U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Republicans have published the first detailed congressional report on President Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan debacle. Titled “Left Behind: A Brief Assessment of the Biden Administration’s Strategic Failures During the Afghanistan Evacuation,” the 65-page report is a scathing critique of the administration’s lack of planning and bumbling execution removing U.S. military and civilians from the Afghan capital. As Senator James Risch (R-ID), the committee’s ranking member, concluded in his “Dear colleagues” cover letter:
“Despite countless warnings that the Taliban had the ability to take the country swiftly, the Biden Administration failed to properly plan a coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens, Afghans, and allied partners. The administration waited until less than a day before Kabul fell to make senior leadership decisions on organizing and executing a withdrawal, which proved to be too little too late.”
The report was particularly critical of Biden’s Department of Defense (DOD) and State Department senior leadership in Washington who “failed to recognize or adapt to worsening conditions on the ground. Meanwhile, those in the field, who could not wait were forced to develop impromptu plans without guidance from senior leadership.” According to the report, DOD had 150 days from April 14 until September 11 to “plan for and execute the withdrawal.”
Mistake Upon Mistake
Had the preparations started immediately and noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO) begun expeditiously, the movement of people out of Afghanistan could have taken place while the combat situation was relatively stable. During national security contingency operations, the National Security Council (NSC), the president’s advisory body of experts, should meet frequently to chart an agreed-to course of action for the president. Meetings of the NSC have the added benefit of keeping all the relevant federal agencies informed and their efforts coordinated. Such coordination would have been particularly critical for keeping the DOD and the State Department in sync. Unfortunately, this did not happen promptly. Not until months had elapsed did the NSC have its first senior leadership meeting. As the report states, “Having wasted 115 days, the NSC did not conduct its first senior meeting to discuss the withdrawal until August 14 at 3:30 PM, just hours before Kabul fell, when evacuations became life or death for Americans, Afghans, and U.S. military personnel.” The text of the “Left Behind” report explained that the conclusions coming from the August 14 meeting should have been taken “months in advance.”
Fox News’ Michael Lee cited the report’s reproach over the failure of the military leadership to recognize the value of Bagram as a second airfield to enable a faster evacuation and greater security for people trying to leave. “The United States abandoned Bagram Air Base on July 4, without even telling the Afghan base commander. In the process, the administration abandoned a facility that could have been critical to a better evacuation,” Lee explained. Additionally, the report points out the decision to close Bagram “allowed for the release of thousands of extremists including one who participated in the terrorist attack which killed 13 U.S. service members.”
It wasn’t just the poor decision to eliminate the use of a second base for NEO. To make matters worse, closing Bagram and cutting support for the Afghan National Security Forces at the same time “eliminated their ability to properly defend the country and set the conditions for the rapid fall of Kabul.”
The committee Republicans held the State Department responsible for the poor administration and processing of U.S. civilians and eligible Afghans. However, it wasn’t that information was unavailable on the challenge of getting people out of Afghanistan. Caroline Vakil. writing for The Hill, emphasized a statement in the report that read, “As the lead agency during the [non-combatant emergency operation], State did not issue consistent or clear guidance for who should make their way to [Hamid Karzai International Airport], and subsequently, who would be granted access to the gates guarded by U.S. personnel.” Without “clear guidance,” the challenge of any semblance of a well-organized evacuation became impossible.
Furthermore, the administration did not activate U.S. Air Mobility Command’s Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) until August 22. The CRAF is a program that contracts U.S. airlines to augment military airlift, providing an enormous passenger carrying capability. But with only nine days left until Biden’s self-imposed deadline to have the NEO concluded, the CRAF could not bring to bear its full capacity.
During the chaos at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, as people struggled to be evacuated, the State Department, the U.S. Central Command leadership, DOD leadership, and the White House did not acquit themselves well. A comment quoted from White House Situation Room meeting notes published by Axios and included in the report was disturbing. Matt Zeller, an outside advisor and former CIA officer, talked to people in the Biden administration as early as February of 2021. Zeller warned them of the danger for Afghans who worked with Americans. He explained, “I kept being told by the people in the [White House] the thing they were most concerned about was the optics of a chaotic evacuation.” So, it was all about looking good in the shower. It’s hard to know, but if the White House had been concerned about managing and executing the NEO professionally and competently, things might have turned out better.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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