Recounting the U.S. Failure in Afghanistan
A new congressional report spells out how the Biden administration bungled last year’s withdrawal.
Good morning. We’re thinking about the people of Afghanistan this week.
House Republicans Push Accountability for Afghanistan Withdrawal Failures
Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee will release a report today on the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, outlining poor planning and its sweeping ramifications for the people of Afghanistan and for American strategic security.
Frustration over unheeded warnings—and a lack of accountability for top officials in the aftermath—underpin the report. A copy obtained by The Dispatch in advance of publication also unveils new information about the withdrawal.
Far more American citizens were left in Afghanistan after the Taliban took control than the 100 to 200 citizens the White House earlier estimated were still in the country, according to the report. The State Department confirmed it has evacuated more than 800 Americans from Afghanistan since the end of August 2021.
The report also raises alarms about the locations of thousands of former Afghan military personnel privy to sensitive American information and U.S. training. Many of those personnel fled to Iran after the Taliban took power, posing risks to information security.
Republicans on the committee describe the publication as an interim report. If their party wins the House in November, they are likely to issue subpoenas to compel testimony and more information from the executive branch.
The report also serves as a reminder of one of the most egregious aspects of the withdrawal: the failure to evacuate many Afghan allies who are entitled by law to live in the United States. About 77,200 Afghans who have applied for SIV acceptance remain in Afghanistan today with their families, facing danger amid Taliban rule. And the tens of thousands of Afghans who were able to come to the United States amid a chaotic, last-minute evacuation last year are facing legal uncertainty and massive delays in seeking permanent legal residency, as we wrote to you last week.
The State Department, in particular, receives much of the House GOP’s withering criticism in the report. It walks through the Biden administration’s failure to prioritize the evacuation of SIV applicants despite months of advocacy from veterans groups, human rights activists, and lawmakers in advance of the withdrawal.
During the spring and summer of 2021, after President Joe Biden made it clear he planned to follow a deal former President Donald Trump had struck with the Taliban and bring American troops out of Afghanistan, lawmakers called on the White House in letters and in conversations with senior officials to quickly evacuate tens of thousands of Afghan allies who assisted American troops during the 20-year war.
Those who had not completed the lengthy screening process could complete it on Guam, an American island in the western Pacific, before entering the United States, a bipartisan group of lawmakers told the administration in June. There was historic precedent for it, including after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The impending departure of American troops from Afghanistan would put Afghans who helped coalition troops in severe danger of Taliban reprisals, they emphasized.
But the White House ignored their calls for evacuations, and top officials were complacent when senior lawmakers questioned them.
“The clock is ticking and the Taliban are on the march,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June 2021.
McCaul pressed Blinken on his department’s plans to get Afghan allies to safety through the Special Immigrant Visa program, which offers residency to those who worked with coalition troops as translators, among other roles. The program has been backlogged for years; advocates said at the time that no amount of red-tape cutting could expedite the process enough to get everyone entitled safety in the United States out of Afghanistan before the withdrawal. More drastic steps—such as evacuation to Guam—were needed.
But top officials resisted those arguments. During the hearing, Blinken assured lawmakers the embassy in Kabul would be able to continue approving SIV applications even after American troops had departed.
“Whatever happens in Afghanistan, if there is a significant deterioration in security—that could well happen, we’ve discussed this before—I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday,” Blinken told the committee. “So I wouldn’t necessarily equate the departure of our forces in July, August, or by early September, with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation.”
Those words couldn’t have been more wrong: The Taliban took Kabul in a day, on Sunday, August 15, after making major gains around the country over that weekend.
Not only did the administration not take seriously the need to evacuate allies in advance, but officials were also late to act once it was evident their rosy predictions about the withdrawal weren’t going to pan out, the GOP report shows.
The committee Republicans write that the Biden administration “waited until August 14, 2021, just hours before the Taliban seized Kabul, to begin making key decisions about evacuations, including the establishment of transit centers in third countries.”
“This delay led to capacity issues during the evacuation which resulted in flights being suspended at various points and people being stranded in deteriorating humanitarian conditions,” the report reads. “Military commanders have clearly stated there was an utter lack of urgency on the part of the White House, the National Security Council (NSC), and the State Department as it pertained to an evacuation, despite repeated dire warnings.”
Once the evacuation was underway, the U.S. government offered conflicting information to those seeking to leave, per the report. Members of Congress who hoped to help constituents and Afghan allies escape had to contend with State Department websites that didn’t work and out-of-office email replies from staff who would have been expected to be involved in the effort.
Particularly damning is the fact that U.S. military assets required to carry out an evacuation had been in place a month prior to the evacuation, according to the report. But American officials chose not to use them until it was too late.
“There are many sins, if you will,” McCaul said of the report during an interview with CBS over the weekend. “There was a complete lack of, and a failure to plan. There was no plan, and there was no plan executed.”
On the Floor
Nothing. Both chambers are out on recess.