With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan officially complete, the White House is set to begin the difficult process of reviewing the chaotic and deadly evacuation operation that lurched into high gear after Kabul fell to the Taliban, forcing Biden officials to confront how they got things wrong in Afghanistan and ramping up the blame game inside the administration.
The internal assessment, known as a “hotwash,” will examine “everything that happened in this entire operation from start to finish and the areas of improvement, where we can do better, where we can find holes or weaknesses and plug them as we go forward,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last month.
But administration officials and members of Congress are not waiting for that analysis to start pointing fingers. The White House has publicly blamed many external factors for the chaos, including former President Donald Trump’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban and the Afghan security forces themselves, who President Joe Biden and his aides have said refused to fight for their own country.
Privately, White House and State Department officials have grumbled about why they are getting the bulk of the blame rather than the intelligence community, which they say failed to predict just how quickly Kabul would fall. Many officials are also angry at the rosier assessments presented by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who they say should have been more realistic about the Taliban’s true intentions.
But intelligence officials and lawmakers in both parties charge that the White House is trying to use the intelligence community as a scapegoat. They argue that the National Security Council and the State Department ignored the grim intelligence assessments in the spring and summer that warned the government could quickly collapse – and that the White House overruled the Pentagon’s desire to keep US troops in Afghanistan before Biden originally announced the withdrawal in April.
The private quarreling is poised to quickly spill into public view with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – newly incensed following the deaths of 13 service members and at least 170 Afghans last week at the hands of ISIS – preparing for public hearings beginning this month on the administration’s handling of the withdrawal. Republicans have hammered Biden’s response to the crisis, and the hearings will give them a public forum to criticize the President and the response heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
“Everything that’s happening in Afghanistan right now lays solely at the feet of Joe Biden,” Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN last week. “He made the final decision. He’s the reason we left the way we left.”
Biden’s top national security officials – Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley – have all been targets for criticism, too, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated. Some Republicans have called for their resignations, and most are likely to be hauled to Capitol Hill to testify in the coming weeks.
White House officials have closed ranks
White House officials say there has been no talk of firings or dismissals in meetings with Biden, someone who has long been fiercely loyal to his closest advisers. They’ve closed ranks around Sullivan, focused more on making sure he had the support to do his job than trying to undercut him, two officials said.
“We aren’t the Trump White House,” one official cracked. Several officials said they know the attempts to point fingers or cast blame among the various agencies participating in the evacuation will be intense in the coming days as officials move to protect their own equities.
But the White House has kept a close eye on the criticism, particularly from Democratic corners, multiple officials said. While officials say they know congressional hearings and investigations are coming, they also know Democrats control those committees in both chambers. At least for now.
Amid the intensified scrutiny, the White House has in recent days been phoning Democratic lawmakers – including the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia – and urging them to publicly defend the administration’s response, people familiar with the outreach said. A spokeswoman for Warner declined to comment.
So far, however, such support has been hard to come by. Warner and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have been highly critical of the evacuation operation and neither has defended the President publicly.
Even Biden’s closest ally in the Senate, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, has indicated his support for “a thorough after-action review about the strikingly rapid fall of the Afghan military and government, the planning and coordination for an evacuation, and the alarming crush of Afghans and Americans now urgently seeking to leave Kabul.”
Some Democrats have defended Biden, like Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that the chaos surrounding the evacuation was likely to occur no matter when the Afghan government fell.
“When Congress does this oversight, I want to make sure that it’s over the last 20 years, not just the last two months,” Murphy said. “Because to believe that there was some way to do this evacuation in a way that didn’t have panic on the ground, that didn’t have a risk of loss of life, I think is the same kind of fantasy thinking that led us to stay in Afghanistan for 10 years too long, even when we knew the Afghan forces couldn’t stand up for themselves.”
In his speech marking the end of the 20-year war Wednesday, Biden defended the decision to withdraw and the chaotic evacuation operation that followed, saying he was “not going to extend this forever war.” The President said the US withdrawal was conducted under the assumption that 300,000 Afghan security forces would be a “strong adversary” to fight against the Taliban.
“That assumption – that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown – turned out not to be accurate,” Biden acknowledged.
Warning signs of a rapid Taliban takeover missed?
The handling of the evacuation and the acute terrorist threats that ultimately resulted in the deadly suicide bombing last Thursday will be scrutinized heavily. But the larger question will be how the administration was caught so off guard by the complete Taliban takeover of the country, to the point that the US military was forced to rely on its former enemies to provide Americans with safe passage to Kabul’s airport.
Intelligence officials, for their part, say they are not to blame. One senior intelligence official noted that a rapid Taliban takeover was consistently presented to policymakers as a real possibility. As recently as last month, another source said, the intelligence community assessed that the Taliban were pursuing a full military takeover of the country rather than a negotiated political settlement.
But Biden and the National Security Council chose to put greater stock in the more optimistic assessments that the Afghan government would be able to hold out for at least a year, other officials said, long enough for the US to complete a withdrawal and evacuation before a Taliban takeover.
“We consistently identified the risk of a rapid collapse of the Afghan government. We also grew more pessimistic about the government’s survival as the fighting season progressed,” a senior intelligence official recently told CNN.
