Army investigation: White House, State ignored Pentagon -- and botched Afghanistan retreat

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Just how did Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan turn into a rout and a Taliban victory? A new report from the US Army, provided to the Washington Post, details some of the long train of failures that resulted in the loss of more than a dozen troops and the disgraceful abandonment of thousands of Americans behind Taliban lines — not to mention tens of thousands of allies. It all starts with a president and State Department that refused to listen to the Pentagon.

So says the Army, of course, but this comports pretty well with all other observations at the time and since, too:

Senior White House and State Department officials failed to grasp the Taliban’s steady advance on Afghanistan’s capital and resisted efforts by U.S. military leaders to prepare the evacuation of embassy personnel and Afghan allies weeks before Kabul’s fall, placing American troops ordered to carry out the withdrawal in greater danger, according to sworn testimony from multiple commanders involved in the operation. …

The investigation was launched in response to an Aug. 26 suicide bombing just outside the airport that killed an estimated 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members. But it is much broader, providing perhaps the fullest official account yet of the evacuation operation, which spanned 17 nightmarish days and has become one of the Biden administration’s defining moments — drawing scrutiny from Republicans and Democrats for the haphazard nature in which the United States ended its longest war.

Military personnel would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation, Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top U.S. commander on the ground during the operation, told Army investigators, “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.” He did not identify any administration officials by name, but said inattention to the Taliban’s determination to complete a swift and total military takeover undermined commanders’ ability to ready their forces. …

Disagreement between U.S. military officials and American diplomats in Kabul about when to press forward with an evacuation appears to have gone back months. Vasely, who took command as the top officer in Afghanistan in July, said he was told by the departing four-star commander, Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, that there would be opposition among senior officials at the embassy to shrinking its footprint in Kabul.

The Post manages to mention the abandoned Americans, but gets the number wrong, emphasis mine:

The operation evacuated 124,000 people before concluding about midnight Aug. 31. It required U.S. commanders to strike an unusual security pact with the Taliban and rapidly deploy nearly 6,000 troops to assist a skeleton force of about 600 left behind under Vasely’s command to protect U.S. Embassy personnel. U.S. officials have lauded the effort, but critics have said that although U.S. troops performed heroically, the evacuation was flawed and incomplete, leaving behind hundreds of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans who supported the war effort and were promised a way out.

Hundreds? That’s only accurate if we only count American citizens, a dodge that the State Department and the White House has used ever since to minimize its disgrace. A report provided to Congress puts the number above 14,000 Americans when including legal permanent residents (LPRs), ie, green-card holders. Most of them are still stuck in Afghanistan, as State actively impedes private exfil efforts and hasn’t done much on their own to get Americans out.

One interesting tidbit from this report is the unreality at the Kabul embassy at the time of the collapse — and the drunkenness:

At the embassy, U.S. troops went room to room on Aug. 15, pressing people to meet deadlines and get ready to go, an Army officer from the 10th Mountain Division told investigators. Some State Department personnel were “intoxicated and cowering in rooms,” and others were “operating like it was day-to-day operations with absolutely no sense of urgency or recognition of the situation,” the officer said.

Mostly, though, the unreality that mattered manifested itself at the White House and Foggy Bottom. Even after the abrupt abandonment of Bagram, no one in charge thought the withdrawal was going off the rails as late as the first week of August — just as the Taliban began sweeping through provincial capitals:

During an Aug. 6 meeting, a National Security Council official, who is not identified in the report, appeared to lack a sense of urgency and told others involved that if the United States had to execute an evacuation, it would signal “we have failed,” Brig Gen. Sullivan recalled. “In my opinion, the NSC was not seriously planning for an evacuation,” he said.

One interesting aspect of this is how it reflects on top Pentagon leadership, albeit indirectly. Army investigators cite repeated examples of dire warnings from military leaders on the ground and in the Pentagon, but the name Lloyd Austin barely gets mentioned in the Post account. How hard did Defense Secretary Austin work to make those reservations known to Biden? Or did he just roll over and become part of the problem at the White House? The report as related by the Post doesn’t make any mention of that, but it’s a question worth asking. Perhaps in light of this report, the Armed Services committees in Congress will start asking it of Austin’s underlings.

Be sure to read it all. It may not add to the clear conclusion that Biden, Anthony Blinken, Austin, and the administration as a whole botched the Afghanistan withdrawal, but it supplies necessary details that buttress that conclusion. It also reminds everyone that Biden lied and abandoned Americans as well as allies (and not just Afghans) in his haste to declare “mission accomplished” by September 11. It’s an utter disgrace, and each new look at it confirms the cravenness of those who ordered it.