Report says poor planning under Trump, Biden led to chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal

Afghan families waiting at Kabul airport while US forces having a watch on them on August 16, 2021, a day after fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

A review conducted by the State Department, released on Friday, highlights the agency’s shortcomings in crisis management and awareness before and during the fall of Afghanistan. The findings are expected to be seized upon by Republicans and other critics who have accused bureaucratic inaction of contributing to the chaos and violence witnessed almost two years ago, marking one of the darkest moments for the Biden administration.

According to the report, both President Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, failed to grasp the potential impact of a US military withdrawal on the stability of the Afghan government. The review also noted that routine summer rotations within the State Department left the responsibility of the US evacuation to personnel who had only recently arrived in the country.

The report’s identification of critical errors provides fresh evidence of the mayhem that ensued, leading to the oppressive Taliban regime taking control, the loss of many Afghan lives, the deaths of 13 US service members, and a significant drop in Biden’s approval ratings. The timing of the report’s release, just before a long holiday weekend with little prior notice, is likely to draw criticism from those who believe the administration has sought to downplay scrutiny of its actions during the spring and summer of 2021.

Due to security concerns, large sections of the report were redacted, with only 23 out of 87 pages released. The focus of the analysis primarily revolved around actions and reforms within the State Department, rather than examining the White House or the Pentagon, both of which have already produced their own accounts of the disastrous final phase of the 20-year war.

The review highlights failures at various levels. At the highest level, officials displayed “insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow” after Biden affirmed Trump’s decision to withdraw the US military. Before the collapse of the Afghan government, it was unclear within the State Department who was responsible for preparing a full evacuation plan, which hindered their participation in the planning process, despite ongoing military efforts.

The report also found that the Biden administration’s communication during the full withdrawal and as the Taliban approached Kabul only served to increase the chaos and danger of the evacuation. The constantly changing policy guidance and public messaging from Washington, especially regarding eligibility for relocation from Afghanistan, added to the confusion and failed to consider crucial facts on the ground. Consequently, individuals such as members of Congress and aid workers, who had connections to Afghans, attempted to organize independent rescue missions, diverting attention from a more systematic effort by US personnel on the ground.

Lower-level problems were also identified, such as a COVID-19 outbreak in June 2021 at the embassy, which resulted in a strict lockdown and limited collaboration and access to classified briefings during the intensified military withdrawal.

Additionally, the report revealed that the State Department failed to respond to the country’s instability by extending the standard one-year rotations for diplomats in Afghanistan. Consequently, the collapse of Kabul occurred at a particularly vulnerable moment for the embassy, as much of its staff had either recently changed or were en route to the country.

The US military conducted an extraordinary airlift effort from a single airfield in Kabul in August 2021, rescuing over 120,000 people. However, tens of thousands of individuals who had assisted the American war effort over the course of two decades were left behind, overshadowed by tragic events such as a suicide bombing, a botched US drone strike resulting in civilian casualties, and deadly stampedes.

The report also acknowledged the differences in decision-making and style between the Trump and Biden administrations, particularly regarding the lack of an interagency process during the former and the intense interagency process that characterized the initial period of the latter. The Biden administration focused on identifying Afghans eligible for visas to facilitate their evacuation.

In an email to State Department personnel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the review’s findings, stating that it affirmed the dedication and resilience demonstrated by individuals in Afghanistan, Washington, and around the world despite the complex conditions. He also noted that the review provided recommendations for improvement.

State Department officials confirmed that they had already implemented lessons learned from the Afghanistan withdrawal in subsequent events, such as the evacuation from the US embassy in Kyiv during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the evacuation from Sudan in April.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that the report exposed the lack of appropriate structure and resources available during prolonged and complex crises with significant implications beyond the American community. They emphasized the need for a steady and reliable set of capabilities for addressing large-scale challenges.

House Republicans have conducted hearings as part of their investigation into the withdrawal, led by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul has labeled the evacuation effort as disastrous and intends to seek testimony from top national security advisers, including Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McCaul demanded the release of the full report, claiming that the redacted pages were not classified.

McCaul also sought broader access to a July 2021 cable sent by US diplomats in Afghanistan to Blinken through the State Department’s dissent channel, a platform for expressing opposing views. Blinken recently agreed to allow committee members to read the cable.

To date, no US officials have faced consequences as a result of the dysfunction, leading to criticism from family members of US troops killed in the airport bombing. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, a Marine who lost limbs in the explosion, testified before McCaul’s committee, describing the operation as a catastrophe marked by a lack of accountability and negligence. He emphasized the need for answers regarding the 13 servicemembers who lost their lives.

In an earlier investigation by the US military, several officials expressed frustration over what they perceived as a lack of attention in Washington to the dire situation in Afghanistan as the Taliban rapidly advanced. Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top US commander on the ground during the operation, stated that military personnel could have conducted a more orderly evacuation if policymakers had paid closer attention to the indicators on the ground. State Department officials previously downplayed such remarks, emphasizing the extensive work done by US diplomats to facilitate the evacuation effort.

John Kirby, a spokesperson for the Biden administration, has also downplayed the extent of the chaos during the evacuation, stating in April that he didn’t believe the argument that chaos reigned during the operation. However, after the White House provided Congress with an assessment indicating that the evacuation should have been ordered sooner, Kirby acknowledged that the initial hours were tough, given the absence of Americans at the airport, but stated that the situation improved with time.