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Chaotic US Withdrawal from Afghanistan is Trump's Fault, Biden Review Says


FILE - Scores of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021.
FILE - Scores of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021.

The White House pinned most of the blame for the chaotic U.S. military exit from Afghanistan in 2021 on the previous administration in a publicly released summary of classified reports sent to Congress on Thursday by the departments of State and Defense.

President Joe Biden was "severely constrained" by conditions created by his predecessor, President Donald Trump, said the document outlining after-action reports examining the widely criticized withdrawal.

"While it was always the president's intent to end that war, it is also undeniable that decisions made and the lack of planning done by the previous administration significantly limited options available," said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, during a briefing to reporters Thursday.

The 12-page summary blamed Trump for a series of American troop drawdowns from Afghanistan and for negotiating the 2020 Doha Agreement with the Taliban, under which the United States agreed to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 2021.

"During the transition from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration, the outgoing Administration provided no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies," the document said.

"As a result, when President Biden took office on January 20, 2021, the Taliban were in the strongest military position that they had been in since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country," the summary said.

"At the same time, the United States had only 2,500 troops on the ground — the lowest number of troops in Afghanistan since 2001 — and President Biden was facing President Trump's near-term deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 2021, or the Taliban would resume its attacks on U.S. and allied troops."

The White House summary noted the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community in May 2021 that "Kabul would probably not come under serious pressure until late 2021 after U.S. troops departed." No U.S. agency predicted that the group would take over so quickly, Kirby said, nor that the Afghans would "fail to fight for their country, especially after 20 years of American support."

House Republicans are likely to use the classified reports to ramp up probes into the administration's handling of the military exit from Afghanistan.

"John Kirby's comments during today's White House press briefing were disgraceful and insulting," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican lawmaker, said in a statement Thursday.

"President Biden made the decision to withdraw and even picked the exact date; he is responsible for the massive failures in planning and execution."

Chaos from lack of clarity

Much of the chaos during the withdrawal stems from what aid groups and evacuees have described as inconsistent policies regarding which Afghans were allowed to board evacuation flights out of the country. Some of these Afghans, including those who had worked as interpreters and in other supporting roles for the U.S. military, were vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban.

Footage of dozens of desperate Afghans running after a U.S. military plane taking off from Hamid Karzai International Airport, climbing onto the landing gear and some falling to their deaths have become the defining images of the withdrawal and triggered massive criticism of the administration.

Kirby took issue with reporters who characterized the withdrawal as chaotic and sidestepped a question from VOA on how the Trump administration could be responsible for the determination of who was allowed to board these evacuation flights.

"Those first few days were very, very tough. They were very hectic because we didn't have a force presence at Karzai International Airport," Kirby said, adding that a "remarkable," massive evacuation process was soon established.

"At one point during the evacuation there was an aircraft taking off full of people, Americans and Afghans alike, every 48 minutes. And not one single mission was missed," he added.

While more than 124,000 American citizens, permanent residents and Afghans were ultimately evacuated, some planes left empty while thousands of people were stranded in Kabul.

Aid groups assisting with the evacuation said that problems plaguing the airlift were mainly the result of inconsistent U.S. policies and a lack of coordination between the State Department and the Pentagon. As a result, vulnerable Afghans were left behind while those who were not at risk were evacuated.

"It appears that while some elements of the Department of State and Department of Defense did an incredible job, they did so despite a lack of interagency coordination and at times incoherent direction from the White House," said Mark Jacobson, who assisted in organizing evacuees out of Afghanistan, to VOA.

Jacobson served in 2006 in Afghanistan as a naval intelligence officer and from 2009-2011 as the deputy NATO representative and deputy political adviser at the International Security Assistance Force.

In its summary, the White House said one of the lessons learned from the withdrawal is to "prioritize earlier evacuations when faced with a degrading security situation." It said officials have used lessons from Afghanistan to improve evacuation procedures in Ethiopia and Ukraine.

"If there's any silver lining it is that they at least acknowledged what a s___ show Afghanistan was and did work much harder to consider potential courses of action in Ukraine," Jacobson said.

"What remains disturbing is that despite successful efforts to get Ukrainian refugees into the U.S., too many brave Afghans are still languishing in camps in the UAE and other third countries with no hope of getting to the United States, not to mention families left behind in Afghanistan."

No regrets

Biden has repeatedly said he does not regret his decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, arguing the U.S. spent an estimated $2 billion and lost some 2,400 American lives over two decades fighting in the country.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also said he has "no regrets" about the withdrawal, in which 13 American soldiers and 169 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province.

Kirby said Biden is "very proud of the manner" in which his administration conducted the withdrawal, and the reviews done voluntarily by the departments show "how seriously the president felt about learning lessons from this withdrawal."