As Kabul stood on the precipice of falling into the hands of the Taliban after nearly 20 years of U.S. occupation, documents showed that several top administration officials had not yet established a strategy for exiting the country and evacuating the thousands of American citizens and allies still left.
Outsiders were frustrated and suspicious the administration was having plenty of meetings but was stuck in bureaucratic inertia and lacked urgency until the last minute. While the word ‘immediately' peppers the document, it's clear officials were still scrambling to finalize their plans — on the afternoon of Aug. 14.
Just hours before the fall, for instance, officials had finally decided they would notify local Afghan staff “to begin to register their interest in relocation to the United States.” The White House had not yet even decided upon which “countries could serve as transit points for evacuees.”
The documents stemmed from the NSC's “summary of conclusions” for a meeting of the Deputies Small Group, which reportedly lays the “groundwork for Deputies' or Principals' sessions, or works out practical details for executing decisions already made by their bosses.” Per Axios:
The document regarded “Relocations out of Afghanistan,” and the meeting was held from 3:30-4:30pm on the afternoon of Aug. 14, Washington time. At that moment, Taliban fighters were descending upon Kabul.
The meeting was chaired by National Security Council official Liz Sherwood-Randall and included senior officials across multiple agencies, including Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The meeting notes highlight how many crucial actions the Biden administration was deciding at the last minute — just hours before Kabul would fall and former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would flee his palace in a helicopter.
NSC spokesperson Emily Horne told Axios that the documents are “cherry-picked notes from one meeting” and do not provide an accurate picture of the Biden administration's work leading up to the fall of Kabul. Horne said:
Earlier that summer, we launched Operation Allies Refuge and had worked with Congress to pass legislation that gave us greater flexibility to quickly relocate Afghan partners. It was because of this type of planning and other efforts that we were able to facilitate the evacuation of more than 120,000 Americans, legal permanent residents, vulnerable Afghans and other partners.
Matt Zeller, a former CIA officer who had previously warned the White House about protecting Afghan allies in the country, said people like him were treated like “Chicken Little.” Zeller said:
I kept being told by people in the [White House] the thing they were most concerned about was the optics of a chaotic evacuation. They treated us like we were Chicken Little. They didn't believe the sky was falling.
On the 13th of July, we offered to work with them to help evacuate our partners. We all saw this disaster coming before the inevitable occurred. They didn't get back to us until Aug 15, the day Kabul fell.
Mark Jacobson, deputy NATO representative in Afghanistan during the Obama administration, was equally perplexed by the Biden administration's lack of preparation.
“That so much planning, prioritizing and addressing of key questions had not been completed, even as Kabul was about to fall, underscores the absence of adequate interagency planning,” said Jacobson. “This is especially surprising given the depth of experience on Afghanistan and contingency operations at that table.”