US agencies trade blame for botched Afghanistan exit

Pentagon and State Department unwilling to accept responsibility for evacuation failures

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan. EPA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The Washington blame game over the Biden administration’s chaotic scramble to fly US citizens and visa holders from Afghanistan as the country fell to the Taliban intensified on Wednesday with the Pentagon laying the responsibility squarely at the State Department's feet.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said his State Department colleagues across the Potomac River were responsible for slowing down the removal of American citizens and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants.

“The call on how to do that and when to do it is really a State Department call,” Mr Austin told Congress in a second day of lengthy testimony as lawmakers grilled him and two top officers on how America's longest war ended so suddenly and so ignobly last month.

“Their concern, rightfully, that number one, they were being cautioned by the [former Kabul] administration that if they withdrew American citizens and SIV applicants at a pace that was too fast, it would cause a collapse of government that they were trying to prevent.”

But, Mr Austin said, the Pentagon had provided its input “and we certainly would have liked to see it go faster or sooner".

When the withdrawal was planned in April, the Pentagon had prioritised and accelerated the withdrawal of US troops over diplomats and Afghan allies due to security concerns, according to Politico.

The plan was to keep the embassy in Kabul open with the understanding that the US-trained Afghan forces would keep it secure. Instead, the Taliban seized all of Kabul over two days in mid-August after then-president Ashraf Ghani fled the capital.

And while the Pentagon did draft an evacuation plan for Afghans who assisted the US military and their families, the White House did not authorise it until July — a month before the Taliban swept across the country as the US withdrew.

James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said this month that “one of the biggest problems to help processing” visas for Afghans who helped the US military included the Defence Department’s failure to provide the necessary documents needed to process their visas to the State Department.

“The fact that [the Pentagon] didn’t keep curated records is irresponsible and a slap in the face to those who fought alongside us,” Mr Risch said at the time.

“Obviously, I want to talk to Secretary Austin about this.”

While Mr Austin has testified before the both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, he refused to appear alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken before the Foreign Relations Committee this month.

This prompted Democrat Bob Menendez, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, to threaten to subpoena Mr Austin over his refusal to appear — a drastic measure for a member of Congress to take against an official from an administration controlled by his own party.

“While communication from the administration has been frequent throughout this crisis, information from [the State Department], the Pentagon and the White House has often been vague or contradictory,” Mr Menendez said at the time.

While testifying before the Senate on Tuesday, Mr Austin and other Pentagon officials were unable to provide an estimate of how many US citizens remain trapped in Afghanistan.

They deferred the question to the State Department despite repeated admonishments from Democrat Tim Kaine not to do so before their public testimony this week.

After a closed Senate hearing with Pentagon officials last week, Mr Kaine told reporters that he had warned them against continuing to punt basic questions about Afghanistan evacuees to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

“They can’t answer questions for us — things that our American people should know, things that we should know as Congress,” Republican Joni Ernst told The National after last week’s closed hearing.

“How many families do we have evacuated? How many women, children do we have evacuated? Who’s been evacuated? They can’t answer any of that.”

Updated: September 29, 2021, 6:42 PM