Could State Department, Bagram or Ghani Have Made Afghan Airlift Less Chaotic?

FILE — Hundreds gather, some holding documents, near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 26, 2021.
FILE — Hundreds gather, some holding documents, near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 26, 2021.

This month, the Taliban are marking two years since they retook control of Kabul, a swift blow that shocked the international community and set in motion a frantic evacuation led by the United States.

The violent and chaotic final phase of the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021 saw more than 122,000 people airlifted to safety, but at least 180 people, including 13 U.S. military service members, were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives near Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate entrance on August 26.

Critics of the evacuation — known officially as a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation or NEO — say there is plenty of blame to go around.

“It was a Kafka-esque exercise in bureaucracy and red tape with no clear lines of authority while lives were on the line,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, at a Senate hearing about a month after the evacuation ended.

“We were unprepared,” he said.

Was the State Department to blame?

U.S. officials who spoke to VOA at the time of the fall, and again in recent weeks, have placed the blame largely on the State Department. They say the U.S. Embassy in Kabul repeatedly ignored Taliban gains that were meant to be seen as “trip wires” to signal the need for a NEO.

On May 1, 2021, the Taliban controlled roughly 75 Afghan districts, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal. By July 12, the Taliban controlled more than 210 of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts.

But as Afghan territories fell like dominoes, efforts by the military to conduct an interagency tabletop exercise to prepare for the evacuation were delayed. The State Department continued to “move the date because Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on vacation,” according to one official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Two officials told VOA that the State Department initially did not want the evacuation to include Afghan nationals who had worked with U.S. forces and had applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to the United States. Instead, State wanted the military to focus solely on airlifting U.S. citizens and embassy personnel.

VOA asked the State Department how many Afghans seeking SIVs the U.S. wanted to include in its initial evacuation plans, but the department declined to comment.

According to an after-action report by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, during the interagency tabletop evacuation exercise on August 10, Afghanistan’s crumbling situation was presented to Biden administration officials with a prediction that Kabul could be fully isolated within 30 days. However, diplomats did not order an evacuation that day.

“There was a reluctance [from State] to plan for the worst, and a reluctance to start the needed evacuation,” a U.S. official close to the evacuation planning told VOA.

The State Department finally ordered the military to conduct an NEO on August 14, one day before Kabul fell.

“There was not a sufficient sense of urgency,” wrote authors of an After Action Review on Afghanistan released by the State Department this year.

Who was in charge?

By definition, NEOs are “conducted by the Department of Defense … when directed by the Department of State,” and officials have said friction between the two led to the haphazard evacuation.

‘Hunger Games’ Evacuations as US Left Afghanistan

NEOs are overseen by the chief of mission, who was U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson.

One official told VOA that in addition to “waiting too long” to order the NEO, Wilson appeared to have “no policy [for] prioritizing how to get folks out.” Sometimes SIV applicants would get processed by State, other times not. Multiple C-17s left Kabul airport without any evacuees on the first day of the evacuation, said another official.

The State Department flew in a second ambassador and others to help with the NEO after Kabul fell, but processing remained the slowest part of the evacuation, frustrating military leaders, including Rear Admiral Peter Vasely and Brigadier General Farrell Sullivan, the officers responsible for coordinating the evacuation.

According to one official, Vasely was instructing military personnel to “load and go” in an effort to get as many people as possible onto planes so they could be fully processed in a safer location outside Afghanistan. State Department personnel, on the other hand, wanted to fully process potential evacuees before they boarded a plane.

International television audiences were shocked by scenes of desperate Afghans clinging to the undercarriages of planes as they took off, only to fall to their deaths.

The chaotic situation further devolved on August 26 when a suicide bomber unleashed a massive blast outside the airport’s Abbey Gate, where thousands of Afghans were clustered in a frantic effort to enter the facility in hopes of boarding an evacuation flight.

The attack, attributed to the Islamic State extremist group, killed an estimated 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members who had been manning the gate and trying to maintain order.

Was the military at fault for not using Bagram?

In the days, weeks and months after the attack, many criticized the U.S. military plan to use Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) for the evacuation rather than Bagram Airfield, the Soviet-built base about 50 kilometers north of Kabul that had been the hub of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan for nearly two decades.

