WASHINGTON – In the last days of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a top US general met with Taliban leaders in Qatar and warned them to keep their forces out of Kabul for a few more days, otherwise facing the threat of US airstrikes.
General Frank McKenzie, the head of the US Central Command, sat opposite Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar and showed him a map with a circle around Kabul, about 20 to 30 kilometers (12.4 to 18.6 miles) outside the city.
McKenzie told Baradar that Taliban fighters had to stay out of the circle, otherwise the United States would attack them. McKenzie explained that the United States would end its withdrawal as soon as possible and that the Taliban should not interfere, three senior defense officials told NBC News.
The Taliban representatives agreed not to interfere, but pointed out that they already had fighters inside the circle in some places, and these fighters would not leave.
McKenzie explained that his mission was to secure the withdrawal of Americans and allies. Taliban leaders agreed to let the Americans leave and offered to provide a connection to security around the airport.
The next day, Taliban fighters rolled into Kabul and no U.S. warplanes bombed the rebels, the three senior defense officials said.
The episode illustrates the confusion and danger that marked the end of the US military presence in Afghanistan, where Biden administration officials and US commanders are struggling to cope with the speed of the Afghan government’s collapse. Before the events spiraled out of control, however, White House and State Department officials were not interested in hearing the military’s plan for a possible evacuation of vulnerable Afghan allies, according to the three senior defense officials. Two other high-ranking officials in the administration disputed that.
How the administration and the U.S. military managed the withdrawal will be the focus of a high-profile congressional hearing on Tuesday when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and McKenzie will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee for the first time since US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have blasted the Biden administration over the chaotic withdrawal and promised full accounts.
Senators at Tuesday’s hearing are expected to grill military leaders about intelligence reporting ahead of the U.S. withdrawal, recommendations to the president on troop levels before his decision to withdraw forces, which is why Bagram Airfield was shut down in July before an evacuation began, what went wrong in the U.S. drone strike on August 29, who killed an aid worker who was mistakenly identified as linked to the Islamic State militant group and nine others, including seven children, and how the Pentagon plans to carry out counter-terrorism attacks, if necessary, now that US troops are out .
Austin is expected to present a timeline of events in his testimony and try to explain the move to close Bagram as necessary given the mission and the number of troops that would have been required to secure the site and that US officials had taken on Afghan security forces would control Bagram when U.S. forces withdrew.
But Austin and the top military officers appearing with him are likely to be reluctant to discuss intelligence at a public hearing or share the advice they gave the president on troop levels or other issues.
Legislators are also focused on why an evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies was not initiated much earlier, and what role the military, State Department and other agencies played in contingency planning.
Senior defense officials said that after President Joe Biden announced in April his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the US military was ready within weeks to present a plan for a possible large-scale evacuation of Afghans. and others from Kabul. But White House and State Department officials declined the offer and asked that the topic be taken off the agenda for a May 8 meeting, senior defense officials said.
The U.S. military made it clear that it was prepared to carry out an airlift if ordered and given a list of names, but White House and State Department officials said talking about an evacuation would undermine confidence in the Afghan government and possibly set in motion a panicked emigration, the senior defense officials said.
“They thought an evacuation would destabilize [President Ashraf Ghani’s] government, but it was already unstable, “said one of the senior defense officials.
The internal discussion illustrates the reluctance of senior White House and State Department officials at the time to prepare for a potentially worst-case scenario, as they believed the Afghan government would remain in power after US troops left in August, and that a mass evacuation would not be necessary, according to senior defense officials, cattackers and refugee activists, who were briefed by the administration.
At the time of the May meeting, Taliban forces were engaged in a nationwide offensive and were already conquering key territory in the west and outside Kabul, the country’s capital. U.S.-funded private contractors, meanwhile, flew out of the country as part of the U.S. troop withdrawal. The Afghan military needed the contractors to keep its air force flying.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers who approached the White House in April for an evacuation of Afghans got away discouraged and concluded they would have to run a public press campaign to get the administration to act, congressional staffers said.
