The White House on Thursday mounted a vehement defense of President Biden’s decision-making in Afghanistan, seeking to put a shine on the calamitous withdrawal as the Pentagon and State Department sent classified reports to Congress detailing the failures.
Administration officials placed heavy blame on President Trump for setting the withdrawal in motion and on Afghanistan itself, saying the troubled nation’s military wasn’t trained, its government wasn’t competent and its people were too ready to capitulate.
But the White House also said Mr. Biden deserves credit for carrying out the withdrawal after 20 years of war, saying he made the best choices possible and couldn’t have foreseen just how quickly the Taliban would defeat Afghan forces that lacked U.S. backing.
“President Biden’s choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor,” the National Security Council said in its 12-page report.
Officials also said the U.S. is better off after the withdrawal, arguing Mr. Biden would not have been able to lead a coalition in backing Ukraine against Russia’s invasion if America was still committed to Afghanistan.
‘When the president made the decision to leave Afghanistan, some worried that doing so could weaken our alliances or put the United States at a disadvantage on the global stage. The opposite has happened,” the White House said.
The report continued: “On the global stage, America is leading. We have rallied our allies and partners to support Ukraine and hold Russia accountable for its aggression—and to rise to compete with China. It is hard to imagine the United States would have been able to lead the response to these challenges as successfully—especially in the resource-intensive way that it has—if U.S. forces remained in Afghanistan today.”
The White House summary was met with disbelief from Republican lawmakers, who said the withdrawal was a signal of weakness that set Russian President Vladimir Putin on a course to invade Ukraine, and emboldened Chinese President Xi Jinping’s more aggressive approach astride the world.
“Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, our Middle East partners’ outreach to Beijing, and Xi’s increased threats to Taiwan are all connected to and arise from this debacle,” said Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blasted the White House for blame-shifting, calling it “disgraceful and insulting.”
“President Biden made the decision to withdraw and even picked the exact date; he is responsible for the massive failures in planning and execution,” he said.
Republicans said they would scour the two classified after-action reports by the State and Defense departments to get an accurate picture of what happened.
The White House released its 12-page summary to shape the narrative ahead of that process, saying Mr. Biden’s hands were tied by the time he took office.
The report details decisions by the Trump administration, including a series of drawdowns, negotiations with the Taliban and public pronouncements that the U.S. would withdraw which left the U.S. weakened in Afghanistan.
“President Biden’s choice was stark: either withdrawal of our forces or resume fighting with the Taliban. He chose the former,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at the White House as he released the report.
The White House said Mr. Biden did what he could to head off problems, including “planning for all contingencies,” though the new report did not address the warnings the administration had from within that a swift collapse would result.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, former chief of U.S. Central Command, has said he advised Mr. Biden against withdrawing and said that the Pentagon made clear to the White House that a full withdrawal would almost surely lead to a rapid Taliban takeover of the country.
In July 2021, 23 staffers stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul sent a cable via the State Department’s dissent channel warning of the Taliban’s rapid advance and potential collapse of the Afghan security forces. The cable called for the administration to increase evacuation efforts to get as many people out as possible.
The White House didn’t order the record-breaking airlift until Aug. 14, or a day before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
In its report Thursday the White House defended the decision to hold off on an evacuation, saying there was too great a risk of sparking the very collapse they were trying to avoid.
“Whenever a government is threatened by the prospect of collapse — whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere — there is an obvious tension between signaling confidence in the capabilities of the current government and providing warning of the risks that it might fail,” the White House said.
The balance Mr. Biden struck was to deliver what officials called “unprecedentedly extensive” phone calls to Americans and Afghan “partners” alerting them to the risk of a total collapse. They figured they could urge people toward the exit without igniting the full-scale airlift.
But the White House said the speed of the Taliban takeover still caught everyone by surprise.
Twenty months later, 175 American citizens looking to leave are still stuck in Afghanistan, including some who are being held captive by the Taliban.
And thousands of Afghans who should have been rescued remain stuck abroad, while thousands who had no ties to the U.S. war effort managed to make it out in the American airlift.
The White House blamed the Trump administration for failing to help those Afghans earlier, saying they found a backlog of 18,000 Afghans in the pipeline for the special visa carved out for those who risked their lives to assist the U.S. military.
The White House said the lessons it learned from Afghanistan have already helped in other situations, such as handling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The cautious approach taken toward warning the Afghan government about its precarious position was tossed in favor of an aggressive approach toward Russia, with early warnings about Mr. Putin’s aims and game plan.
The White House said that enabled a more seamless evacuation of Americans from Ukraine.
Thursday’s report was largely a restatement of the Biden administration’s arguments in the fall of 2021, and didn’t grapple with subsequent developments and revelations.
Among those was testimony the GOP-led House heard earlier this year from a Marine who said he had identified and was ready to take down the male suicide bomber who go on to kill 13 Americans and 170 Afghans outside of Abbey Gate at the airport in Kabul. The Marine said he was ordered not to take the shot.
The White House also glossed over repeated findings by government auditors faulting the airlift. One inspector general found that dozens of Afghans who posed potential national security risks were allowed to reach the U.S., while another said the resettlement efforts fell short, leaving Afghans unprepared for life here.
One report earlier this week said some Afghans spewed racism and sexism at the very caseworkers who were assigned to help them.
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