Afghanistan Withdrawal Under Investigation, Testimonies Signal Confusion

According to testimony from two State Department officials, the tumultuous operation at Kabul’s airport in August 2021 was caused by their failure to react to warning signals of the Taliban’s widening reach. 

Officials Brian McKeon and Derek Chollet were still formulating a strategy to evacuate Americans and their Afghan friends when the capital was captured by the Taliban, even though the Pentagon had already backed an evacuation. Officials were unaware of the most recent ground circumstances and the Taliban’s quick progress, according to transcripts of their closed-door interviews with the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC). 

It was never confirmed, according to McKeon, how many Americans were really on the ground and in need of assistance. The fixer for Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chollet, claimed ignorance of Taliban strikes on U.S. soldiers that may have altered Washington’s calculations.

Following an agreement between the Taliban and the Trump administration to remove American forces from Afghanistan as long as the country remained free of terrorist organizations’ usage, Biden issued an order on April 14, 2021, to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces from the government. Despite overseeing the drawdown and potential evacuation, Secretary of State Mike McKeon did not get his first briefing on Afghanistan until April. 

While Chollet handled counterterrorism matters, he divided his time between keeping the embassy open, planning for an evacuation, and distributing foreign aid if the Taliban gained control of parts of Afghanistan.

It wasn’t until the Taliban were within fifteen miles of Kabul that the order to launch a National Emergency Operation (NEO) to save Afghans, Americans, and diplomats was given. The Pentagon was enraged by what seemed like the State Department’s lack of action, and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, was distraught.

According to State Department Spokesperson Matt Miller, the decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting was the correct one, and the department has been cooperating with Congress on oversight requests in a timely and honest way.

Chollet blamed Trump’s refusal to concede the election for Biden’s failures.