HomeHow ToBiden administration blames Trump in part for chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal
Biden administration blames Trump in part for chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal
April 7, 2023
Washington — As the Biden administration finished two after-action reviews of the chaotic August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, the White House blamed former President Donald Trump for two factors that played a major role in the transition: the short timeline of the withdrawal and the state of military operations when he left office.
Although the reports by the Pentagon and the State Department are classified and have not been released, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby noted that the Trump administration had negotiated an even earlier May 2021 withdrawal date with the Taliban, and it had also ordered a series of U.S. troop reductions that left the Taliban in a strong position. There was a “general sense of degradation and neglect there that [President Biden] inherited,” he told reporters Thursday.
Kirby ticked off a list of actions taken by Trump that impacted the withdrawal: “When President Trump took office, there was more than 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan. He took it down to 2,500. He negotiated the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners that were being held by the Ghani government without consultation with the Ghani government. He negotiated the Doha Agreement with the Taliban without the Ghani government in the room. And he all but froze the Special Immigrant Visa program, which had been providing opportunities for some of our Afghan allies to get out of the country and to come — and to come back.”
Kirby also told reporters said that the Biden administration was left unaware of the “corrosive effect” the Doha agreement had on Afghan defense forces in part “because we couldn’t see the plans the previous administration allegedly worked on during the transition … none of those plans were forthcoming.”
The Pentagon and State Department’s separate after-action reviews on the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan were being transmitted to the relevant congressional committees Thursday afternoon.
The long-awaited reports are classified, but were believed to detail failures in U.S. intelligence and planning that allowed for the Taliban to swiftly take over Afghanistan in August 2021. The reports were also believed to outline what failure of security near the Kabul airport that led to the deaths of 13 U.S. service members and Afghans in an attack.
The Pentagon’s review was conducted by the National Defense University and was delivered to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last year. Austin told CBS News in December that there were no plans for the Pentagon to release an unclassified version.
Details of the final month of the withdrawal were included in the Pentagon’s previous investigation of a bombing outside the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and over 100 Afghans in the chaotic final days of the withdrawal. That report detailed how the administration’s lack of coordination over the withdrawal put the burden on young service members to “play God” to decide who left the Afghan capital.
The National Security Council on Thursday released its own, incomplete summary sharing its perspective on the withdrawal, but the document didn’t pinpoint or dig into specific failures. Kirby said the NSC’s “document and this effort isn’t about accountability today — it’s about understanding.” Kirby said the president has been “fully briefed” on both the Pentagon and State reports, and “had input” on the NSC paper.
“Clearly, we didn’t get things right here with Afghanistan with how fast the Taliban were moving across the country,” Kirby said.
The NSC summary was released before Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, received the Pentagon’s classified report, according to McCaul’s office. On Thursday afternoon, McCaul was in Taiwan as part of a congressional delegation.
In a statement later Thursday, McCaul said Kirby’s comments at the White House briefing were “disgraceful and insulting,” adding that “President Biden made the decision to withdraw and even picked the exact date; he is responsible for the massive failures in planning and execution.” He called on the administration to declassify as much of the reports as possible, and said lawmakers “must be given access to the full and complete record of documents from the withdrawal in order to get the answers on why the withdrawal was such a disaster.”
President Biden has defended ending the “longest war in American history,” but has rarely spoken about the withdrawal in major speeches. The president did not directly mention the American troops killed during the withdrawal in his State of the Union address six months later, an omission Republicans fiercely criticized.
The NSC report did not clearly state if or when the administration realized Kabul could fall before U.S. troops were fully withdrawn, although it does say Mr. Biden directed U.S. military leaders to plan for a full range of contingencies, including a “rapid” deterioration of the security situation.
“As late as May 2021, the assessment was still that Kabul would probably not come under serious pressure until late 2021 after U.S. troops departed,” the NSC paper said. “As planning intensified throughout the late spring and early summer, intelligence reports continued to suggest that — even if the Taliban made gains in some Afghan provinces — the capital, Kabul, would be more difficult for the Taliban to take and the ANDSF would defend it.”
The summary mentioned the Pentagon’s reviews of the explosion at Abbey Gate at the Kabul airport and an errant U.S. airstrike that killed an Afghan civilian and members of his family. It did not say whether the rest of his family has been relocated or if they have received condolence payments yet.
“No comments, none, about this withdrawal would be complete without mention of the deadly attack on the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport on the 26th of August,” Kirby said. “But the president at the time made it clear to operational commanders that force protection remained his highest priority.”
Kirby said the U.S. continues to facilitate the departures of Americans from Afghanistan. But the NSC paper did not say how many Americans are believed to still be there. The State Department struggled to pinpoint the number of Americans still in Afghanistan in 2021, noting that Americans weren’t required to register with the embassy in Kabul.
The NSC paper said the U.S. has facilitated the departures “of more than 950 American citizens who sought assistance to leave,” as well as many Afghans who have helped the U.S.
“The effort was certainly not without days of pain, hardship, or bloodshed,” Kirby said Thursday. “But neither was it without courage or poise or professionalism. For all the lessons that we take away, we should remember that over 20 years of war, and in its final days, these men and women saw things and did things and carry things with them that you and I will never fathom. We must make sure that they and their families know that their service mattered. We must make sure they get the help and the support that they need. We must make sure that their legacy is never forgotten. They ended our nation’s longest war. That was never going to be an easy thing to do.”
Kirby and the NSC report said lessons learned in Afghanistan have been applied in countries like Ethiopia and Ukraine.
“We now prioritize earlier evacuations when faced with a degrading security situation,” the NSC paper said.
Kirby also said the review process isn’t over, noting that the Afghanistan War Commission has been tasked with studying the war. “America’s longest war deserves a lengthy review and a lengthy study and the president is committed to that,” he said.