The disconnect over the intelligence has played out publicly. After the Taliban took control of Kabul, Milley commented on the intelligence assessment at a Pentagon news conference, saying the time frame of the Afghan government’s collapse “was widely estimated and ranged from weeks to months and even years following our departure.”
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” Milley said.
But a former intelligence official with experience in Afghanistan argued that the assessment of the government falling within weeks “puts anyone on notice that imminent collapse is likely.”
“That’s the opposite of an intelligence failure,” the former official said.
Why didn’t evacuations start earlier?
Even with rosier assessments in hand, the situation on the ground nevertheless deteriorated rapidly with the Taliban advancing across Afghanistan in the weeks before they overran Kabul. As a result, one question lawmakers will home in on is why evacuations of Americans and Afghans who had helped the US military over two decades didn’t start sooner, as it became clearer that the Taliban were winning.
“There were numerous indicators that this was possible,” said Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army Ranger on the House Intelligence Committee. “In fact, a number of members of Congress, including me, going back to April, have warned that we could be in a situation like this, and that’s why we’ve actually been pushing for the SIV (Special Immigrant Visa program) evacuation to begin months ago.”
In mid-July, a group of US diplomats wrote a classified cable to Blinken warning that swift action needed to be taken because they believed the situation could rapidly deteriorate and they feared a catastrophe. A task force to help Special Immigrant Visas applicants get processed wasn’t started until July, just weeks before the Afghan government’s collapse.
The White House has said the administration didn’t want to create the impression, through mass evacuations early on, that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was incapable of holding together his government as the Taliban advanced.
But even as the Taliban gained more territory, the withdrawal of US troops and contractors continued apace, leaving the Afghan security forces increasingly vulnerable. Afghan Gen. Sami Sadat, pushing back on Biden’s claim that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” recalled in a recent op-ed how Afghan helicopter pilots were effectively grounded when departing contractors, on orders from the Pentagon, removed their missile-defense systems. The removal of those systems was confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of the matter.
Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said there were long-term signs that the Afghan security forces would be unable to operate on their own.
“I think the principal thing you look at is was there an honest assessment” from the Pentagon of the Afghan military, Quigley said. “I’d talk to the generals.”
Multiple US officials have instead suggested that much of the blame for what is unfolding in Kabul rests with Sullivan and the National Security Council, which despite holding a high volume of meetings on Afghanistan in recent months has often lacked decisiveness when it comes to implementing policy recommendations.
One official characterized the council’s deliberation process on Afghanistan, including the evacuation, as “paralyzing,” adding that the current policy confusion and uncertainty is similar to the “hand-wringing and indecisiveness of the Obama administration.”
“I think the IC got it right,” said Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They had a very grim assessment the whole summer leading up to this, and they just ignored it and they decided to go with this rosy State Department dream that we’re going to work out some agreement with the Taliban at the last minute, and guess what – it didn’t work.”
Public fight brewing
The contradicting explanations and behind-the-scenes finger pointing are just the start of what’s likely to become a public fight playing out in high-profile congressional hearings.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, said last week that he’s considering bringing his committee back early from the House’s monthlong recess in order to hear publicly from Blinken. Multiple Senate committees are preparing for hearings with top officials.
“I don’t know who’s said what to the President yet,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who has been critical of the administration’s evacuation.
Langevin said he wanted to hear from Biden’s senior national security advisers “to actually ask those pointed questions about who told the President what, and who ultimately made the decision despite what other maybe contrary views might have been offered.”
Many of the questions will go back to Biden’s original decision to leave in April, when the President went against military leaders who were advocating for keeping US troops in Afghanistan longer. Lawmakers are also likely to press on the slow pace of evacuations before the Taliban took control last month through the decision to rely on the Taliban for security at the Kabul airport and to finish the withdrawal despite Americans still stuck in Afghanistan who wanted to leave.
Republicans have charged that Biden bears the primary responsibility for what’s unfolded in Afghanistan. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has held numerous news conferences and public events over the past week with top GOP national security lawmakers to hit the President on Afghanistan, though the California Republican has struggled himself to say whether he would keep US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
GOP members are preparing to question Biden’s team on multiple fronts. They’ve requested that the Biden administration turn over its “evacuation plan” and called for top officials to testify. Republican Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said on Monday that Khalilzad, the US lead in peace talks with the Taliban, “should be the first called before Congress.”
Seeing the chaos that has unfolded in Kabul, many officials turned their ire toward Khalilzad, given his central role in crafting the Trump administration deal with the Taliban last year that required US troops to be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 – a deal that the White House has said effectively tied Biden’s hands and left the administration no choice but to withdraw US forces without requiring any real concessions from the Taliban.
One senior Western official who had been involved in the talks, however, noted that Biden had long been determined to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. The official said that some in the administration have therefore viewed keeping Khalilzad in his role as a way to have a “fall guy” who could shoulder much of the blame if things went awry. The State Department said Wednesday that Khalilzad had returned to Washington from Doha, Qatar, where the US is relocating its Afghanistan diplomatic presence.
“Why keep him involved when everything has gone so wrong?” the Western official said. “One reason is because you fundamentally just don’t want to change the policy of surrender and withdrawal.”
CNN’s Phil Mattingly, Zachary Cohen, Katie Bo Williams and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.