Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam looks at a crucial report
US withdrawal from Afghanistan – It has been more than a year since the withdrawal of US-led coalition troops from Afghanistan that brought back the Afghan Taliban to power after fighting their way in from the wilderness. The botched departure of the coalition troops conveyed an extremely humiliating impression of political capability as well as military expertise and resilience of the Western forces. The Americans launched an inquiry to explore the underlying causes of the hasty and humiliating scuttle from Afghanistan and now they have released a report prepared in this respect of their State Department. The review and a similar Pentagon study contributed to a report released by the White House in April but the State Department review’s critical findings were not reflected in the White House report. The salient point of the report is that the criticism it has offered regarding decisions by President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump to withdraw troops terming them as bringing about serious consequences for the viability and security of the former US-backed government. Adverse findings in the report also reflected badly on Secretary of State Antony Blinken without naming him. Naming a 7th-floor principal would have improved coordination across different lines of effort in an oblique reference to the State Department’s top floor where Blinken and senior diplomats have offices. The report also included the department’s failure to expand its crisis-management task force as the Taliban advanced on Kabul in August 2021 and the lack of a senior diplomat to oversee all elements of the crisis response.
The US State Department released 24 pages of an 85-page After Action Report — the rest remained classified — on its handling of the evacuation operation launched as the last US-led international forces departed after 20 years of backing successive Kabul governments against the Taliban. This was an attempt to find out the causes of the messy US troop pullout and evacuation of US and allied officials, citizens and Afghans at risk of Taliban retribution saw crowds of desperate Afghans trying to enter Kabul airport and men clinging to aircraft as they taxied down runways. An Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 US service members and more than 150 Afghans outside an airport gate. It praised the performance of American embassy personnel working under difficult conditions like the Covid-19 pandemic and reduced security because of the US troop drawdown whose speed compounded the difficulties the department faced. Some 125,000 people, including nearly 6,000 Americans, were flown out of Kabul before the last US soldiers departed on 30 August, 2021, as the Taliban consolidated their grip on Kabul after the US-backed government fled.
The report mentioned that the decisions of both President Trump and President Biden to end the US military mission in Afghanistan had serious consequences for the viability of the Afghan government and its security. While those decisions were outside the scope of yet during both administrations there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow. The State Department review went on saying that the department planning was hindered because it was unclear which senior official had the lead. Senior administration officials also failed to make clear decisions regarding the universe of at-risk Afghans to be included in the evacuation by the time it started nor had they determined where Afghan evacuees would be taken. Preparation and planning were inhibited by the Biden administration’s reluctance to take steps that could signal a loss of confidence in the Kabul government and thus contribute to its collapse. The complicated Department task force structure that was created when the evacuation began proved confusing to many participants and knowledge management and communication among and across various lines of effort was problematic. The review added that the State Department should plan better for worst-case scenarios, strengthen its crisis management capabilities and ensure that top officials hear the broadest possible range of views including ones that challenge their assumptions and decisions.
The review addresses what even many Democrats call a foreign policy debacle for the Biden administration: its failure to more adequately prepare for the abrupt collapse of the Afghan state and avoid days of harrowing chaos in Kabul surrounding an emergency exit that included a terrorist bombing at the city’s airport. Biden officials have long said that few envisioned such a rapid Taliban takeover of the country, that exiting under any circumstances would have been difficult, and that the United States made the right strategic decision to withdraw. Even after it became clear that the Taliban would capture Kabul, the report says, the department’s response featured confusion about responsibilities and authorities. Another shortcoming: By the time the frantic airlift from Kabul began top State Department officials had not made clear decisions regarding which Afghans would be eligible for evacuation, nor where they would be taken. It also says that the department failed to establish a broad Afghanistan task force as the situation there deteriorated in late July and early August 2021 and that such a step would have brought key players together to address issues related to possible mass evacuations.
The report also found that the US Embassy was hampered in its ability to assist people wanting to leave the country ahead of the 31 August U.S. deadline to withdraw because it was undergoing a major staff transition. Foreign Service officers were finishing their one-year tours and departed in the weeks before the deadline. The report found that decision to proceed with a normal rotation rested on overly optimistic assessments of the situation in Afghanistan, which some questioned and left crucial positions filled by people who had only arrived in Kabul weeks before the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital. The report points out to several factors largely beyond the Biden administration’s control to explain the chaos that followed the government’s collapse and does not directly condemn the Biden administration. It says that the Coronavirus pandemic severely limited operations at the U.S. Embassy in the months ahead of the withdrawal making it difficult to process special visas for Afghans hoping to leave the country ahead of the Taliban’s return. The report also suggests that the Trump administration had committed to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation without planning for how the United States might maintain a diplomatic presence in the country and what to do about the tens of thousands of Afghans who, fearing Taliban reprisals, had applied for those special visas.
The report says its review team was struck by the differences in style and decision making between the Trump and Biden administrations, most notably the relative lack of an interagency process in the Trump administration and the intense interagency process that characterised the initial period of the Biden administration. It also addressed the often improvised way in which Afghans wanting to flee the country were assisted in reaching Kabul International Airport and the American C-17 transport places that departed at a frenetic pace for days. Many former politicians, diplomats and military personnel used personal connections to help Afghans who found official State Department channels overwhelmed or useless. The department needs to protect crisis responders from direct appeals for assistance outside of appropriate department channels and chains of command. The Weekender