Command Sergeant Major Jake Smith oversaw the U.S. military departure from Bagram at the beginning of July 2021, as part of the scheduled departure of the last U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

U.S. President Joe Biden on April 14 of that year had ordered the military to remove all of its troops from Afghanistan by September 11, with the exception of a few hundred to protect the embassy. The Biden administration later changed the military’s withdrawal deadline to August 31.

In the spring of that year, Smith had recommended Bagram for any NEO, saying the vast military base had far better resources and capabilities than HKIA to handle the operation.

“Bagram could house 35,000 people without overloading the infrastructure, whereas HKIA could hold under 4,000. … Bagram held the logistical capability to meet the requirements of 130,000 people, HKIA did not,” he told lawmakers.

Bagram also had one more runway than HKIA.

From a security assessment, too, Smith told lawmakers in July that Bagram was a better option than HKIA.

“The events that happened on Abbey Gate, I believe, that would have not occurred in Bagram,” he said.

In 2017, Kabul was deemed so insecure that then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to meet him at Bagram Airfield. Similarly, in November 2019, President Donald Trump landed at Bagram, but did not take the less than 15-minute helicopter flight to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul because of security considerations.

Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, blames U.S. civilian decision-makers for ignoring Smith’s proposal to execute the NEO from Bagram.

“This was a prime example of the arrogance of civilian decision-makers who had never served in the military and had no real experience in Afghanistan haughtily ignoring those who did,” Rubin wrote to VOA.

To keep Bagram Airfield operational, U.S. military leaders say they would have needed at least 2,500 troops on the ground, significantly more than the Biden administration had ordered them to keep in the country.

U.S. forces vacated Bagram on July 2, at which point U.S. Central Command said the military withdrawal was “more than 90% complete.” By July 12, a month before Kabul fell and the day the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Austin “Scott” Miller, relinquished command, the only American troops that remained in Afghanistan were those assigned to protect the embassy and those assisting Turkish forces with security at HKIA.

“What we wanted was an elegant solution that was not attainable,” retired General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command who oversaw the NEO, told VOA last year. “We wanted to go to zero militarily yet retain a small diplomatic platform in Afghanistan that would be protected.”

In September 2021, McKenzie told a House Armed Services Committee hearing, “I did not see any tactical utility to Bagram.”

Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same hearing that “Bagram would’ve required exceptional levels of resources.”

Neither of the military officials spoke about Smith’s proposal to use Bagram for the NEO.

“The size of Bagram and its associated terrain would have demanded a much, much larger amount of troops to defend it,” Gian Gentile, a retired U.S. Army colonel and associate director of the Army Research Division at the RAND Corporation, a global policy research group, said in an interview.

“That view is the usual post-facto military lament that if policymakers would have only let us run the show, everything would have been fine,” he told VOA. “But again, that is a contorted inverse on how things work in a democracy.”

Could Ghani have changed the outcome?

Days before he fled from Afghanistan in three helicopters with his wife and closest aides, Ghani vowed he would not run away, even at the cost of his life.

Such assurances, and intelligence estimates about the strength and resilience of Afghan defense forces, prompted U.S. officials to believe that Kabul would not fall to the Taliban, even if the group claimed the rest of the country.

Ghani’s unexpected flight on August 15, however, left Afghanistan without a state for the U.S. to deal with while opening the door for the Taliban to walk into the deserted Presidential Palace in Kabul, less than three miles from the U.S. Embassy.

“If [Ghani] had not fled, things would have been different,” Sediq Seddiqi, a former deputy minister and spokesperson to Ghani, told VOA.

By staying, Seddiqi said, the Afghan president could have prevented the mayhem that followed his escape.

Others who knew Ghani and worked for him disagree.

“I believe President Ghani had totally lost credibility,” said Omar Zakhilwal, a former Afghan minister.

“If he had stayed in Kabul, the only thing he could have saved would have been his honor as a leader but not the government — it was just too late for the latter,” Zakhilwal told VOA.

Whether any U.S. or Ghani government action could have prevented or mitigated the events of August 2021 in Kabul remains in dispute, but neither the dramatic scenes at Kabul airport, nor the loss of life on August 26, can be reversed.

Milley told The Washington Post on Friday that he supported investigations, including those by House Republicans, into the Afghanistan withdrawal.

“I think any time that you can shed light and truth, determine lessons learned, I think that’s a valuable exercise,” he said.

Could State Department, Bagram or Ghani Have Made Afghan Airlift Less Chaotic?