Defense Blames State for Afghan Fiasco

Their case is less than persuasive.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief the media, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

The Hill (“Defense secretary blames State Department for delay in Afghanistan evacuation“):

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday blamed the State Department for the last-minute evacuation of allies from Afghanistan. “The call on how to do that and when to do it is really a State Department call,” Austin said in response to a question from Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.).

The Biden administration has come under intense scrutiny for a chaotic withdrawal that left behind many Afghan allies, including those seeking a special immigrant visa (SIV) following their assistance to the U.S. military.

Austin said the State Department pumped the breaks on a quick exit following pushback from then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “Their concerns rightfully were that, No. 1, they were being cautioned by the Ghani administration that if they withdrew American citizens and SIV applicants at a pace that was too fast, it would cause a collapse of the government that we were trying to prevent. And so, I think that went into the calculus,” Austin said.

He also said that slow SIV processing stalled the military operations. “A number of things kind of came together to cause what happened to happen. But again, we provided our input and we certainly would have liked to seen it go faster or sooner,” Austin said.

For his part, Langevin criticized the Biden administration for waiting well into the withdrawal to begin its rushed evacuation. “I wish the administration had been more thoughtful and not had rushed this. I’ve yet to hear the answer to the question, though, of why did we not start withdrawing American citizens and SIVs sooner. We knew we were going to be withdrawing,” he said.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said lawmakers had been given assurances from Ghani and other Afghan leaders they would be able to stabilize the country so long as there was not a massive exodus of Afghans. “They were very, very confident that they would be able to maintain their government through the reduction and the withdrawal of American troops. … they also said that they did not want to allow Afghans to leave. That’s what They specifically told us they did not want Afghans to leave — obviously Ghani decided that he would leave,” he said, referencing Ghani’s rushed departure from Afghanistan.

Axios (“Scoop: Milley’s blunt private blame for the State Department“):

In a classified briefing with senators on Tuesday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley directly blamed the State Department for a botched evacuation from Afghanistan, saying officials “waited too long” to order the operation out of Kabul’s airport, two sources with direct knowledge of the briefing told Axios.

Why it matters: Those private remarks were far more blunt than Milley’s public testimony, in which the nation’s top general said the issue of whether the order should have been given earlier is an “open question that needs further exploration.”

The big picture: Two days of testimony from Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, underscore the finger-pointing and deep divisions between the State Department and the Pentagon.

[…]

During a closed session after Tuesday’s public testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) directed a general question to Austin about lessons learned from the withdrawal. Milley jumped in to say that the evacuation of civilians — which Duckworth had not specifically asked about — needed to happen earlier.
The top U.S. general acknowledged that there’s often disagreement between the State Department and Pentagon in general, but that it was particularly pronounced in this instance. A third source, defending Milley, said the general “wasn’t blaming anybody per se, but was speaking from a purely military perspective. The quicker we moved out non-combatants, the safer they would be.”

How it works: The State Department is responsible for triggering what’s called a noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO), which is carried out by the military. Austin testified publicly that he ordered CENTCOM to begin preparing for a potential NEO weeks after Biden’s announcement in April that the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan. But the State Department did not order the mission until Aug. 14 — one day before Kabul fell to the Taliban. A senior State Department official pointed to the fact that, as Milley himself repeatedly testified, nobody believed that the Afghan security forces would collapse in 11 days. It was only because the military had prepositioned forces in the region and run practice exercises, Austin testified, that thousands of troops were able to arrive in Kabul and secure the airport after 48 hours of chaos.

For the record: “Following the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, CENTCOM updated contingency planning for a non-combatant evacuation operation, in coordination with the Department of State, including Embassy Kabul,” a senior administration official told Axios. “Senior leaders from the National Security Council, State, DoD, CENTCOM and the intelligence community discussed the planning during a table-top exercise on August 6.” “During that exercise, no DoD official, civilian or military, argued for triggering a NEO. If DoD had been pushing for an earlier NEO, we would have expected to have heard those calls during the discussion.”

Flashback: Blinken was the first senior Biden official to testify before Congress on Afghanistan. He faced sharp criticism and calls to resign from several Republicans but largely remained calm under pressure.

“We have to admit it was the State Department and the White House that caused this catastrophe, not the Defense Department,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, said after hearing the generals’ testimony on Wednesday.

This deflection strikes me as semantic bullshit. It’s true that NEOs are authorized by State and carried out by DoD. But, as the “senior administration official” implies, had DoD pushed hard for one, State would almost certainly have acquiesced.

My strong sense, therefore, is that DoD leadership had an overly optimistic picture of how long they had to carry out operations before the Ghani government collapsed. From all accounts, nobody at the senior level of the US Government thought that it was going to collapse damn near instantaneously. If, however, State balked at ordering a NEO in the face of DoD demands, it was up to Austin, Milley, or the CENTCOM commander to go to the President and/or the NSC to press their case.

