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Watchdog: Biden stability effort harmed Afghanistan evacuation efforts

The Biden administration’s focus on projecting stability in Afghanistan amid the Taliban’s lightning takeover harmed efforts by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to prepare for and carry out evacuation operations in August 2021, according to an information brief provided by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General.

At one point, the U.S. Ambassador reprimanded embassy staff during a meeting when they raised concern about the dire security situation in Afghanistan ahead of America’s exit that summer, according to one finding in the report

The decision to announce a drawdown of the embassy was so haphazard, the report said, that some staff only heard about it through loudspeakers on the compound, harming efforts to prepare for the evacuation. 

The brief was published late last month as a summary of a classified report looking at whether U.S. Embassy in Kabul followed established State Department guidelines in preparing for and carrying out evacuation efforts of embassy personnel, private U.S. citizens, Afghans at risk and other Afghans in August 2021. 

The chaotic pullout marks one of the darkest periods in President Biden’s term in office, defined by a fraught two weeks that saw the Islamic-fundamentalist Taliban take over the capital city following the last-minute flight of the western-backed Afghan government and the melting away of the Afghan army. 

While the Biden administration evacuated over 120,000 people – including 6,000 Americans – amid a mass rush to the Hamid Karzai Intenrational airport in Kabul, a suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 150 Afghans, injuring scores of others. 

The Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee has made documenting the failures of the U.S. pullout a central mission of its work.

An “After-Action” review of the State Department’s actions during the U.S. pullout, and published in July, found that the department lacked clear leadership in the chaos of the withdrawal, but blamed policies from both the Trump and Biden administrations. 

The OIG report published last month narrowly focused on whether the State Department acted in accordance with established procedures to prepare for and execute the evacuation of U.S. government personnel, private U.S. citizens, Afghans at risk and other individuals from Afghanistan.

The OIG found that overall, the embassy met department guidelines and took seriously it’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP), planning documents for potential crisis that provide a framework for roles and responsibilities. 

But it faulted the government for not being ready for the unpredictable nature of crises, something the documents themselves offered warnings about.

The OIG noted that the last-minute decision to evacuate was influenced by the Biden administration’s efforts to avoid causing a panic if the U.S. signaled it was drawing down its operations, and fearing it would undermine the Afghan government.

“Because of this effort to avoid signaling a lack of support for the Afghan government, communication with embassy personnel about the timing and scope of a potential evacuation was unclear,” the report noted.

“In one example, an official told OIG that the Ambassador reprimanded embassy personnel during a meeting when they expressed concerns about their safety given the deteriorating security environment.” 

Once the decision was made to draw down the embassy and evacuate individuals, OIG found that the embassy was given no official guidance on the administration’s definition of an “Afghan at risk” and went off public comments by U.S. officials referring to a broad swath of people. 

​​“According to Department officials, an official definition for ‘Afghans at risk’ was never provided to Embassy Kabul,” the review notes, and added that embassy staff were then pressured to evacuate as many Afghans as possible. 

Unreliable data on Americans in the country and staff at the embassy was also highlighted as contributing to the chaos. 

The OIG said it made 10 recommendations in the classified report and that the Department “concurred with the intent of the recommendations, which OIG considered resolved, pending further action.”

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