- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2022

It was the height of the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, and first lady Jill Biden’s office went outside the normal channels and begged veterans groups to help find a way to evacuate people having trouble navigating the process.

So did Vice President Kamala Harris’ office, top Defense Department officials and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, according to a report released Sunday by House Republicans that details the depths of the Biden administration’s failures during the last days of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

The fact that President Biden’s own circle had to go outside his process to get help underscores just how badly the administration planned and executed the U.S. retreat, concludes the report, released by Rep. Michael T. McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“There was a complete lack and failure to plan,” Mr. McCaul told CBS’s “Face the Nation” as he revealed the report. “There were so many mistakes.”

Monday marks one year since Afghanistan’s Western-backed government was toppled by a resurgent Taliban. The Taliban moved on Kabul as U.S. troops were pulling out, rushing to meet Mr. Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for ending a 20-year, $1 trillion commitment.

With stark new findings, Mr. McCaul’s team said, the chaos was even worse than it appeared.

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The evacuation started late, it miscalculated at many turns, it abandoned tens of thousands of allies it should have saved while bringing out tens of thousands of others with only the most tenuous ties to the U.S., and it may have allowed the Aug. 26 suicide bomb attack that killed 13 American troops.

Among the report’s conclusions:

⦁ The number of American citizens the administration said were left behind and looking to get out was much higher than the 100 or so reported. The State Department has brought out some 800 since Aug. 31, and that doesn’t include those rescued by private groups.

⦁ At the height of the evacuation, only 36 consular officers were working at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, creating a logjam that spilled out to the gates. People were denied entry because of the backlog.

“This drastically limited the number of people we were able to evacuate. And it likely led to sloppy processing as officers were drastically overwhelmed,” the investigation concludes.

⦁ Afghan women involved in their country’s modernization effort had a particularly tough time trying to get to the airport. They risked beatings or shootings if they weren’t accompanied by a male. According to the report, only 25% of those who did make it out were women or girls. In the final days of the evacuation, a convoy of 1,000 women and girls circled the airport for hours in a failed attempt to enter. Less than a third have been able to escape since the U.S. troop withdrawal.

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The White House said its numbers show that women and girls made up 43% of Afghans brought to the U.S.

⦁ Thousands of Afghan security force members, including some highly trained commandos, fled across the border into Iran, creating a national security risk should a foreign power recruit them.

The Defense Department began to compile a priority list of high-risk personnel who should be evacuated. As of February, the Pentagon still hadn’t shared the list with the State Department, the report says.

The Biden administration is aware of the danger.

“Afghans who possess the knowledge specific to security operations, intelligence collection, other aspects of security and defense forces that if it were to fall into terrorists’ hands would pose a national security risk to the United States, those people will have a special category, I think there is just no way around it,” a senior State Department official said, according to the report.

The White House labeled Mr. McCaul’s report “partisan” and said the Trump administration should take the blame for difficulties in managing the evacuation. The U.S. committed to the withdrawal in an agreement signed with the Taliban in 2020.

“This agreement empowered the Taliban and weakened our partners in the Afghan government,” Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in a memo rebutting the report.

Asked about Republican investigators’ claims that the White House circumvented the chain of command to try to evacuate preferred people, a spokesperson suggested they were only conduits.

“The U.S. government received many requests from members of the public, including elected officials, journalists, and organizations with partners on the ground in Afghanistan, to assist individuals who were seeking to leave Afghanistan during” the evacuation, the spokesperson said. “We forwarded those along to the Afghan task force to ensure they were routed to the correct place to the team on the ground.”

The report pinpoints one key bungle to a year ago, on Aug. 15, when the Taliban offered to let the U.S. run security of Kabul until the final withdrawal. 

The offer has been reported before. Biden administration officials said they doubted the Taliban’s sincerity and didn’t want to commit up to the 20,000 troops they estimated it would take.

“I did not consider that to be a formal offer. It was not the reason why I was there, so I did not pursue it,” former Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who led U.S. Central Command until his retirement this year, told Congress last year.

Mr. McCaul’s investigators gave evidence that the Taliban’s offer was legitimate.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy to Afghanistan from 2018 until October, was in the Aug. 15 meeting where the offer was made. He thought it was legitimate. He said the Taliban told the Americans, “We want you to take it.”

The report says the 20,000-troop estimate assumed a hostile Taliban. If the Taliban did want the U.S. to run security during those weeks, then the operation might have been conducted far more readily.

Adding to the situation, Gen. McKenzie Jr. told investigators, he intended to tell the Taliban at the Aug. 15 meeting to keep fighters outside Kabul. He said some fighters had already entered the capital by the time the meeting took place, so he ditched that approach.

The ramifications of giving up the city for the final two weeks of the pullout were severe, the committee concluded.

U.S. forces could have set up processing centers outside the limits of the airport and eliminated the chaos that cost lives and fouled the selection process for evacuation.

Having control of the city during the evacuation also could have headed off the suicide bombing at the airport.

“Think about what that would have changed,” Mr. McCaul told CBS. “We had relied on the Taliban to secure the perimeter of HKIA. That led to the chaos. It also led to a suicide bomber that killed 13 service members — men and women — and injured over hundreds of people. And it could have been avoided.”

Much of the report is based on an internal Pentagon review.

House investigators said they got hardly any cooperation from the State Department, which didn’t make personnel available and gave only the most cursory answers to inquiries and document requests.

The report is labeled “interim.”

Mr. McCaul and his team said they still hope to talk to the nearly three dozen State Department officials whose testimony they requested. If Republicans win control of the House in November, they could get more leeway to pursue the next part of their probe.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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