There is, therefore, no plausible scenario where State bears the bulk of the blame. Either all of the key players share equal blame for failing to anticipate the collapse of the Ghani government or President Biden himself overruled DoD in favor of State’s recommendation.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    There is, therefore, no plausible scenario where State bears the bulk of the blame.

    Agreed. For 20 years State has been diminished and authorizations have been shifted to Defense, along with purges of State expertise during TFG’s term. Afghanistan and Iraq policy has been pretty much owned by DoD since the invasions, trying to shift blame now should be futile. But this is America…

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  2. Andy says:

    It’s total semantic bullshit. The US government as a whole got caught flat-footed and either missed or ignored the ample evidence that the Afghan government could fold like a wet paper towel.

    To wit:

    From all accounts, nobody at the senior level of the US Government thought that it was going to collapse damn near instantaneously.

    It didn’t collapse near instantaneously. The Taliban offensive started in May and accelerated after the final troops left Bagram. By the end of June, the Taliban already controlled more than half the districts in the country. Yet even in late July, senior US officials were still claiming Afghanistan would hold for months or even years and that there would be plenty of time to do things like process SIV applicants and that international aid groups, NGO’s and others could still do their work.

    It was this failure to see what was actually happening in the country that led to an entire string of bad decisions and bad advice, which culminated in belatedly triggering the NEO and leaving scores of people trapped in Afghanistan and unable to evacuate. All these errors have one thing in common – they were the result of the US government failing to understand what was happening in Afghanistan, despite ample evidence.

    This wasn’t any single agency’s fault but what’s annoying is the inability and unwillingness to recognize this failure and explain why it happened. Instead, we get the usual bureaucratic finger-pointing as well as the “no one could have expected this” non-excuse and the false claim the country “suddenly and unpredictably” collapsed in a few days.

    Either the intelligence function f’d this up completely, or senior government officials ignored or downplayed warnings. The fact that State and Defense are pointing fingers at each other and not at the intel community might be a clue. But who knows – this is what Congress and the press ought to be investigating and figuring out.

    Regardless, Defense can’t wash their hands of this. If any agency should have seen what was going on with the Taliban offensive over the summer, it would be the Defense Department. It had the biggest stake, the most assets, the most subject matter expertise, and the most “eyes” in terms of monitoring events on the ground in Afghanistan. And it was just as clueless and flatfooted as the rest of the federal government.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    . . . and failure is an orphan.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy:

    The fact that State and Defense are pointing fingers at each other and not at the intel community might be a clue.

    I haven’t seen much finger pointing from State, other than the obviously true statement that “no one” had predicted that the government would collapse so quickly and the Afghan army wouldn’t put up a fight. That would imply Intel, the Military and the State department itself. (And yes, I get that low level people had any number of different a opinions, but the what matters is what the heads of those organizations were commutations to the White House. ) All the fingerprinting I’ve seen comes from the military.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    @MarkedMan: commutations and fingerprinting? I’ve gotta get myself better typing fingers…

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  6. Kathy says:

    Left hand blames right hand for….

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: That was my alternative subhed.

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  8. dazedandconfused says:

    @Andy:
    The intell was that it would fold like a wet paper towel, but Kabul falling without a shot fired surprised even the Taliban. With a total force reduced to just a couple thousand it’s possible we had nobody embedded in the Afghan army anymore and so no way to judge moral. We must judge with hindsight, but damning people with out knowing what they were looking at is wrong.

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  9. Ken_L says:

    Once again, the issue is framed in terms of “who is to blame?”, as if it’s axiomatic that the withdrawal was a cockup for which somebody’s head must roll.

    Let’s start with, “I’ve yet to hear the answer to the question, though, of why did we not start withdrawing American citizens and SIVs sooner.” Non-essential embassy staff were withdrawn in April. Americans were advised to get out in April, and with increasing urgency in May, June, July and early August. If anyone was left on August 14, it wasn’t because they weren’t warned to leave early enough.

    The plain truth is that lots of people didn’t want to leave until the Taliban took over, and by the time the Taliban took over, it was too late to organize the “orderly withdrawal” which the unreality-based commentariat keeps babbling about.

    As to this: “Either all of the key players share equal blame for failing to anticipate the collapse of the Ghani government” … since when are government officials expected to have the gift of prophecy? It’s not as if a thousand American voices were raised pre-August yelling “Hey you guys are facing a disaster, the Ghani government’s going to fall in a heap without warning!” Presidents and generals make decisions in a maze of uncertainty and uncontrollable variables; allocating “blame” for not anticipating the Ghani government and army’s disintegration is like asking why Churchill didn’t anticipate the German breakthrough in 1940, or why Reagan didn’t anticipate the Lebanon bombing. “Shit happens”, in the inimitable words of the late Donald Rumsfeld. The Biden Administration deserves praise for responding so effectively to an unexpected crisis, not blame for failing to plan for the improbable.

    The former guy would have stuck to his April 30 deadline and left all the “Afghan allies” to their fate. The Trump Republican Party would have cheered his “courageous decision”.

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