Republican report details Biden administration failings in Afghanistan

Taliban shot Afghans trying to flee Kabul even as US said the group was being co-operative, report finds

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House Republicans are releasing a report on Monday that will shine a harsh light on how US President Joe Biden and his administration managed the final months of the war in Afghanistan and the rush to fly thousands of people out of Kabul airport last year.

A congressional source said the report from Republicans on the House foreign affairs committee will detail how the administration misled the American public as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, rebuffed offers of help from Pakistan and made “minimal effort” to expeditiously help thousands of Afghans.

Set for release on the anniversary of the end of America's longest war, the report could pose a major headache for Mr Biden and his Democratic Party in the final stretch before November's midterm elections.

The report provides a “detailed accounting” of the administration’s Afghanistan policy, including how it “rejected the advice of senior military commanders, failed to heed multiple warnings about the consequences of its decisions and created a crisis that left America’s reputation damaged,” Mike McCaul, the lead Republican on the House committee, told The National.

“The results of these failures are also made clear: a brutal regime in Kabul that has oppressed millions of women, the resurgence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan and tens of thousands of Afghan allies left behind enemy lines,” Mr McCaul said.

The report, led by a non-partisan investigator, presents a timeline showing how the Biden administration was presenting one set of facts to the public while the situation on the ground was far different.

For instance, administration officials said the Taliban were co-operating with US forces and helping to enable the safe passage of Afghans and foreign citizens to Kabul's airport after seizing control of the capital.

The report paints a far grimmer picture, stating the Taliban were blocking some Afghans from fleeing and, in some cases, shooting, beating and detaining them, including some who had helped the US over the years, the congressional source said.

"The Taliban were abusing and shooting people," the report quotes a Pentagon document as stating.

Officials also said the speed at which Afghanistan unravelled after two decades of foreign intervention was not something that could have been predicted.

But commanders had warned of the risk of a quick collapse of the Afghan security forces if they lost US support — which is exactly what happened.

A bipartisan Afghanistan War Commission has been slow to get going and because Democrats control the House and the Senate, Mr Biden and his foreign policy team have dodged major political scrutiny since the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15, 2021, toppling president Ashraf Ghani and his government.

If the Republicans win the House in the midterms, as is widely expected, the new report will serve as a launching pad for sprawling investigations into the Biden administration's action — and inaction — during the Afghanistan withdrawal.

That will create political drag for the Democrats before the 2024 presidential election.

The National Security Council pointed to the "tough choice" Mr Biden faced on entering office.

He could "double down on a civil war and put more American troops at risk, or finally end our involvement in the United States’ longest war after two decades and $2 trillion spent", the NSC told The National.

"The president acted in the best interests of the American people when he made the difficult decision to bring our troops home and refocus on emerging threats."

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recently insisted that Mr Biden remained convinced that ending the war was the right decision, as it “had to come to an end”.

“One year later, I think the president feels that the decision that he made was the right decision for the American people — and the right decision for how we can position ourselves to be the best and most effective contributor to the global public good across a range of issues involving a range of geographies,” Mr Sullivan said at the Aspen Security Forum last month.

Dizzying collapse

The end of the Afghan conflict, which the US launched shortly after the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, unfolded at dizzying speed.

Following through on a deal by then-president Donald Trump in 2020 stipulating that all US forces would leave Afghanistan by May 1 last year, Mr Biden on April 14, 2021, declared that it was “time to end the forever war”.

Mr Sullivan argued that had Mr Biden not followed through on the Trump-Taliban deal that was signed in Doha, the hardliners would, on May 2, have begun to attack US forces again.

“His choice was go back to war with the Taliban, where we would have had to flow in more forces and increase our level of involvement in the country ― and increase the exposure of those troops to death and injury — or drawdown and follow through on the agreement,” Mr Sullivan said.

An NSC spokesperson blamed the Trump deal for the crisis faced by Mr Biden.

"We inherited a peace deal that empowered the Taliban, weakened our partners in the Afghan government, and committed to withdrawing our troops with no clear plan for what should come next."

The Republican report acknowledges the role Mr Trump played in making the deal in the first place, and lightly criticises the former president for undermining his own agreement by cutting the number of US troops in Afghanistan without first extracting any corresponding concessions from the Taliban.

But the report is most critical of Mr Biden's actions as commander-in-chief between his April declaration and the last US military flight out of Kabul on August 31.

Sections were re-written at the last minute in the wake of the killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri.

"Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has grown even more robust in the wake of the withdrawal, with senior Al Qaeda members advising Taliban leaders and maintaining a presence in Kabul," the report states.

Running to more than 100 pages, it is based on interviews with US troops, including survivors of the Abbey Gate attack that killed 13 US personnel and scores of Afghans outside the airport.

Investigators also spoke to whistleblowers after the State Department turned down most requests for information, the source said.

They also interviewed former Afghanistan special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and visited countries involved in the evacuation, including Qatar.

In Pakistan, investigators learnt that Islamabad in late August 2021 had offered to house an undetermined number of Americans, Afghans and others trying to flee Afghanistan. Investigators also spoke to officials in the UAE.

They would have been housed at Pakistani military bases and at a hotel, the source said, but the US Department of Homeland Security did not pursue the offer and instead Qatar was used as the primary hub for refugee relocation and processing.

The US island territory of Guam also offered itself as a transit zone for Afghan refugees while their immigration claims were being processed, but the Biden administration quietly squashed the idea over concerns it would be difficult to deport anyone who failed security screening, the report found.

Ultimately, thousands of asylum seekers and applicants for Special Immigrant Visas — often translators and other Afghans who had served US forces for years — were left in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover and efforts since then to expatriate them have been slow and often reliant on Taliban co-operation.

“Even in their rosiest estimates, they [the Biden administration] were never going to get them out before the fall of Afghanistan,” the source said. “Even if the Afghans had held out another six months, that would not have been enough time.

For Lisa Curtis, senior fellow and director of the Centre for a New American Security's Indo-Pacific Security Programme, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will haunt Mr Biden for a long time to come.

"Biden’s callous remarks last August berating the Afghan forces, with whom the US had fought and died for 20 years, were off-putting for Americans, especially US servicemembers and their families," she told The National.

"No American wants a US war to end in that manner and then listen to the president castigate our allies after having pulled the rug out from under them."

Still, she said the July 31 strike against Zawahiri vindicates to a large degree Mr Biden’s claim that the US can address terrorist threats without having troops in Afghanistan.

She said Mr Biden could help redeem his reputation if his administration was seen to be doing more to stand up for Afghan civil society and the rights of women and girls. In the year since taking power, the Taliban have dropped any pretence they would support girls' education and women have once again been forced to cover their faces.

“Unfortunately, US officials continue to engage the Taliban as the extremist group increases its repression of women,” Ms Curtis noted.

“The US has invested over $780 million to promote gender equality and girls education in Afghanistan over the past two decades. By ignoring what the Taliban is doing to turn the clock back on women’s achievements and rights, President Biden is wasting US investment and betraying the women and girls this aid helped to empower.”

Updated: August 14, 2022, 10:18 PM