At the height of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, there were only 36 State Department officials on the ground at Kabul airport to process Afghans trying to evacuate, according to a recently released report. by House Republicans, despite departmental claims that they had increased resources to deal with crowds desperately trying to flee.
The figure – which meant there was “approximately one consular officer for every 3,444 evacuees” – is one of many previously undisclosed details outlined in the highly critical report examining the chaotic US withdrawal last August.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans report, which is released exactly one year after the nation’s capital fell to the Taliban, reveals additional new details about the Biden administration’s failure to adequately plan and execute the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The report also said the administration failed to accurately describe the nature of events on the ground and did not put in place a plan to prevent American-trained Afghan commandos from being recruited by American adversaries.
“Many of the Biden administration’s evacuation plans were carried out in the spring of 2021 – some even before the president announced the withdrawal. And they have never been updated despite the Taliban’s gains on the battlefield, despite the deteriorating security situation and despite revised intelligence assessments,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
President Joe Biden announced in mid-April 2021 that the US would withdraw all remaining troops from Afghanistan by 9/11 this year – the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked the US war there. . While Biden has long wanted to end US involvement in the war in Afghanistan, he attributed the decision, in part, to the deal negotiated with the Taliban by the Trump administration, which had pledged to withdraw by May 1, 2021.
In the weeks and months that followed, bipartisan lawmakers urged the administration to ensure plans were in place to ensure the protection of Afghans working for the United States during the nearly two-decade conflict. including evacuation options.
Both the State Department and the Pentagon conducted their own reviews of the withdrawal, but neither department has released findings. The Pentagon’s review is ongoing while the State Department concluded its own in March, according to a source familiar with the review. The delay in its publication is due, in part, to an inter-agency review process underpinned by concerns about policy, perspective and the effective implementation of lessons learned.
The House report found that it was not until mid-June 2021 that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul held an Operational Planning Team (OPT) meeting with members of the US military and US diplomats focused on pre-planning for non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO). The meeting was described by a US military officer involved as “the first time” the embassy had begun “to consider the possibility of a NEO”.
Due to the “complete lack of proper planning by the Biden administration,” there were consequences: Evacuation flights “were only taking off at about 50% capacity” five days after the start of the NEO, the report says. The report refers to slow processing at the gates and chaos outside the gates – a government evacuation process so chaotic and messy that even staffers of Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden were contacting outside groups to try to get people out, representatives of the groups told the committee.
The report found that those who were able to get out on these evacuation flights were mostly men, despite concerns – which have now been confirmed – about the deprivation of liberty of women when the Taliban took over.
“We now know from data from the Departments of State and Homeland Security that only about 25% of those evacuated during NEO in Afghanistan were women or girls. To put this figure into context, historically, women and girls make up more than half of emergency refugee flows,” wrote Ambassador Kelley Currie, Goodwill Ambassador for the State Department’s Bureau of Global Women’s Issues under the Trump administration, in the report. .
When Kabul fell and then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, two senior US officials – General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, then head of US Central Command, and Zalmay Khalilzad, then Special Representative for Afghanistan, which brokered the US-Taliban Agreement under Trump – met with Taliban officials in Doha, where the militant group has offered the United States security control of the capital.
McKenzie testified that he turned down the offer, telling Congress in September 2021, “It wasn’t my reason for being there, it wasn’t my instruction, and we didn’t have the resources. to undertake this mission.”
However, Khalilzad told the committee he thought “we could have considered it,” the report said. The former official also said the United States did not order the Taliban to stay out of Kabul.
“We didn’t say ‘don’t go.’ We advised them to be careful,” Khalilzad said, according to the report. Meanwhile, US officials had repeatedly said that the United States supported peace talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government.
Those trying to flee the city were then forced to face the threat of the Taliban as they sought to reach the airport, where thousands of people gathered outside the gates in a desperate attempt to break through. interior and take a flight. And in the early days of the evacuation, the airport operation was so badly run that groups of Afghans took to the airstrip and desperately tried to hold off departing planes.
“Since the administration ceded control of Kabul to the Taliban, it was a very difficult situation tactically. But it was the decisions they made — or, in some cases, avoided making — that led to this situation of tactical challenge,” McCaul said.
As this chaos unfolded, the report claims the administration “repeatedly misled the American public” by attempting to downplay the grim situation on the ground and instead paint a picture of competence and progress.
The report juxtaposes State Department officials’ comments with internal memos, such as the August 20 memo indicating that at least seven Afghans had “died while waiting outside the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul” and that the Taliban “refused to accept the remains” of the corpses which were stored at the airport.
“At one point, State Department spokesman Ned Price was encouraging people to come to the airport and telling the press that the evacuation was ‘effective and efficient,’ but the gates of the airport were closed and internal memos talked about how there were too many. lots of dead bodies at the airport and they don’t know how to deal with all of them,” McCaul said.
The committee requested transcribed interviews with more than 30 administration officials, but the Biden administration declined to participate. For the report, the committee relied on interviews and information from whistleblowers, conversations with people who were in Kabul during the pullout, and fact-finding trips to the region.
The Republicans leading that inquiry are in the minority, which means they have no subpoena power, but they have indicated they will issue subpoenas and continue to investigate the takedown if their party took power in this year’s elections. They call it an interim report.
The report also says the administration has failed — even months after the withdrawal — to take steps that would prevent U.S.-trained Afghan commandos from being recruited by U.S. adversaries like Iran, China or Russia.
“The U.S. government evacuated approximately 600 Afghan security force personnel who assisted in the evacuation providing perimeter security and other duties, but these represent a very small fraction of U.S.-trained units. who fought alongside US troops. And even those who were lucky enough to be deported by air ended up stranded in third countries,” the report said, adding that 3,000 Afghan security forces fled to Israel. Iran according to a SIGAR report from earlier this year.
As of July, the Biden administration still had no plan to prioritize the evacuation of those Afghans from the area, with the State Department awaiting a political decision from the NSC, the report said.