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State Department failed to plan or respond fast enough in Afghanistan collapse, new U.S. report finds

The review repeatedly blames the Trump and Biden administrations for their efforts before and after the August 2021 departure of U.S. forces from Kabul.
A baby being lifted across a wall at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan by US soldiers in 2021.
A baby being lifted across a wall at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan by US soldiers in 2021.Omar Haidari / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The State Department failed to do enough planning before the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, according to a Biden administration review of the department’s performance during the chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies.

The review repeatedly blames the administrations of both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden for their efforts before and after the August 2021 departure of U.S. forces from Kabul. The U.S. evacuated an estimated 124,000 Afghans from the country.

Republicans have in turn accused Biden of not taking responsibility for intelligence failures leading up to the Taliban’s seizure of the country and for the scenes of chaos at Kabul’s airport, where 13 U.S. troops and about 170 Afghans died in a suicide bombing.

Biden was defiant when asked Friday if he would admit the U.S. made mistakes before and during its withdrawal.

“Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaida would not be there,” Biden said. “I said we’d get help from the Taliban. What’s happening now? What’s going on? Read your press. I was right.”

The U.S. in July 2022 killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri in a drone strike at his Kabul home, part of what the Biden administration calls an “over the horizon” capacity to target the group after the withdrawal. But a United Nations monitoring team reported in May that al-Qaida considers Afghanistan “a safe haven” and that the Taliban had not met previous commitments on counterterrorism.

“Al-Qaida maintains a low profile, focusing on using the country as an ideological and logistical hub to mobilize and recruit new fighters while covertly rebuilding its external operations capability,” the monitors said in their report.

According to Friday’s report, a State Department task force helped bring out nearly 2,000 Afghan citizens in July and early August 2021, weeks before the Aug. 31, 2021, deadline the U.S. set for withdrawal. They were eligible for processing under a special U.S. visa program for Afghans.

But State “failed to establish a broader task force as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated,” the report says.

And as the military planned for an evacuation of American civilians and Afghan allies, “it was unclear who in the Department had the lead,” it says.

“The decisions of both President Trump and President Biden to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan had serious consequences for the viability of the Afghan government and its security,” the review says. “Those decisions are beyond the scope of this review, but the (review) team found that during both administrations there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow.”

As the Taliban took key cities far faster than most U.S. officials expected and the fate of Kabul became unclear, the report says, State Department personnel began receiving an “overwhelming volume of incoming calls and messages” from lawmakers, other government agencies, and the public pleading for help saving people trapped in the country.

Staff working to facilitate the evacuation also faced confusing guidance that wasn’t attuned to real-world conditions at the time, according to the report.

State has taken lessons from the failures of Afghanistan into account when evacuating people before and during the subsequent war in Ukraine and as a crisis developed in Sudan, according to a senior State Department official who briefed reporters Friday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the department.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a letter to employees that the review was “vital to building a stronger Department that is better prepared to respond to future challenges and to fulfill our missions around the world.”