The White House on Thursday aggressively pushed back on the notion that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 was chaotic or disorganized, instead pointing to the Trump administration’s “lack of planning” that officials argued put President Biden in a bind.
John Kirby, a White House spokesperson on national security issues, fielded questions for more than an hour shortly after the administration issued a 12-page document outlining the decision-making around the withdrawal. The Pentagon and State Department also on Thursday turned over classified reviews of the withdrawal process to Congress ahead of an expected deadline to do so.
Kirby said Biden takes responsibility for the operation as commander-in-chief, but Kirby took issue with reporters who tried to characterize the withdrawal as chaotic or messy.
“For all this talk of chaos, I just didn’t see it. Not from my perch,” said Kirby, who was Pentagon press secretary at the time of the withdrawal.
“At one point during the evacuation there was an aircraft taking off full of people, Americans and Afghans alike, every 48 minutes,” Kirby said. “And not one single mission was missed. So, I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the whole argument of chaos. It was tough in the first few hours, you would expect it to be.”
Kirby argued the context of what Biden had inherited when he took office was critical when assessing what the administration sees as success of the withdrawal as he rattled off a series of actions taken by the Trump White House in Afghanistan.
“He didn’t negotiate with the Taliban,” Kirby said of Biden. “He didn’t invite the Taliban to Camp David. He didn’t release 5,000 prisoners. He didn’t reduce force levels in Afghanistan to 2,500, and he didn’t have an arrangement with the Taliban that they wouldn’t attack our troops. He came in with a certain set of circumstances he had no ability to change, he had to deal with it based on what he inherited.”
Asked by a Fox News reporter how Kirby can say the administration is proud of the work it did during the August 2021 withdrawal, the admiral pointed to the nearly 125,000 people who were safely evacuated and the ability of U.S. troops to quickly and effectively set up operations at the previously abandoned airport in Kabul.
“Does that mean everything went perfect? Of course not,” Kirby said. “Nobody is saying that everything was perfect, but there’s a lot that went right, and a lot of Afghans are now living better lives in this country and other countries around the world because of the sacrifices and the work of so many American government officials.”
The administration, as well as Biden, have maintained that they have no regrets with how they handled the operation.
The Biden administration turned over the classified reviews to Congress on Thursday, and House Republicans are likely to use the material to ramp up probes into the handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The withdrawal drew intense criticism at the time, and it is often seen as one of the lowest points of Biden’s presidency so far, with a suicide bombing at Abbey Gate at the Kabul airport killing 13 U.S. troops and 170 Afghans and images of evacuation planes taking off as citizens clung to wheels.
“The American people are owed answers about the Biden Administration’s disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal but all they are getting are excuses from this Administration,” House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) said in a statement. “President Biden and his administration made several blunders during the withdrawal that led to the deaths of 13 servicemembers, left Americans stranded, and allowed U.S. military equipment to fall into the hands of the Taliban.”
Comer said his committee would hold a hearing on April 19 with administration officials focused on the collapse of Afghanistan in the lead up to the withdrawal.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the release of the report “sad and untimely.”
“It is nearly 2 years later and a clear attempt to bury the news during a holiday weekend,” he said, adding that “in Afghanistan, the withdrawal allowed the Taliban to quickly takeover, and the country has once again become a haven for terrorists.”
The contents of the 12-page document released publicly Thursday by the White House claims that during transition, the Trump administration did not successfully share any preparations with the Biden administration for a withdrawal, leading the Biden administration to believe there were none in place.
“President Biden’s choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor,” the outline read.
“During the transition from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration, the
outgoing Administration provided no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies. Indeed, there were no such plans in place when President Biden came into office, even with the agreed upon full withdrawal just over three months away.”
The Trump campaign pushed back on the White House for blaming the former president for the chaotic withdrawal, saying in a statement that the world is “a more dangerous place” with Biden in office.
“Biden and his administration are trying to gaslight the American people for their disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan that directly led to American deaths and emboldened the terrorists,” Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung told the Daily Caller.
The outline mentions Trump directly, by name, several times and points to various points during the Trump administration that may have contributed to the chaotic nature of the eventual withdrawal.
“President Biden had committed to ending the war in Afghanistan, but when he came into office he was confronted with difficult realities left to him by the Trump Administration,” the outline said.
The outline said the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program had a 14-step process and there was a backlog of over 18,000 SIV applicants when Trump left office. It said that Biden issued an executive order early in the administration to streamline the application process for SIV applicants.
Additionally, it highlights that when Trump took office, he added troops to the ground in Afghanistan and ordered direct talks with the Taliban. It also said that “President Trump emboldened the Taliban” by considering inviting them to Camp David to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and that Trump “pressured the Afghan government” to release thousands of Taliban fighters from jail as part of a deal.
When the former president did order drawdowns, starting during his last year in office, he tweeted that troops should be “home by Christmas!,” the outline describes, but that an order to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by Jan. 15, 2021 was rescinded.
It claims that, because of the poor judgment and lack of preparations for a withdrawal during the Trump years, “when President Biden took office on January 20, 2021, the Taliban were in the strongest military position that they had been in since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country.”
Updated 4:50 p.m.