The Aug. 12 decision was in line with a recommendation made earlier this spring by General Scott Miller, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to close the embassy before the troops depart, 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, burning sensitive documents and transporting staff to the relative safety of Hamid Karzai International Airport on the outskirts of the city.
The dramatic sequence of events sparked a rush to evacuate all remaining U.S. Embassy staff, as well as tens of thousands of other U.S. citizens and Afghans at risk, before the deadline for the withdrawal of the U.S. US Army.
In a closed-door session with senators on Tuesday, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly blamed the State Department in candid comments, saying officials “have waited too long.” to order the operation, according to Axios.
But two senior State Department officials told POLITICO on Wednesday that Milley had never called for an evacuation earlier in the days before Kabul fell.
On August 6, senior leaders from the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council, intelligence community and United States Central Command met for a tabletop exercise to review plans to A possible non-combatant evacuation, or NEO, the State Department officials said. No military representative there opposed 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 pull the trigger on the NEO,'” one of the officials said. Milley also did not offer 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 its staff before the US military left the country. He argued that his forces could not defend the embassy without continuing to support the Afghan army.
A spokesperson for Milley declined to comment.
In a hearing Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon “would have liked to see” a faster evacuation, and DoD officials relayed that message to their colleagues at the State Department. But he admitted that it was ultimately a State Department decision, and that they balanced a number of competing interests.
“We provided our input, and we certainly would have liked it to go faster, or sooner,” said Austin. “But again, they also had a few things to think about.”
The Pentagon understood that the State Department feared that too swift action could erode confidence in the Afghan government, a defense official said. But behind the scenes, Austin urged the State Department to proceed with the evacuation faster than the original timeline anticipated.
“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 blame game is unlikely to end anytime soon, as Republican lawmakers step up criticism of the pullout and blame Biden for what they have described as a debacle.
“The reason all of these Americans, our fellow citizens, have been left behind is because Joe Biden waited too long to order an evacuation. He did not have the courage to order an evacuation when it was necessary. He allowed our military to come down to zero with American civilians still there and when they needed to be evacuated he wouldn’t, he was worried about what that would look like, and now here we are, the Americans are left behind, he abandoned them, 13 soldiers died. That’s Joe Biden’s record, ”Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) Told Fox News after Tuesday’s hearing.