WASHINGTON -- The United States acknowledged Thursday that the government should have started evacuations from Afghanistan earlier at the end of the war in 2021, and said the government has changed policies to carry out such evacuations sooner when security conditions worsen.
That finding was tucked inside a 12-page summary of the government's review of the August 2021 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which led to the swift collapse of the Afghan government. As U.S. officials rushed to evacuate people from Kabul's international airport, an Islamic State suicide bomber carried out an attack that killed as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members.
"Clearly we didn't get things right here with Afghanistan with how fast the Taliban was moving across the country," said John Kirby, a White House spokesperson, who fielded questions from reporters for more than an hour about the government's review.
The summary does not directly say that officials made mistakes as they discussed evacuating the country and assessing how much time that would take, but in two places the document says that the government has changed its policies and will prioritize swift evacuations.
"We now prioritize earlier evacuations when faced with a degrading security situation," the administration said in the summary. "We did so in both Ethiopia and Ukraine," referring to continuing conflicts in the countries.
Nearly two years after the withdrawal led to days of chaos in Kabul, with Afghan allies hanging from airplanes amid a life-or-death scramble to escape the country, the summary, produced by the National Security Council and characterized as part of an "independent review," largely defended the actions of President Joe Biden and his administration.
The summary heavily lays blame on actions taken by former President Donald Trump, beginning with his deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops by the spring of 2021 and his later failure to share relevant transition materials with his successor's team.
"President Biden's choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor," the White House summary states, noting that when Biden entered office, "the Taliban were in the strongest military position that they had been in since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country."
Trump responded by accusing the Biden administration of playing "a new disinformation game" to distract from "their grossly incompetent SURRENDER in Afghanistan." On his social media site, he said, "Biden is responsible, no one else!"
Kirby, who suggested that reporters did not have experience reading government intelligence or did not understand the review process, denied that the withdrawal was haphazard, saying "I didn't see" any chaos in Kabul during the evacuation of Americans and Afghans.
"For all this talk of chaos, I just didn't see it, not from my perch," said Kirby, who was the Pentagon spokesman during the withdrawal. "At one point during the evacuation, there was an aircraft taking off full of people, Americans and Afghans alike, every 48 minutes, and not one single mission was missed. So I'm sorry, I just won't buy the whole argument of chaos."
Kirby credited U.S. forces for their actions in running the largest airborne evacuation of noncombatants in history during the chaos of Kabul's fall.
"They ended our nation's longest war," he told reporters. "That was never going to be an easy thing to do. And as the president himself has said, it was never going to be low grade or low risk or low cost."
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Biden has blamed the February 2020 agreement Trump reached with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, saying it boxed the U.S. into leaving the country. The agreement has been blamed by analysts for undercutting the U.S.-backed government, which collapsed the following year.
Under the U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement, roughly 5,000 Taliban prisoners were released as a condition for what were supposed to be separate future peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban. Kirby noted that release and other examples of what he said was a "general sense of degradation and neglect" inherited by Biden.
"This document isn't about accountability," Kirby said. "It's about understanding."
Asked repeatedly if the president took responsibility for the withdrawal, Kirby said "he's the commander in chief, and he absolutely has responsibility for the operations our men and women conduct and the orders that they receive."
Biden initially defended the withdrawal as an "extraordinary success" and declared the end of an era in which the U.S. government used military power "to remake other countries." But polling at the time showed that less than 40% of Americans supported how he handled the withdrawal, and Biden eventually demanded a "top to bottom" review of the pullout.
According to the summary of the review, officials said they did not expect the speed with which the Taliban overtook the country, despite assurances of the strength of the Afghan government and military, and said they would err on the side of "aggressive communication" about risks in the future.
The document says that in the months before the military pulled out, the Biden administration chose "to not broadcast loudly and publicly about a potential worst-case scenario unfolding in order to avoid signaling a lack of confidence" in the Afghan government.
In a speech in August 2021, just days after troops began leaving the country, the president called the withdrawal "hard and messy," but insisted that the decision to pull U.S. troops out and the timing were both correct.
"I stand squarely behind my decision," Biden said, adding that he would not "shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today."
Republicans in Congress have sharply criticized the Afghanistan withdrawal, focusing on the deaths of 13 service members in a suicide bombing at Kabul's airport, which also killed more than 100 Afghans.
Shawn Vandiver, a Navy veteran and founder of #AfghanEvac, an effort to resettle Afghans fleeing the country, called the National Security Council report an "important next step."
"We are glad to see acknowledgement of lessons learned and are laser focused on continuing relocation and resettlement operations," Vandiver said in a statement.
But Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted Thursday that the withdrawal was "an unmitigated fiasco," adding, "Passing the buck in a blame-shifting report won't change that."
The administration's report appears to shift any blame in the Aug. 26, 2021, suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport, saying it was the U.S. military that made one possibly key decision.
"To manage the potential threat of a terrorist attack, the President repeatedly asked whether the military required additional support to carry out their mission at HKIA," the report said, adding, "Senior military officials confirmed that they had sufficient resources and authorities to mitigate threats."
The acknowledgment by the Biden administration that officials should have started the evacuation sooner than they did is a reversal from the repeated denials by Biden; Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser; and other top officials. They had insisted that evacuating sooner would not have prevented the chaos at the airport and would have undermined confidence in the already shaky Afghan government.
In May of 2021, several refugee organizations participated in a video call with staff members at the National Security Council to plead for them to start evacuating Afghans who had worked with the United States and would be threatened by the Taliban's return.
The officials at the time were noncommittal about an early evacuation and ultimately did not start bringing Afghans or Americans out of the country until after the military's withdrawal, leading to chaotic and deadly scenes at the Kabul airport as U.S. allies desperately tried to escape the violence.
A February report by the U.S. government's special inspector general for Afghanistan placed the most immediate blame for the Afghan military's collapse on both the Trump and Biden administrations: "Due to the [Afghan security force's] dependency on U.S. military forces, the decision to withdraw all U.S. military personnel and dramatically reduce U.S. support to the [Afghan security forces] destroyed the morale of Afghan soldiers and police."
On Thursday, when asked if the president was preparing to outline the review's results to the public, Kirby said that Biden had already shared his views on the withdrawal.
"You've heard from the president; he has talked many times about his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan," Kirby said. Biden was already en route to Camp David for the Easter weekend as Kirby fielded questions.
The release of the National Security Council review comes as the State Department and House Republicans battle over documents for classified cables related to the Afghanistan withdrawal. Rep. Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Kirby's comments "disgraceful and insulting."
Information for this article was contributed by Katie Rogers of The New York Times and by Zeke Miller, Nomaan Merchant, Josh Boak, Ellen Knickmeyer, Seung Min Kim, Lolita C. Baldor and Farnoush Amiri of The Associated Press.