President Joe Biden's administration on Thursday accused his predecessor, President Donald Trump, of creating the circumstances leading to the deadly and chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on Biden's watch in 2021.
The White House publicly released a 12-page summary of the results of the "hotwash" of U.S. policies around the ending of the nation's longest war, taking little responsibility for its own actions and asserting that Biden was "severely constrained" by Trump's decisions.
The administration said detailed reviews conducted by the State Department and the Pentagon, which were transmitted privately to Congress on Thursday, were highly classified and would not be released publicly.
"President Biden's choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor," the White House summary states, noting that when Biden entered office, "the Taliban were in the strongest military position that they had been in since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country."
The report also faults overly optimistic intelligence community assessments about the Afghan army's willingness to fight, and claims Biden followed military commanders' recommendations for the pacing of the drawdown of U.S. forces.
"Clearly we didn't get it right," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday, but sidestepped questions about whether Biden has any regrets for his decisions and actions leading up to the withdrawal.
Kirby said of the report that "the purpose of it is not accountability," but rather "understanding" what happened to inform future decisions.
The White House asserts the mistakes of Afghanistan informed its handling of Ukraine, where the Biden administration has been credited for supporting Kyiv's defense against Russia's invasion. The White House says it simulated worst-case scenarios prior to the February 2022 invasion and moved to release intelligence about Moscow's intentions months beforehand.
"We now prioritize earlier evacuations when faced with a degrading security situation," the White House said.
In an apparent attempt to defend its national security decision-making, the Biden administration also notes that it released pre-war warnings over "strong objections from senior officials in the Ukrainian government."
Republicans in Congress have sharply criticized the Afghanistan withdrawal, focusing on the deaths of 13 service members in a suicide bombing at Kabul's airport, which also killed more than 100 Afghans.
Former Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was badly wounded in the explosion, told a congressional hearing last month that the withdrawal "was a catastrophe" and "there was an inexcusable lack of accountability."
The administration's report appears to shift any blame in the Aug. 26, 2021, suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, known to the military as HKIA, saying it was the U.S. military that made one possibly key decision.
"To manage the potential threat of a terrorist attack, the President repeatedly asked whether the military required additional support to carry out their mission at HKIA," the report said, adding, "Senior military officials confirmed that they had sufficient resources and authorities to mitigate threats."
Kirby credited U.S. forces for their actions in running the largest airborne evacuation of noncombatants in history during the chaos of Kabul's fall.
"They ended our nation's longest war," he told reporters. "That was never going to be an easy thing to do. And as the president himself has said, it was never going to be low grade or low risk or low cost."
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Biden has blamed the February 2020 agreement Trump reached with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, saying it boxed the U.S. into leaving the country. The agreement gave the Taliban significant legitimacy and has been blamed by analysts for undercutting the U.S.-backed government, which would collapse so quickly a year later.
The Afghan government released roughly 5,000 Taliban prisoners after the Doha agreement as a condition of having peace talks with the Taliban. Kirby noted that release and other examples of what he said was a "general sense of degradation and neglect" inherited by Biden.
But the agreement also gave the U.S. the right to withdraw from the accord if Afghan peace talks failed — which they did.
The agreement required the U.S. to remove all forces by May 1, 2021. Biden pushed a full withdrawal to September but declined to delay further, saying it would prolong a war that had long needed to end.
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