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White House releases Afghan withdrawal review to Congress

April 6, 2023

US President Joe Biden's administration defended the decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan in 2021. It followed almost two decades in the country, and led almost immediately to the Taliban reclaiming power.

Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug.16. 2021.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians tried to flee Kabul along with the last western forces, and most were left behindImage: AP/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden's administration released a summary of a classified report on the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan, defending the conduct of the rapid exit, which ended over 20 years of military presence in the country.

The White House did however admit there had been massive intelligence failure in not predicting such a rapid Taliban victory.

Nothing "would have changed the trajectory" of the exit and "ultimately, President Biden refused to send another generation of Americans to fight a war that should have ended for the United States long ago," the White House National Security Council said.

The brief document was internal, not drafted by an independent entity. The White House said more information of a more sensitive nature that was not fit for general release on Thursday would also be shared with Congress. 

Nothing could have changed the outcome, report asserts

In a declassified summary of the report sent to Congress, the White House argued that President Joe Biden's administration had done everything it could.

"After more than 20 years, more than $2 trillion dollars, and standing up an Afghan army of 300,000 soldiers, the speed and ease with which the Taliban took control of Afghanistan suggests that there was no scenario — except a permanent and significantly expanded US military presence — that would have changed the trajectory," the document said.

At the time, the exit had been criticized by NATO member states, the EU, and former US presidents, several of which urged the US to not pull troops from Afghanistan, warning of possible consequences.

The Taliban launched an offensive coinciding with the US withdrawal, and already effectively controlled the country by the time the last troops were leaving Kabul in late August 2021. 

Their departure also coincided with a frenetic and chaotic bid to evacuate some civilians. The unprecedented military airlift operation did manage to get more than 120,000 people out of the country in a matter of days, but left far more behind. By the end of the process, Kabul was in Taliban hands as the US military was completing the airlift.

Under renewed Taliban rule, Afghanistan's economy has faltered and the rights of women in particular have again been drastically curtailed.

Biden teams blames Trump administration 

"The departing Trump administration had left the Biden administration with a date for withdrawal, but no plan for executing it. And after four years of neglect — and in some cases deliberate degradation — crucial systems, offices, and agency functions that would be necessary for a safe and orderly departure were in disrepair," the document said.

In February 2020, former US President Donald Trump had struck a deal with the Islamist Taliban to withdraw all American forces by late 2021.

US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby
John Kirby argued that Trump had left Biden in an impossible position, with almost no choice but to withdrawImage: John Kirby/REUTERS

The White House sharply criticized the move, saying Biden had to take over a chaotic, depleted operation in Afghanistan that crippled its response. "Transitions matter," Kirby said, and Biden was left with two options, to withdraw all US forces or resume fighting with the Taliban.

It went on to claim that no intelligence agency had predicted such a rapid collapse of Afghan government forces.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan, and particularly the deaths of 13 service members in a suicide bombing at Kabul's airport, had been a common point of criticism for Republican lawmakers against Biden's administration. 

Kirby was the Pentagon spoeksman during the withdrawal, and pressed by reporters on Thursday he said he rejected the premise of the withdrawal having been chaotic. 

"For all this talk of chaos, I just didn't see it, not from my perch," said Kirby. "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."

los/msh (AP, Reuters, AFP)