A Foreign Ministry official and a person familiar with the matter said a potential evacuation of Afghans in danger was discussed at other meetings between authorities held around the same time as the May 8 discussion. They said the fact that the topic was removed from the agenda for the May 8 meeting was not significant as the topic was discussed at other meetings and in contingency planning.
Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, said on August 17 that “the Afghan government and its supporters, including many of the people now seeking to leave, made a passionate statement that we should not carry out a mass evacuation in order to we should not trigger a loss of confidence in the government. “
He added: “Now our signaling support for the government obviously did not save the government, but this was a considered judgment.”
Administration officials have said the president ensured that additional forces were deployed in the region in the event that the situation worsened and that these troops were ready and dispatched in August.
But in the spring, contingency planning was “all based on the belief that we were 18-24 months old, and that was what the intelligence suggested at the time,” said a senior administration official.
With several committees planning to conduct surveillance investigations into the US withdrawal, lawmakers are also interested in the chain of events in the last days of the withdrawal, when Ghani suddenly fled the country, Taliban forces entered Kabul and an attack from Islamic Stats Khorasan group that killed 13 US servicemen and dozens of Afghans.
In the first week of August, with the Afghan military in retreat in every corner of the country, the top US military officer, Milley, asked McKenzie, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East, to write a commander’s assessment. situation in Afghanistan, said the three senior defense officials.
On August 8, McKenzie handed over his results to Milley, who in turn shared them with Austin. McKenzie warned that Kabul would be surrounded in 30-60 days and that the city and the whole country could fall within weeks or at most a few months.
The general’s assessment included information from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Command.
One week later, Kabul fell.
Before the fall of the Afghan capital, McKenzie met with US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with Taliban leaders in Doha to try to buy more time to give the Americans time to carry out a massive evacuation of Afghan allies. McKenzie drew his circle around Kabul, but Taliban fighters took over the city the next day. They would soon embark on a troubled partnership with U.S. troops in their evacuation efforts, manning checkpoints and escorting vehicles.
At the recent hearings before the Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committees, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken faced hours of harsh interrogation, but defended the administration’s handling of the withdrawal and evacuation, saying no one had predicted the Afghan government would collapse before U.S. troops left.
Some members of Congress have offered a different interpretation of intelligence reporting prior to the departure of the United States, saying that gloomy assessments made it clear that the situation of the Afghan government was precarious.
The ranking Republican in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul from Texas, demands that the administration share intelligence assessments and diplomatic cables in the run-up to the troop exit, arguing that the information should be declassified and shared with the public.
“All the classified intelligence that I was informed about, I want to see it declassified so the American people want to know what the truth is,” he said. “The documents will speak for themselves, the briefings will speak for themselves what was in front of the president.”
While Republicans in Congress want the oversight effort to focus solely on the Biden administration’s control of the U.S. exit, Democratic lawmakers also want to examine the agreement between the United States and the Taliban that the Trump administration has negotiated.
Under the agreement, the United States promised to withdraw all troops and contractors by May 1, 2021, in exchange for the Taliban promising to enter into peace talks with the Afghan government and not to allow Al Qaeda or other extremists to stage terrorist attacks from Afghan soil. Khalilzad, who negotiated the deal when President Donald Trump pushed for a withdrawal of troops, called it a “peace deal.” But critics have called it a “surrender agreement” that did not ask the Taliban and shut down the Afghan government.
Before Biden in April made his decision to withdraw all US troops by September 11, senior military leaders, including the Secretary of Defense, recommended holding forces in the country to prevent the collapse of the Afghan government and a potential flare-up of Al Qaeda or others. terrorist groups. said the three senior defense officials.
At the White House National Security Council meeting in March, Austin recommended increasing the presence of troops to about 3,000 to 4,000 from about 2,500, senior defense officials said. Austin claimed that the slightly larger footprint would help protect the force from possible Taliban attacks after May 1, the originally promised date for a US withdrawal. He also maintained that more U.S. troops on the ground would give Washington more leverage in talks with the Taliban. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, supported Austin’s recommendation.
Biden disagreed and stuck to his decision to pull out all remaining troops. On April 14, the president announced a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We will not rush to the end,” Biden said. “We want to do it responsibly, consciously and safely.”
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.