White House summary of Afghanistan withdrawal ‘fabulist narrative,’ critics say

Joe Biden
FILE – President Joe Biden speaks about the evacuation of American citizens, their families, SIV applicants and vulnerable Afghans in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

White House summary of Afghanistan withdrawal ‘fabulist narrative,’ critics say

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Released as President Joe Biden departed Washington, D.C., for the holiday weekend, the White House is being criticized for its unclassified summary of more detailed classified interagency after-action reviews of his deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But the White House is defending Biden’s drawdown and the 12-page document amid bipartisan criticism as House Republicans prepare to hold public hearings into the end of the 20-year war.

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Similar to other military and civilian personnel who served in Afghanistan, former State Department adviser Rich Outzen was “appalled” by Biden’s “arbitrary” and “chaotic” withdrawal and evacuation in the summer of 2021. In particular, he underscored its repercussions for U.S. troops, the Afghan people, and the president’s credibility abroad.

Outzen, a defense attache in Kabul from 2014 to 2015, scrutinized Biden’s “abandoning” of “the conditions-based approach” in Afghanistan. He contended that not only did not incorporate the “best” advice of experts within the president’s own administration, but it undermined U.S. humanitarian, strategic, and counterterror interests.

“The absurd attempt at self-exculpation through a blame-shifting report adds insult to injury,” the Vandenberg Coalition advisory board member told the Washington Examiner. “Ignoring the consequences of bad policy decisions and attributing them to a predecessor won’t undo the serious and avoidable errors of assessment, planning, pacing, and coordination that played out on the ground.”

“In fact, it shows a lack of seriousness in avoiding repetition of such flawed policy — and a penchant for fabulist narrative over serious statecraft,” he said.

Brookings Institution foreign policy fellow Madiha Afzal echoed Outzen’s “conditions-based approach” complaints, though she asserted former President Donald Trump is “certainly to blame” for the “badly negotiated” Doha agreement with the Taliban.

“The Biden administration … could have attempted a renegotiation of the deal, especially to try to condition the withdrawal on an intra-Afghan peace deal — or it could have tried harder in the first months of 2021 to push for that peace deal,” she said. “The unconditional withdrawal led to the Taliban running out the clock on the intra-Afghan peace process and taking over power militarily instead.”

To Afzal, it is “disingenuous” to argue there was “no chaos” during Biden’s withdrawal, describing the 17-day evacuation, disrupted by the ISIS-K terrorist attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and almost 200 Afghan civilians, as “a scramble for time.”

“The rushed, haphazard evacuation during those last two weeks of the U.S. withdrawal occurred because the Taliban had taken over Kabul suddenly and unexpectedly — a takeover that the administration had failed to predict — and Americans and Afghan allies and others needed to be evacuated for their safety,” she said.

The policy criticism is poised to escalate into a political fight when House Republicans convene hearings into the withdrawal as the Afghanistan War Commission continues its independent investigation into the conflict. The drawdown coincided with a drop in Biden’s approval ratings, from which he has not recovered, as his experience and competence were questioned by the public. Congress has now received the Pentagon and State Department‘s classified after-action reviews, 90-day assessments that were completed last spring before the 2022 midterm elections.

“The Biden administration should be ashamed of themselves,” Republican National Committee spokesman Tommy Pigott said. “[National Security Council spokesman John Kirby] claimed, ‘There’s a lot to be proud of,’ about the withdrawal and then insisted, ‘For all this talk of ‘chaos,’ I just didn’t see it.'”

“Americans saw the images and videos of the chaos with their own eyes,” Pigott added. “The American people remember, and with the new House Republican majority, accountability is coming.”

During an hourlong press briefing at the White House, Kirby became increasingly defensive as reporters, who were provided with the summary minutes before he stood behind the podium, needled him on the lack of transparency and answerability.

“Earlier, somebody asked if the president takes responsibility for this withdrawal and what happened after,” New York Times White House reporter Katie Rogers asked Thursday. “You answered and said he has responsibility. Does he take responsibility? And have you heard him say that?”

“The president is the commander in chief,” Kirby replied. “And just by dint of being the commander in chief, he assumes responsibility for the orders he gives, the men and women who execute those operations — in this case, it’s not just the military. And he stands by that.”

“The purpose of the document that we’re putting out … is to sort of collate the chief reviews and findings of the agencies that did after-action reviews,” he continued. “The purpose of it is not accountability.”

The White House’s summary amplifies how Trump left Biden with a 2,500-troop presence in Afghanistan, an underresourced special immigrant visa program here at home, and an arrangement with the Taliban that forces would be withdrawn by May 2021 or face retaliatory strikes. But it also emphasizes how the president managed to evacuate 124,000 people from Afghanistan and resettle 10,000 Afghans in the United States. Its key findings include how the administration will “now prioritize earlier evacuations” and err “on the side of aggressive communication” amid deteriorating security situations.

“I should note here that our experiences in Afghanistan informed our decision to set up a small group of experts for worst-case scenario planning on Ukraine, which included simulation exercises and our ability to forcefully and plainly speak publicly about the risks we saw of impending invasion,” Kirby said Thursday.

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But the White House’s key findings fall short of the 34 recommendations made by the State Department in its classified after-action review, according to CNN. Those learnings include improving Foggy Bottom’s crisis-response capabilities, appointing a single senior official to coordinate the administration’s reaction to future complex crises, strengthening crisis communications such as through call centers, assembling a so-called red team to challenge leadership’s assumptions, and running more tabletop exercises, per the network.

One source told CNN that the State Department’s findings deliberately did not include classified information so it could be shared with the public.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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