US report slams poor planning for Afghanistan withdrawal

State Department report criticises ‘insufficient’ preparation for worst-case scenarios as US forces left Afghanistan.

Afghans heading towards US cargo plane
US forces conducted a massive evacuation operation during their final weeks in Afghanistan in 2021 [File: Donald R Allen/US Air Force via AFP]

The US State Department did not adequately prepare for the swift collapse of the Afghan government in 2021, an internal review has found, in the latest report to criticise the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from the country.

While the so-called After Action Review (AAR) released on Friday lauded the actions of State Department staff, noting that they worked “heroically” under extreme “stress, demands and risks”, it said the department should have better prepared for the fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The internationally backed Afghan government collapsed and then-President Ashraf Ghani fled the country in August 2021 as the Taliban took over Kabul amid the withdrawal of US forces.

Friday’s report said the decision by US President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan had “serious consequences” for the viability of the US-backed Afghan government.

“Those decisions are beyond the scope of this review, but the AAR team found that during both administrations there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios,” the review reads.

The report specifically criticised the State Department for failing to set up a crisis-management task force that could have overseen the situation in Afghanistan at the time as well as clearly cooperated with the Pentagon in the case of an evacuation.

“Establishing such a task force earlier would have brought key players together to address issues related to a possible [evacuation],” the report said.

While the Pentagon was preparing for an evacuation operation, the “planning process was hindered by the fact that it was unclear who in the [State Department] had the lead”, it added.

After the fall of Kabul, American troops – confined to an area around the city’s airport until their final withdrawal at the end of August 2021 – oversaw a massive, two-week operation to get US citizens and desperate Afghans out.

During the evacuation, a suicide bombing by the Afghanistan branch of ISIL (ISIS) killed at least 175 people, including 13 US service members.

The State Department review comes nearly three months after the White House released a wider report on the withdrawal that mostly blamed Trump for issues that led to the fraught US exit from Afghanistan.

Friday’s review also faulted the Trump administration, namely for failing to address a backlog and other issues plaguing the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programme, which offers a pathway for Afghans who worked with the US government to come to the country.

The review also echoed the White House report’s findings that the Trump administration – which authorised the US withdrawal in a February 2020 deal with the Taliban – did not properly plan for the departure of American troops.

“When the Trump administration left office, key questions remained unanswered about how the United States would meet the May 2021 deadline for a full military withdrawal, how the United States could maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul after that withdrawal, and what might happen to those eligible for the [SIV programme] as well as other at-risk Afghans,” it said.

Biden faced a firestorm of Republican-led criticism following the Afghanistan withdrawal. But he has defended the decision to end the “forever war”, which at 20 years had become Washington’s longest armed conflict.

The US and a coalition of its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda in New York and Washington, DC. At that time, the Taliban, which was in control of the country, hosted al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Although US-led troops were able to quickly remove the Taliban from power, they never managed to ensure a lasting defeat of the group or wrest full control over the mountainous country.

The US has not recognised the current Taliban government and has imposed sanctions on the group.

Source: Al Jazeera