identifying Afghans who had worked with the U.S. government and were eligible for visas to get them out of the country.

In a Friday email to State Department personnel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the review “affirmed what I and so many already knew to be true: our people in Afghanistan, in Washington, and at sites around the world demonstrated extraordinary courage, ingenuity, and dedication to mission in the face of complex and demanding conditions.”

The review “also detailed and made recommendations on several areas where we could have done better, and where processes and systems could be improved,” he wrote.

State Department officials said that they had already taken steps to implement lessons learned from the Afghanistan withdrawal, applying them in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when the State Department was faster to pull personnel from its embassy in Kyiv than other countries, and to the evacuation from Sudan in April.

“What this report reveals is that in crises that are longer duration, that are particularly complicated, that occur at a large scale, that impact populations well beyond the official American community, we haven’t over time had the appropriate structure and resources available to provide that foundation, a steady, constant set of capabilities that we can draw on when we’re suddenly confronting something at scale,” said a senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the agency.

House Republicans have held a series of hearings this year as part of their investigation of the withdrawal. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called the evacuation effort “disastrous” and said he intends to seek testimony from Biden’s top national security advisers, including Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McCaul called Friday for the full report to be released, saying the redacted pages were not classified.

He also has sought wider access to a July 2021 cable that U.S. diplomats posted to Afghanistan sent to Blinken using the State Department’s dissent channel, a forum for expressing views contrary to those of superiors. The top diplomat in early June agreed to allow committee members to read the cable.

To date, no U.S. official has been fired or forced out as a result of the dysfunction, something that some family members of U.S. troops killed in the airport bombing have criticized.

Tyler Vargas-Andrews, a Marine who lost an arm and a leg in the explosion, told McCaul’s committee in March that the operation was a “catastrophe,” defined by an “inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence.”

“The 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier [killed] that day have not been answered for,” he told lawmakers.

In an earlier investigation performed by the U.S. military, numerous officials voiced frustration with what they perceived to be a lack of attention in Washington to how dire the situation was in Afghanistan as the Taliban swept across the country.

Military personnel would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation, said Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top U.S. commander on the ground during the operation, “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”

Vasely’s comments, and other similar remarks, were previously downplayed by State Department officials. Jalina Porter, a State Department spokeswoman, said last year that “cherry-picked comments do not reflect the months of work that were well underway” and the totality of what U.S. diplomats undertook to facilitate the evacuation effort.

“It was tough in the first few hours,” Kirby said then, after the White House had provided Congress with its assessment indicating the evacuation should have been ordered sooner. “You would expect it to be; there was nobody at the airport and certainly no Americans. It took time to get in there.”

That disclosure also was made at the start of a holiday weekend.

Michael Birnbaum is a national security reporter for The Washington Post, covering the State Department and diplomacy. He previously served more than a decade in Europe as The Post’s bureau chief in Brussels, Moscow and Berlin, reporting from more than 40 countries, and he covered climate and security from Washington. He joined The Post in 2008.

Dan Lamothe joined The Washington Post in 2014 to cover the U.S. military. He has written about the Armed Forces for more than 15 years, traveling extensively, embedding with five branches of service and covering combat in Afghanistan’

Biden administration failed to foresee Afghanistan mayhem, review finds