A document leaked from a meeting in the White House Situation Room the day before Kabul fell shows the Biden administration was not fully prepared to evacuate Afghan nationals who had helped the United States during its two-decade fight against the Taliban.
The document is a National Security Council summary of conclusions memo from an Aug. 14, 2021, meeting of the Deputies Small Group, reports Axios, which obtained it.
Such meetings bring together top aides for Cabinet members to work out details for decisions that have already been made by their bosses, and in this case was held between 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., Washington D.C. time.
While the meeting was being held, the Taliban was heading into Kabul for the takeover, notes Axios.
Senior officials from multiple agencies, including Gen. John Hyten, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, participated in the meeting, which was chaired by National Security Council official Liz Sherwood-Randall. The participants were working to decide several key issues just hours before then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the palace and Afghanistan's capital city fell, the document shows.
The topics under discussion included:
- "State will work to identify as many countries as possible to serve as transit points. Transit points need to be able to accommodate U.S. citizens, Afghan nationals, third-country nationals, and other evacuees. (Action: State, immediately)"
- "Embassy Kabul will notify LES [locally employed staff] to begin to register their interest in relocation to the United States and begin to prepare immediately for departure ... (Action: Embassy Kabul, immediately)"
NSC spokesperson Emily Horne told Axios that the administration would not comment on "leaked internal documents" and that "cherry-picked notes from one meeting do not reflect the months of work that were already underway."
"Earlier that summer, we launched Operation Allies Refuge and had worked with Congress to pass legislation that gave us greater flexibility to quickly relocate Afghan partners," Horne said. "It was because of this type of planning and other efforts that we were able to facilitate the evacuation of more than 120,000 Americans, legal permanent residents, vulnerable Afghans, and other partners."
The administration has noted that measure it was taking helped bring the more than 120,000 people out of the Kabul airport by Aug. 31, which was President Joe Biden's withdrawal deadline, and that the effort was made in partnership with U.S. allies and through efforts by private sector and veterans' groups.
Biden announced last April that the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops, along with NATO's 7,500 troops would be leaving Afghanistan by Sept. 11, and after that, the Taliban swept quickly through the country, seizing many areas without opposition from Afghan troops.
Axios noted that U.S. troops had also been pre-positioned in the region to be ready for the withdrawal, and the administration accelerated some Special Immigrant Visa approvals, but the leaked document shows many key decisions had not been made by the day before Kabul fell.
The White House had been warned about delaying the evacuation, according to Matt Zeller, a former CIA officer who contacted the administration in February 2021 about evacuating Afghan nationals, months before the fall of Kabul.
He told Axios he "kept being told by people in the [White House] the thing they were most concerned about was the optics of a chaotic evacuation. They treated us like we were Chicken Little. They didn’t believe the sky was falling."
He added that on July 13, "we offered to work with them to help evacuate our partners. We all saw this disaster coming before the inevitable occurred. They didn’t get back to us until Aug 15, the day Kabul fell."
Mark Jacobson, a deputy NATO representative in Afghanistan during the Obama administration, agreed that the lack of planning and addressing of key questions "underscores the absence of adequate interagency planning," and that he finds that surprising "given the depth of experience on Afghanistan and contingency operations at that table."
Meanwhile, more than 100 former Afghan troops and officials have been killed since the Taliban seized Kabul, according to a report written by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and obtained by The Associated Press.
''The situation in Afghanistan remains precarious and uncertain six months after the Taliban takeover as the multiple political, socio-economic and humanitarian shocks reverberate across the country,'' Guterres said in his report to the U.N. Security Council.
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