An Army investigation into the Biden administration’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year found the White House and State Department were too late in reacting to the Taliban’s final offensive, according to a new report Tuesday.
Senior officials failed to understand the significance of the Taliban’s push toward Kabul and resisted efforts by military commanders to prepare an evacuation of embassy staffers and Afghan allies in the weeks before the capital fell, putting American troops involved in the bugout in greater danger, according to the Washington Post, which cited the 2,000-page investigative report.
The report also revealed previously unreported instances of violence directed at US forces, including a gun battle between Marines and Taliban fighters that killed two of the militants and another in which American troops killed a member of an elite Afghan unit and wounded six others after they fired on Americans.
The investigation began after 13 US service members and more than 180 Afghan civilians were killed in a ISIS-K suicide bomb attack on Aug. 26 outside Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The report, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, details the immense pressure American troops were under as thousands of Afghans streamed to the airport in a desperate attempt to flee the return of Taliban rule.
The speed at which Taliban fighters took over the country and swept into Kabul on Aug. 15 forced US commanders to enter into a security pact with the militant group and deploy about 6,000 troops to assist the existing force of 600 to protect US Embassy personnel, the report said.
US officials praised the bravery of the troops but criticized the administration’s handling of the evacuation, which left behind hundreds of Americans and Afghan allies.
Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top US commander in Afghanistan during the withdrawal effort, told investigators that the military would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” operation “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”
Vasely added that Washington’s lack of attention to the Taliban’s swift advance “undermined commanders’ ability to ready their forces.”
Other military officials told Army investigators that although the operation appeared haphazard, planning inside the Defense Department had been ongoing for months.
The discussions presumably included discussions about using Bagram Air Base for the evacuations and sending Afghan government forces to help secure the road there, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan said.
But a decision was eventually made to only use Karzai Airport for outbound flights.
US officials have said the air base 30 miles north of Kabul was too far away and would have required a large troop presence to maintain. Instead, it was turned over to the Afghan government, which surrendered it to the Taliban weeks later.
“Everyone clearly saw some of the advantage of holding Bagram, but you cannot hold Bagram with the force level that was decided,” Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, told the Washington Post.
After the US abandoned Bagram, which served as the hub of American military operations over the course of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, hordes of looters descended on the sprawling base and ransacked barracks and stole military equipment left behind.
McKenzie said he was “not surprised” that military commanders have varying opinions about the effectiveness of the evacuation.
“But remember, what did happen is we came together and executed a plan,” he said. “There are profound frustrations; commanders, particularly subordinate commanders, they see very clearly the advantages of other courses of action. However, we had a decision, and we had an allocation of forces. You proceed based on that.”
There “might have been other plans that we would have preferred but when the president makes a decision, it’s time for us to execute the president’s decision,” he added.
As with Bagram, disagreements between military officials and US diplomats about when to begin the evacuation also dated back months.
Vasely, who took over the Afghan command in July, reportedly told investigators that Army Gen. Austin Miller, his predecessor, warned him that there would be resistance among senior embassy officials to reducing the diplomatic presence in Kabul. Among the objectors were acting US Ambassador Ross Wilson, who feared a loss of US influence if the staff was pared down.
Wilson insisted on being given two weeks lead time to evacuate the embassy, a small group of diplomats allowed to stay at the airport.
But by Aug. 12, three days before the Taliban marched into Kabul, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told Wilson to move up the timetable, Vasely told investigators.
Vasely “was trying to get the Ambassador to see the security threat for what it really was,” a military official whose name is redacted from the report told the investigators.
“The embassy needed to position for withdrawal, and the Ambassador didn’t get it,” the official added.
Sullivan, the Marine general, said a National Security Council official not identified in the report appeared to lack a sense of urgency during a meeting on Aug. 6 and told others that if the US began an evacuation it would signal that “we have failed.”
“In my opinion, the NSC was not seriously planning for an evacuation,” he said.
Biden advisers at a Aug. 9 meeting discussed closing the embassy but senior officials said it was too soon to do so.
But a senior administration official told the Washington Post that the State and Defense departments began to “steadily drew down our diplomatic presence in Kabul starting in April 2021, nearly four months before the fall of Kabul, when the Embassy went on ‘Ordered Departure’ status.”
Vasely told investigators that he believed by Aug. 14 that the Afghan government would collapse after the US carried out 10 airstrikes against the Taliban, killing 100 fighters, without stopping the advance.
“We were killing them in bunches, destroying tactical vehicles, and they kept coming,” he said.
Vasely added that after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, conditions at the airport turned chaotic as thousands of people scrambled to find a way out.
An Army officer who was among the troops who searched the US embassy on Aug. 15 told investigators they found State Department personnel “intoxicated and cowering in rooms,” while others were “operating like it was day-to-day operations with absolutely no sense of urgency or recognition of the situation.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called the evacuation a “historic achievement” but also noted that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin agreed that it was “not perfect.”
“We are committed to, and are intensely engaged in, an ongoing review of our efforts during the evacuation, the assessments and strategy during the conflict, and the planning in the months before the end of the war,” Kirby told the newspaper. “We will take those lessons learned, and apply them, as we always do, clearly and professionally.”