State Dept. review finds Biden bears some blame for Afghanistan failures

The report says some of Biden's decisions posed challenges for U.S. diplomats.

ByShannon K. Crawford ABCNews logo
Monday, July 3, 2023
National security spokesman John Kirby addresses Afghanistan report
National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby talks to CNN about the State Department report on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON -- The State Department released a declassified version of its long-anticipated report Friday examining the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, unveiling the harshest critique of any of the administration's efforts to examine its own handling of the crisis to date.

"The decisions of both President Trump and President Biden to end the U.S. military mission posed significant challenges for the [State] Department as it sought to maintain a robust diplomatic and assistance presence in Kabul and provide continued support to the Afghan government and people," the report states.

The White House released portions of its broad review in April, drawing in part from the State Department's probe, which was completed in March of 2022.

But that initial summary painted the Biden administration in far more glowing terms, asserting that the president "undertook a deliberate, intensive, rigorous, and inclusive decision-making process" but was constrained by his predecessor.

Biden did not specifically address the report's findings when he was asked Friday.

"No, no. All the evidence is coming back together. Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said Al-Qaeda would not be there. I said it wouldn't be there. I said we'd get help from the Taliban. What's happening now? What's going on? Read your press. I was right," Biden said.

The State Department's review finds that some of the choices made by Biden "compounded the difficulties" diplomats faced in Afghanistan, such as the speed at which the military withdrew and handing over Bagram Air Base to the Afghan government in July of 2021, leaving Hamid Karzai International Airport as the sole evacuation route.

That airport later became the setting for some of the darkest, most frantic moments of the exit, including a terror attack that claimed the lives of 13 American servicemembers and scores of Afghans desperate to flee as Kabul fell to the Taliban.

While the White House previously said that Biden directed government agencies to prepare for "all contingencies," the State Department inquiry found disorganization in the highest level of government, saying it was "unclear who in the department had the lead" on evacuation efforts.

The review also claims that senior officials failed to make critical decisions about which at-risk Afghan nationals would be airlifted before Afghanistan fell into turmoil.

Even as the Taliban amassed power and drew closer to Kabul, the report says that American officials failed to act with appropriate urgency and instead "seemed to rely on received assurances" from Afghanistan's then-president that the country's forces "would concentrate on the defense of Kabul and believed that they could hold the Taliban at bay for some time."

Though estimates for how long Afghanistan's military could retain control varied, the State Department review claims U.S. officials did not sufficiently plan for a worst-case scenario and failed to take decisive action once it became clear that scenario was a reality.

"We've already internalized many of these painful lessons and applied them in subsequent crises, most notably in how we managed the Russian invasion in Ukraine and in some of the aspects of our response to the crisis in Sudan a couple of months ago," a senior official said.

Like the previous release from the White House, this report makes no mention of a message sent by dozens of diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Kabul in July 2021 that warned the country could collapse and urged the Secretary of State to speed up evacuation efforts.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have been urging the State Department to widely share its findings since the report was transmitted to select members of Congress in April, but it's unclear whether the version released on Friday will satisfy conservatives. Only a quarter of the 80-page report was made public.