At the height of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan there were only 36 State Department officials on the ground at the Kabul airport to process Afghans who were trying to evacuate, according to a soon-to-be released report from House Republicans, despite the department’s claims that they had surged resources to handle the crowds desperately trying to flee.
This figure — which meant there was “roughly one consular officer for every 3,444 evacuees” — is one of several previously undisclosed details outlined in the highly critical report examining the chaotic US withdrawal last August.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans’ report, which is being published around one year after the country’s capital fell to the Taliban, reveals additional new details about the Biden administration’s failure to adequately plan for and execute the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The report, a final draft of which was obtained by CNN, also says the administration did not accurately portray the nature of the events on the ground and failed to put a plan in place to prevent American-trained Afghan commandos from being recruited by America’s adversaries.
“A lot of the Biden administration’s evacuation plans were done in the spring 2021 — some even before the president announced the withdrawal. And they were never updated despite the Taliban battlefield gains, despite the deteriorating security situation, and despite the revised intelligence assessments,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
President Joe Biden announced in mid-April 2021 that the US would withdraw all remaining troops from Afghanistan by September 11 of that year — the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that launched America’s war there. While Biden long wanted to end US involvement in the Afghanistan war, he attributed the decision, in part, to the deal brokered with the Taliban by the Trump administration, which had a commitment to withdraw by May 1, 2021.
In the weeks and months that followed, bipartisan lawmakers urged the administration to ensure plans were in place to ensure the protection of Afghans who worked for the US during the nearly two-decade long conflict, including evacuation options.
Both the State Department and the Pentagon have conducted their own reviews of the withdrawal, but neither of the departments have released any findings. The Pentagon’s review is ongoing while the State Department concluded theirs in March, according to a source familiar with the review. The delay of its release is due, in part, to an interagency review process layered with concerns about politics, optics and effective implementation of lessons learned.
The House report found that it was not until mid-June 2021 that the US Embassy in Kabul held an Operational Planning Team (OPT) meeting with members of the US military and US diplomats focused on pre-planning for non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO). The meeting was described by one US military officer involved as “the first time” that the embassy began “looking at the possibility of NEO.”
Because of the “complete lack of proper planning by the Biden administration” there were consequences: evacuation flights “were taking off at only about 50% of their capacity” five days into the NEO, the report says. The report references slow processing at the gates and mayhem outside the gates — a government evacuation process so chaotic and disorderly that even staffers for Vice President Kamala Harris and first lady Jill Biden were contacting outside groups to try to get people out, representatives for the groups told the committee.
Evacuation flights overwhelmingly carried men
The report found that those who were able to get out on those evacuation flights were overwhelmingly male, despite concerns — which have now been borne out — about women being stripped of freedoms when the Taliban took over.
“We now know through data from the Departments of State and Homeland Security that only approximately 25 percent of those evacuated during the NEO in Afghanistan were women or girls. To put this figure in context, historically, women and girls represent more than half of emergency refugee outflows,” Ambassador Kelley Currie, the ambassador-at-large for the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues under the Trump administration, wrote in the report.
As Kabul fell and then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, two top American officials — Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the then-head of US Central Command, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the then-special representative for Afghanistan who brokered the US-Taliban deal under Trump — met with Taliban officials in Doha, where the militant group offered the US control of security of the capital city.
McKenzie testified he turned the offer down, telling Congress in September 2021, “That was not why I was there, that was not my instruction, and we did not have the resources to undertake that mission.”
However, Khalilzad told the committee that he thought “we could have considered it,” the report said. The former official also said the US did not order the Taliban to stay out of Kabul.
“We didn’t say, ‘don’t go.’ We advised them to be careful,” Khalilzad said, according to the report. Meanwhile, US officials had been repeatedly saying that the US supported peace talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government.
Those attempting to flee the city were then forced to contend with the threat of the Taliban as they sought to reach the airport, where thousands gathered outside the gates in a desperate attempt to make it inside and onto a flight. And in the early days of the evacuation, the airport operation was so poorly run that groups of Afghans made it onto the airstrip, and desperately tried to hold onto departing planes.
“Given that the administration ceded control of Kabul to the Taliban, it was a very tactically challenging situation. But it was decisions they made — or in some instances avoided making — that led to that tactically challenge situation,” McCaul said.
National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the report “is riddled with inaccurate characterizations, cherry-picked information, and false claims” and that it “advocates for endless war and for sending even more American troops to Afghanistan.”
While that chaos was unfolding, the report argues that administration “repeatedly misled the American public” by attempting to downplay the grim situation on the ground and instead paint a picture of competence and progress.
The report juxtaposes State Department officials’ comments with internal memos, such as one from August 20 saying at least seven Afghans had “died while waiting outside HKIA (Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul) access gates” and that the Taliban was “refusing to accept the remains” of the corpses which were being stored at the airport.
“At one point the State Department spokesperson Ned Price was encouraging people to make their way to the airport and telling the press the evacuation was ‘efficient and effective,’ but the airport gates were closed, and internal memos were talking about how there were too many dead bodies at the airport and they don’t know how to deal with all of them,” McCaul said.
Biden admin refused to take part
The committee requested transcribed interviews with more than 30 administration officials, but the Biden administration refused to take part. For the report the committee relied on interviews and information from whistleblowers, conversations with people who were in Kabul during the withdrawal, and fact-finding trips to the region.
The State Department pushed back on the notion that it had not complied with congressional oversight efforts.
“We have provided over 150 briefings to Members and staff on Afghanistan since the NEO, covering a wide range of topics—including the withdrawal, women and girls, relocation operations, counterterrorism, and talks with the Taliban,” said a State Department spokesperson, adding that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had testified at two hearings on Afghanistan.
The Republicans leading this investigation are in the minority, which means they do not have subpoena power however they have indicated that they will issue subpoenas and continue investigating the withdrawal should their party take over the house in the elections this year. They are calling this an interim report.
The report also says the administration failed — even months after the withdrawal — to take actions that would prevent American-trained Afghan commandos from being recruited by US adversaries like Iran, China or Russia.
“The U.S. government did evacuate about 600 Afghan security force personnel who assisted the evacuation by providing perimeter security and other functions, but these represent a very small fraction of U.S. trained units who fought alongside American troops. And even those who were lucky enough to be flown out have found themselves stranded in third countries,” the report says, adding that 3,000 Afghan security forces fled into Iran according to a SIGAR report from earlier this year.
As of July, the Biden administration still did not have a plan to prioritize evacuating these Afghans from the region, with the State Department waiting on a policy decision from the NSC, the report says.