Declassified U.S. military analyses of the calamitous exit from Afghanistan detail repeated instances of friction between American troops and diplomats before and during the evacuation, concluding that indecisiveness among Biden administration officials and initial reluctance to shutter the embassy in Kabul sowed chaos and put the overall mission at “increased risk.”
Two “after action” reports were prepared by officials assigned to U.S. Central Command in September, about three weeks after the final planeload of military personnel departed Hamid Karzai International Airport. The assessments appear to affirm separate accounts of senior U.S. commanders frustrated by what they characterized as sloppy, misguided management of the withdrawal.
As The Washington Post first reported Tuesday, military leaders who coordinated the evacuation fault officials in the White House and the State Department who, they say, failed to respect the Taliban’s swift advance last year and resisted pleas from the military to prepare for an evacuation weeks before Kabul’s fall.
The declassified after-action analyses are contained within an official report detailing the military’s investigation of an Aug. 26 suicide bombing outside the airport’s Abbey Gate that killed an estimated 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. The report, obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request, comprises dozens of witness interviews, findings of fact, and other official government records. Spanning 2,000 pages, it presents the most extensive, unvarnished account to date of the United States’ 17-day race to end its longest war.
The existence of the after-action reports contradicts claims made Friday by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who has joined President Biden and other administration officials in seeking to downplay the significance of U.S. commanders’ remarks.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that there was no after-action report,” Psaki told reporters in the White House briefing room.
A National Security Council official — who, like some other officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue — said Saturday that Psaki’s statement from the podium referred to a forthcoming, more extensive review of the war’s endgame.
“Many people have wrongly conflated the Abbey Gate report and documents released to The Washington Post with the Pentagon’s after-action review of Afghanistan — a broad report that will examine the final months of America’s longest war, beginning in February 2020,” the official said, referencing the month that President Donald Trump made a deal with the Taliban, setting the stage for a withdrawal of all U.S. troops.
The Biden administration has pointed to that deal — in which Trump agreed to pull all U.S. troops by May 2021 — in explaining part of its rationale for leaving Afghanistan. After a months-long review, Biden delayed the final exit until September but followed through nonetheless, saying that Americans had sacrificed enough.
The NSC official said the White House stands by the findings of the Abbey Gate investigation. It concluded that the Aug. 26 attack was carried out by a lone Islamic State operative who had a bomb rigged with ball bearings to cause catastrophic carnage in a packed outdoor corridor just outside the airport. Senior military officials briefed those conclusions at the Pentagon on Feb. 4.
Biden administration officials have offered shifting responses to the critical firsthand accounts of senior military commanders and other U.S. troops involved the evacuation effort.
President Biden said in an interview with NBC News on Thursday that he was “rejecting” the commanders’ accounts, though White House officials said later that he accepted the narrow, overall findings of the Abbey Gate report. On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter described the comments of the military officials as having been “cherry-picked” from the larger report. A State Department official said Saturday that he could not comment on the Defense Department’s after-action analyses.
The after-action reviews included in the Abbey Gate report were completed by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Forward, the military headquarters that oversaw the withdrawal, and Joint Task Force-Crisis Response, a unit led by the U.S. Marine Corps that also was involved. Their findings closely hew to observations made by Rear Adm. Peter Vasely and Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, who were responsible for coordinating the evacuation.
The after-action report by U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Forward, which Vasely oversaw, is dated Sept. 24 and titled “Operation Allies Refuge,” the name the Biden administration assigned to the evacuation mission. It determined that decisions to delay reducing the size of the U.S. Embassy’s staff in Kabul and declare a formal evacuation of American citizens and Afghan allies complicated the military’s ability to execute its mission.
An Aug. 10 interagency tabletop exercise to rehearse the evacuation “identified the deteriorating situation which predicted the full isolation of Kabul within the next 30 days,” but no decision to evacuate was made then, according to the report. Instead, a day later embassy staff informally requested military support to gradually downsize and shift operations to the airport “over a 17 day period,” the report said.
In their witness statements to Army officials investigating the airport bombing, Vasely and other officers described the delayed evacuation as fateful.
U.S. troops would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation, Vasely told the investigators, “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”
On Saturday, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said that claims that the NSC slowed the evacuation are “wrong.”
“Our planning for the noncombatant evacuation operation began in April — a fact supported by these documents,” she said.
Military officials also said in interviews that planning for the evacuation began in April, as Biden made his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops. But efforts by commanders, including Sullivan, to begin preparing more fully for the evacuation in July were met with resistance, he said.
The worsening situation in Kabul prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan to call the acting ambassador, Ross Wilson, on Aug. 12 and tell him he needed to speed up the process, Vasely told investigators.
Watson said that a claim by the Marine general in his interview with Army investigators that an NSC official said during an Aug. 6 meeting that if they needed to carry out an evacuation operation, “we have failed” is inaccurate. But another administration official did say it, a second NSC official said.
“General Sullivan mistook someone in a meeting for being an NSC official, and then points to this official’s comments as evidence of his conclusions” that the NSC did not have a sense of urgency, Watson said.
The evacuation order was declared after the central government in Kabul collapsed on Aug. 15 as the Taliban completed a months-long rise, seizing numerous provincial capitals and eventually encircling Kabul, where a skeleton force of about 600 U.S. troops remained to provide security for the diplomats. The crisis triggered the deployment of more than 5,000 additional U.S. troops, some of whom had been staged in the region. Over the next two weeks, more than 124,000 people were flown to safety.
The after-action report prepared by Vasely’s headquarters says the decision to delay closing the embassy left commanders about 12 hours to empty out the embassy with State Department collaboration. It recommends that future crisis planning “should include a discussion on building consensus” while readying an evacuation operation “with triggers for action that should be taken to avoid strategic surprise.”
The report also states that U.S. troops struggled in the bombing’s aftermath. There was a “severe failure” in patient administration and tracking, the report says, including one instance when a set of human remains and a patient in critical care were misidentified, resulting in the wrong name being reported to more senior commanders.
“The discrepancy was discovered prior to [family] notification,” the report says.
The second after-action analysis included in the Abbey Gate report focuses heavily on the actions of U.S. Marines at the airport. It concludes that after Afghanistan’s government collapsed, there was “insufficient airlift” in the region needed to rapidly boost the number of U.S. forces at the airport.
“While considered in the planning phase, the scope and scale of the desperation population was not fully appreciated,” the report states, referring to the tens of thousands of civilians who converged on Kabul’s airport seeking a way out of Afghanistan.
The State Department at times sent messages to potential evacuees that “conflicted with gate conditions and realtime capabilities” at the airfield, military officials wrote in the second after-action report. It warns that the Defense and State departments must have personnel at all levels “plan, cooperate and endeavor to stick to the plan” to successfully carry out future evacuations.