As Taliban forces advanced across Afghanistan last summer, senior Biden administration officials failed to recognize the gravity of the situation and were reluctant to prepare an evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies, according to testimony from U.S. military officers involved in the effort.
The officers painted a grim picture of the final days of the U.S. military presence in interviews for an investigative report by the Army, describing chaotic scenes as desperate Afghans tried to enter Kabul airport to flee the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The sworn testimony was first reported by The Washington Post, which obtained the accounts through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The military investigation was focused on the Aug. 26 attack on Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport, which killed more than 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. The investigation’s findings, which concluded that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber acting alone, were released last week. But dozens of interviews conducted by Army investigators for the probe also shed light on the broader evacuation operation.
The evacuation of Americans and Afghans, what the military calls a “noncombatant evacuation operation,” or NEO, would have been less chaotic if senior decision makers had grasped the situation on the ground and the swift advance of the Taliban, military officers told investigators.
“I think we could have been much better prepared to conduct a more orderly NEO if policy makers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground, and the timelines associated with the TB [Taliban] advance, and the TB intent to conduct a military takeover,” Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top commander in Afghanistan in August, testified.
A service member told investigators, according to the report, that as the Taliban seized provincial capitals, “the writing was on the wall.”
“The country and its government were actively collapsing,” the service member said. The decision to launch an evacuation should have been made earlier, and “we should not have waited until every provincial capital had fallen except for Kabul.”
Asked about the report, Biden administration officials defended the handling of the evacuation and pushed back against accusations that there had not been sufficient planning or preparation for the operation.
The State Department said some statements in the report were misleading or false.
Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, who oversaw the Marines sent to Kabul in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal and evacuation, testified that at an Aug. 6 meeting, a National Security Council official showed a lack of urgency and said an evacuation would signal “we have failed.”
“In my opinion, the NSC was not seriously planning for an evacuation,” Sullivan told investigators.
Vasely said the outgoing four-star commander, Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, told him senior officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul would oppose efforts to scale back its staff, according to the report.
The acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, was focused on preserving a U.S. diplomatic presence and keeping the embassy open, the admiral told investigators.
Wilson asked for two weeks to evacuate the embassy and move a small team to the Kabul airport, according to the report. But on Aug. 12, three days before the Taliban seized Kabul, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan instructed Wilson to move faster, Vasely testified.
According to the report, another military official said Vasely “was trying to get the Ambassador to see the security threat for what it really was,” adding, “The embassy needed to position for withdrawal, and the Ambassador didn’t get it.”
The report also cited testimony from an officer from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, who was going door to door at the embassy on Aug. 15 urging staff members to get ready to leave. Some embassy staff members 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 told the investigators.
Wilson was not immediately available for comment.
“Cherry-picked comments do not reflect the months of work that were already 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 — Afghan allies from Afghanistan,” State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters Tuesday.
“Some of the claims allegedly included in the report regarding State Department personnel and plans are outright false and shamefully so,” she said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “We were pressing our system hard on whether we were meeting previously established tripwires that would require us to adjust operations at Embassy Kabul.
“That’s how we looked at it and evaluated at the time. The NSC led that process and convened regular interagency discussions, and, of course, earlier in the summer, we pre-positioned U.S. forces in the region to be ready to facilitate” an evacuation, Psaki told reporters.
Administration officials said that at meetings in early August, White House officials asked national security officials across the government whether it was time to launch an evacuation from Kabul and that the consensus was that it was not yet time. Defense Department officials agreed with the decision and did not call for an evacuation at those meetings, administration officials. If lower officers on the ground believed an evacuation was necessary, it was not conveyed by the Pentagon at interagency meetings, officials told NBC News.
Vasely also described how U.S. forces had no choice but to cooperate with the Taliban given the collapse of the Afghan government. The insurgents had an incentive to work with the Americans to ensure the U.S. troops left as planned on Aug. 31, he said, according to the report.
“We needed their assistance and it’s important to understand that without their coordination things could have been much worse — they helped us keep the airport open, and helped prevent a follow-on attack, understanding they wanted to get us out of there on the 31st,” he told investigators.
The testimony also included previously undisclosed incidents involving U.S. troops stationed around the perimeter of the airport. Service members described how Taliban fighters had attacked Afghan civilians gathered at the airport gate and threatened and opened fire on U.S. forces. In an exchange of gunfire, U.S. troops killed two Taliban fighters, the witnesses told investigators. In another incident, U.S. troops killed a member of an Afghan government unit and wounded six others after they fired on U.S. forces, according to the testimony.
A Marine officer also testified that a stun grenade used for crowd control killed a civilian. The report said the incident should be further investigated.