1 year later, Republicans, Biden White House argue over Afghanistan withdrawal
A GOP report says only 36 consular officers had to handle thousands of evacuees.
On the one-year anniversary Monday of the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, House Republicans and the Biden administration quarreled over who is to blame for the series of events that led to the Taliban victory and the handling of the chaotic withdrawal of 120,000 Afghans.
A 121-page report by Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee that investigated the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan blames the Biden administration for failing to plan accordingly for what would happen once all U.S. troops left the country. The report, in which committee Democrats did not participate, was made available to ABC News and other news outlets ahead of its public release.
Ahead of that release, the White House issued a memo denouncing the Republican investigation as a "partisan report" that "is riddled with inaccurate characterizations, cherry-picked information, and false claims."
"It advocates for endless war and for sending even more American troops to Afghanistan," Adrienne Watson, the National Security Council's top spokeswoman, said in the memo. "And it ignores the impacts of the flawed deal that former President Trump struck with the Taliban."
Citing a lack of cooperation from the Biden administration, the report relied on open source reporting, independent interviews with former officials, and interviews with U.S. military commanders included in U.S. Central Command's investigation of the Abbey Gate suicide bomb attack at Kabul's airport that killed 13 American service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians.
"The choices made in the corridors of power in D.C. led to tragic yet avoidable outcomes: 13 dead service members, American lives still at great risk, increased threats to our homeland security, tarnished standing abroad for years to come, and emboldened enemies across the globe," said the Republican report.
In its response, the NSC said Biden's decision reflected the tough choice he had to make to either "ramp up the war and put even more American troops at risk, or finally end the United States' longest war after two decades of American presidents sending U.S. troops to fight and die in Afghanistan."
The Republican report claims President Biden was "likely aware" that his stated reasons for withdrawing from Afghanistan were "inaccurate" when he announced the withdrawal in April 2021 and that he ignored recommendations by U.S. military commanders that it would be prudent to keep a small U.S. military presence of at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
"The decision to withdraw U.S. military forces was made by President Biden, despite advice from his military commanders that such a move could lead to Taliban battlefield gains," said the report.
Watson also pushed back on that claim, citing congressional testimony last fall by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley that leaving a force of 2,500 would have likely led to a troop increase if the Taliban targeted U.S. forces.
The Republican report criticizes the Biden administration for not having prepared for the quick Taliban takeover of Kabul saying President Biden "was warned repeatedly that the return of the Taliban was a question of when, not if." Meanwhile, the White House response shifted blame to the Doha agreement negotiated by the Trump administration said "empowered the Taliban and weakened our partners in the Afghan government."
In the two weeks after the fall of Kabul, 120,000 Afghan civilians were evacuated as part of a hastily-planned U.S. military airlift, but those that left were the lucky ones who were able to clear Taliban checkpoints and U.S. military entrances to Kabul's airport.
The chaotic images of thousands of Afghan civilians attempting to be allowed into the airport became the signature image of that withdrawal.
The Republican report blamed the State Department for not planning accordingly earlier in the year and noted that at the peak of the withdrawal there were only 36 U.S. consular officers at the airport to process the claims of the tens of thousands ultimately evacuated.
Only a small number of those who were evacuated had received for applied for the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV's) offered to Afghans who served as interpreters or contractors working for the United States. More than 77,000 Afghans who applied for those visas remain inside Afghanistan and the report criticizes the Biden administration for not developing a plan for how to get them out of Afghanistan.
The report also disclosed the previously undisclosed figure that more than 800 Americans have been evacuated from Afghanistan since last year, a much larger number than the 100 to 200 Americans that the administration had claimed were still in the country at the end of the chaotic withdrawal.
Republicans also disclosed that a "significant" number of highly trained Afghan commandos crossed into Iran seeking refuge after the Taliban takeover and expresses concerns that they "could be recruited or coerced into working for one of America's adversaries that maintains a presence in Afghanistan, including Russia, China, or Iran."
The report described last week's CIA drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri as proof that Afghanistan has once again become a safe haven for terrorists.
But the White House responded that the Zawahiri strike showed that the U.S. did not need a troop presence to go after the top terrorist leader and cited a U.S. intelligence assessments that al Qaeda has not reconstituted itself in Afghanistan. According to that assessment, there are only 12 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and only Zawahiri has attempted to restart operations in Afghanistan.