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Biden says he is ‘rejecting’ critical accounts from U.S. commanders about the Afghanistan evacuation

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House on Feb. 9. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden said Thursday he is “rejecting” the accounts of senior U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan who have said administration officials failed to grasp the Taliban’s rise last year or the urgency with which the United States needed to prepare for an evacuation.

Biden said in an interview with NBC News that it did not ring true to him that administration officials ignored warning signs or were in denial about the situation.

“No,” he said. “No. That’s not what I was told.”

The president, pressed on whether he was rejecting the accounts in the reports, said he was.

“Yes, I am,” Biden said. “I am rejecting them.”

The president was questioned about his administration’s handling of the evacuation after The Washington Post first reported this week that U.S. commanders overseeing the hastily arranged operation told military investigators that senior White House and State Department officials resisted their efforts to rally support for more meticulous planning well before Kabul’s fall on Aug 15.

Documents reveal U.S. military’s frustration with White House, diplomats over Afghanistan evacuation

The criticism from military officials, including Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the operation’s senior commander, appeared in a U.S. Army report, obtained by The Post through a Freedom of Information Act request. Spanning 2,000 pages, the documents detail the life-or-death decisions faced by U.S. service members ordered to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport for 17 harrowing days as the United States raced to evacuate more than 120,000 American citizens and foreign allies who aided the war effort.

The investigation focused on the deadly suicide bombing on Aug. 26 that killed an estimated 170 Afghans and 13 American service members just outside the airport, but the resulting report portrays a much broader portrait of the danger and frustration military personnel encountered as tens of thousands of people desperate to flee descended on the airfield.

‘From the White House down,’ pleas for help disrupted Afghan evacuation, top U.S. commander says

Biden administration officials have sought to downplay the report’s significance. State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said that “cherry-picked comments do not reflect the months of work that were well underway, or the whole picture of what the U.S. diplomats undertook to facilitate the evacuation and relocation of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and allies.”

Biden on Thursday underscored his belief that it was time to leave Afghanistan, even as critics focused instead on the haphazard manner in which the United States did so. Despite the Pentagon’s recommendation to leave a larger force behind to protect American diplomats and secure the airport, a decision was made to reduce the military’s footprint in Kabul from about 2,500 to 600 personnel.

“Look, there’s no good time to get out, but if we had not gotten out, they acknowledge that we would have had to put a hell of a lot more troops back in,” Biden said. “It wasn’t just 2,000, 4,000. We would have had to significantly increase the number of troops, and then you’re back in this war of attrition.”

At the war’s peak, during the Obama administration, the United States had about 100,000 military personnel distributed throughout the country. The war resulted in more than 2,300 American deaths and tens of thousands of Afghan fatalities.

After the central government collapsed, Biden ordered more than 5,000 additional U.S. troops to the Kabul airport to assist with the evacuation. Marines and soldiers worked on the perimeter of the airport, screening the crowds for American citizens and Afghan allies who had assisted the 20-year U.S. war.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity citing the issue’s sensitivity, said after Biden’s interview that the president took office with a deadline for the U.S. military to withdraw but no plan to do so. President Donald Trump had signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove all U.S. troops by May 2021, and Biden pushed out that timeline to September.

The official said “we immediately went to work planning for every aspect of leaving,” including for an evacuation operation “that eventually helped more than 120,000 individuals fly out of Kabul in a few short weeks.”

“Those months of extensive preparation, like the deployment of troops in the region, are reflected in the public record and the Centcom interviews,” the official said, using shorthand for the military organization, U.S. Central Command, that oversaw the investigation. “We reject any assertion that claims otherwise.”

Vasely, the top commander in Kabul for the withdrawal, told investigators that military personnel would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly [evacuation] if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”

Read the official statements from top military officers involved in the Afghanistan evacuation

Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, a Marine Corps general overseeing aspects of the operation, told investigators that it was his opinion that the National Security Council “was not seriously planning for an evacuation.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this week that the report illustrates how people across the U.S. government “were working hard under incredibly difficult circumstances to make the best decisions they could in real time,” and that effort was unprecedented.

“Nothing like this had been attempted since the end of the Vietnam War,” he said. “Everyone’s heart, up and down the chain, was in the right place.”