Factions within the Biden administration are embroiled in a blame game over why the US government didn’t act sooner to withdraw American citizens and Afghans who helped the US over two decades of war, leading to a rushed and dangerous evacuation.
Military officials have said that for weeks they urged the State Department to move faster in evacuating its diplomatic personnel. State Department officials have said they were operating based on intelligence assessments that suggested they had more time, but intelligence officials insist that they had long reported the possibility of a rapid Taliban takeover.
An intelligence assessment produced within the last month assessed that the Taliban were pursuing a total military victory in Afghanistan, a source familiar with the intelligence said, despite ostensibly negotiating for peace in Doha and even as the administration continued to express confidence in those talks.
Biden's White House
In his first public comments since the Taliban solidified control of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Monday President Joe Biden laid blame on the Afghan security forces’ unwillingness to fight and the decisions of previous administrations, all while failing to directly address the chaos unfolding on his watch. Biden conceded that the Taliban takeover happened faster than anticipated, though he said he stands “squarely behind” his decision.
Some officials insist that Biden got bad advice from some of his top military and intelligence advisers. One White House official pointed to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley’s comments from three weeks ago, when he suggested the Afghan forces had the capacity to fight for and defend their country, and that a Taliban takeover was not a foregone conclusion.
“Utter bunk,” the official said.
Military officials, in turn, have said they were actually prepared for the worst and had been urging the State Department for weeks to begin withdrawing embassy employees in Kabul. Pentagon officials used the words “frustration” and “sh*tshow” to describe their feelings about Washington and Kabul.
The officials said they had warned the State Department that a last-minute emergency evacuation – if needed – would be more difficult the more staffers remained.
While the embassy had slowly been drawing down personnel over the last few months, the effort to remove a bigger group of embassy personnel began only late last week with the Taliban near the gates of Kabul. The scenes evoked images from Saigon in 1975, a comparison the administration promised would not happen.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Monday that the Defense Department “absolutely” did plan for “the possibility that the Taliban would make significant gains throughout the country,” but he declined to say whether the President had been briefed. “One of the things that we couldn’t anticipate and didn’t anticipate was the degree to which Afghan forces capitulated sometimes without a fight,” said Kirby.
A State Department official acknowledged there had been real friction with the Pentagon in recent weeks as the department resisted the military’s advice to close the US Embassy in Kabul sooner. A senior administration official, however, said they were operating off the intelligence community assessments that the fall of Kabul was not imminent. The State Department, therefore, felt it was making appropriate decisions, the official said.
A senior intelligence official issued a statement on Sunday defending the community’s work, saying that “we have noted the troubling trend lines in Afghanistan for some time, with the Taliban at its strongest, militarily, since 2001. Strategically, a rapid Taliban takeover was always a possibility.”
Diplomats are frustrated, too. “Home. Angry,” said one who just returned from Afghanistan. Two other US diplomats who served in Afghanistan said the chaos could have been averted, or at least mitigated, if action had been taken sooner to get people out.
Another White House official said the NSC held 36 deputy and principal level meetings on Afghanistan between April 13 and last weekend that were focused on over-the-horizon counterterrorism planning, special immigrant visas for Afghans, and embassy security. Eight of those meetings were focused exclusively on humanitarian scenario planning, the official said, and the senior-most members of Biden’s national security team have continued to meet daily on Afghanistan. The White House in early August also convened a tabletop exercise about evacuation scenarios “to pressure-test every element of our planning through August 31,” the official said.
But the diplomats who spoke to CNN said that while the Biden NSC has a lot of meetings, they don’t make many rapid decisions—and in this situation, they believe, valuable time was lost.
In a statement, a senior administration official said Biden’s national security team “has been engaged in months of extensive scenario planning, and was ready for this challenge.” Despite the rapid collapse of Afghan forces and government, the official noted that the US Embassy was closed “safely and swiftly, following an efficient and safe military draw down that largely concluded earlier this summer.
“We are now laser focused on getting people out safely and swiftly, including American citizens, local Embassy staff and partners and other Afghans,” the spokesperson said.
Overestimating the Afghan forces
In defending the withdrawal, Biden and Pentagon officials have repeatedly returned to the capabilities and advantages of the 300,000-strong Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Yet the notion of a coherent Afghan military that could hold its own in a fight appears to have been an $88 billion fiction – the amount of US taxpayer dollars spent on building up the Afghan military and police. Moreover, it is a myth the US should have seen coming, experts say.
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, warned repeatedly over the years that the Afghan military suffered from corruption, drug addiction, theft and tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers.” These fictitious soldiers would be added to payrolls so corrupt officers could collect their salaries. In October 2019, the US helped eliminate some 50,000 of these soldiers from the Afghan military books.
That was but one problem of many that plagued the Afghan military and police force. Officials sold weapons for cash, stole the salaries of subordinates and sometimes left them without enough food or water, as was documented in quarterly special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction reports for years.