US State Department Failed To Plan For Withdrawal From Afghanistan Despite Internal Warnings

Top US generals during the withdrawal testify that they raised concerns with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the State Department not being on the same page with them on the withdrawal

US State Department Failed To Plan For Withdrawal From Afghanistan Despite Internal Warnings

The United States Department of State, which was the main US governmental agency "planning and execution, oversight over the execution of the non-combatant operation," failed to adequately plan the August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of at least 13 servicemen and a frenzy after the Afghan Taliban unexpectedly took.

These disclosures came from members of Congress and senior military officers who oversaw forces deployed in Afghanistan at the time of the withdrawal during a meeting of the powerful US House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"I was concerned by the middle of July 2021, about the different pace of Department of Defense planning, as compared to Department of State planning," said former US Central Command Chief General (Retired) Kenneth Frank McKenzie as he testified before the committee on Tuesday.

"And I took an opportunity then to make representations to the Secretary about my concern over that: The fact that we were moving pretty fast on this, as they were not moving fast, and I was concerned that we were going to arrive at different locations, just based on it. And I went to the Secretary, we spent some time talking about that, and actually followed up with a written idea and some things that we could do. Send a letter with ten recommendations to the Secretary of Defense on that."

US President Joe Biden had affirmed and executed a plan by his predecessor, Donald Trump, for the United States to unilaterally withdraw its military from Afghanistan.

US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul questioned former US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) General (retired) Mark A. Milley and Gen McKenzie Jr. over the role of various departments during the withdrawal. The generals were also asked about the intelligence coordination between the departments of State and Defense on implementing policies on the ground in the follow-up of decisions that led to the severe humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. 

In his opening remarks earlier, Michael McCaul highlighted the series of events that were believed to have been enough for the Biden Administration to understand that the withdrawal plan was not satisfactory for US service members. 

"I asked the State Department officials: Who was responsible for the catastrophic emergency evacuation? Not surprisingly, they point their fingers at the Department of Defense, but I want to set the record straight. While the [Department of Defense helped] conduct the emergency evacuation, it's the State Department that is responsible — under law — for developing the plan and leading the evacuation. Is that your understanding?"

Then-JCSC Gen (retd) Milley responded with: "Yes, the State Department is the lead federal agency for planning and execution, oversight over the execution of the non-combatant operation. And the Department of Defense is in support of, in other departments or, in support of the State Department's plans to lead the federal agency for NEOS. That's correct."

Warnings ignored

In his opening statement, McCaul said that months before the announcement of the withdrawal, the intelligence community and senior military advisors—including the two generals testifying before the committee—had issued dire warnings about the withdrawal's consequences. 

"After the announcement, I, along with other Republican and Democrat Members of Congress, urged the president to prepare for the withdrawal's inevitable fallout. Unfortunately, those warnings were ignored," he said, adding that as the withdrawal date neared, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, and the Taliban gained significant ground across the country, threatening the safety and security of US personnel still in the country. 

"In July of 2021, 23 State Department employees in Kabul sent a [Dissent Channel Cable] to Secretary Blinken warning of their grave concerns for Afghanistan's stability and their own safety. Yet nothing was done," McCaul said.

What he said after that was even more shocking.

"Instead, our investigation uncovered the White House refused to listen to warnings about the situation on the ground. Disturbingly, we have uncovered that State Department leadership prohibited – prohibited – its employees from uttering the word "NEO" – shorthand for an emergency evacuation – until as late as August 2021. Too little too late."

McCaul said that the Foreign Affairs Committee learned that the State Department did not even request an emergency evacuation until after the Taliban surrounded Kabul.

"As a result, the airport was not secured until August 17, two days after Kabul fell."

McCaul repeated the adage: "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." 

"And fail they did. The next two weeks created international outrage and humiliation for the United States. People all over the world watched as babies were flung over barbed wire fence[s] by mothers without hope, desperate Afghans fell to their deaths from aeroplanes, and hordes of people surrounded the airport as they tried to flee for their lives," he said.

These actions damaged US reputation and credibility around the world. That damage will last for generations, the committee chair said. He noted how Americans were told to stand by as American citizens and Afghan allies were beaten and murdered by terrorists outside the gates of the airport, culminating in a fatal attack on US soldiers and desperate Afghans.

The attack at Abbey Gate on the morning of August 26 left 13 US servicemembers dead, with dozens more injured. At least 170 Afghans were also killed, with several injured.

McCaul said that families of some of the victims of the Abbey Gate attack were attending the hearing. 

"To the American people, I say: I will not rest until I get to the bottom of this tragedy. You deserve answers, and the American people deserve answers. And I intend to deliver."

The committee heard that when the last US military plane left Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, more than 1,000 American citizens were still trapped in Afghanistan, along with tens of thousands of Afghan allies, who had risked their lives serving beside American troops and diplomats.

"Many, if not most, of those allies are still trapped, constantly in fear for their lives," McCaul said, adding that the Department of Defense limited the testimonies of the two senior military officials.

The  House Foreign Affairs Committee also invited witnesses from the US military, specifically a survivor who had lost his right leg and arm with injuries sustained during the withdrawal of US troops from Kabul.