State Department, Pentagon trade blame for evacuation of Afghanistan

The decision on August 12 was in line with a recommendation earlier in the spring by General Scott Miller, then Commander-in-Chief of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to close the embassy once the troops left, according to three people familiar with the discussion. At the time, Miller’s advice was rejected.

But on that fateful Thursday in August, officials had even less time than they thought. Just three days later, the Taliban captured Kabul, and the United States closed the embassy, ​​burned sensitive documents and transported personnel to the relative security at Hamid Karzai International Airport on the outskirts of the city.

The dramatic course of events set in motion a struggle to evacuate all remaining U.S. embassy staff, as well as tens of thousands of other U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans, before the deadline for the U.S. military withdrawal.

In a closed session with senators Tuesday, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly blamed the State Department in direct comments, saying officials “waited too long” to order the operation, according to Axios.

But two senior State Department officials told POLITICO on Wednesday that Milley never pushed for an earlier evacuation in the days before Kabul fell.

On August 6, senior leaders from the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council, the intelligence community and the U.S. Central Command gathered for a table exercise to review plans for a possible non-combatant evacuation, or NEO, State Department officials said. No military representative there objected to the plan, which involved keeping embassy staff on the ground after the military withdrawal, they said.

“No one at that meeting said ‘it’s time to press the trigger on the NEO’,” said one of the officials. Nor did Milley suggest a faster evacuation in subsequent meetings on Afghanistan, the other state official added.

But months before, even before Biden announced the full withdrawal in April, Miller had recommended that the State Department evacuate their personnel before the U.S. military left the country. He claimed that his forces could not defend the embassy without continuing to support the Afghan army.

A spokesman for Milley declined to comment.

During a hearing Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon “would have liked to see” a faster evacuation, and DoD officials forwarded that message to their State Department colleagues. But he allowed it to ultimately be a decision of the State Department, and they weighed a number of competing interests.

“We gave our input and we certainly would have liked to see it go faster or faster,” Austin said. “But again, they also had a number of things to think through.”

The Pentagon understood that the State Department was concerned that it would weaken confidence in the Afghan government if it moved too fast, a defense attorney said. But behind the scenes, Austin called on the State Department to complete the evacuation faster than the original timeline required.

“He made it clear to the State Department that we had to evacuate the embassy faster than the original plan,” the defense official said.

The shooter is unlikely to end soon as Republican lawmakers increase their criticism of the withdrawal, blaming Biden for what they described as a debacle.

“The reason all these Americans, our fellow citizens, were left behind is because Joe Biden waited too long to order an evacuation. He did not have the courage to order an evacuation when there should be one. He let our military pull down. to zero with American civilians who were all still there and when they were to be evacuated he would not do it, he was worried about what it would look like and now we are here, the Americans are left behind, he has left them, “13 soldiers are dead. That’s Joe Biden’s record,” Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) Told Fox News after the hearing on Tuesday.

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