Reported by MICHAEL GINSBERG, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER | February 03, 2022
As many as 9,000 American citizens were left in Afghanistan when the U.S. military withdrew from the country Aug. 31, according to a report released Thursday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In public statements, Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, claimed that only 100-150 Americans remained in Afghanistan and had contacted the U.S. government with a desire to leave. The State Department and Defense Department officials stuck to that number, even as the government publicly admitted that large numbers of American citizens were still leaving the country.
The report, signed by Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch of Idaho, reveals that State Department officials believed that between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans were in Afghanistan as late as Aug. 17. In the next two weeks, only 6,000 Americans were able to escape the country ahead of the Taliban takeover. In testimony in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, Blinken claimed that “approximately 100-150 remained in Afghanistan who still wished to depart.”
Estimating the number of Americans residing or visiting a country like Afghanistan is “50% art and 50% science and educated guesswork,” staffers of the former Kabul Embassy reportedly said, since Americans are encouraged but not required to register with the State Department when they enter a country. The staffers noted that host countries are generally able to provide better estimates than the embassy, but that Afghanistan was not capable of doing so.
Officials like Blinken and U.S. Central Command leader Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie frequently qualified their statements about the number of Americans remaining in-country by saying that they were in contact with smaller numbers who “want to leave.”
Contributing the failure was the Biden administration’s lack of preparation for the execution of the withdrawal. National security officials were still working to formulate a withdrawal plan a day before Kabul fell to the Taliban, despite the fact that Biden announced that American forces would withdraw from Afghanistan four months before the collapse of the U.S.-allied government. The National Security Council failed to coordinate withdrawal operations between the State and Defense departments, and rapid troop withdrawals exacerbated the failed evacuation process, according to the report.
After Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Biden administration was still slow to organize contingency responses for withdrawal. The Transportation Department waited five days to issue an order allowing foreign airlines to deliver evacuees to American airports, and seven days to activate the Civil Reserve Aircraft Fleet (CRAF). The CRAF is a private airline fleet that can aid the U.S. military in a crisis, but “was barely used and did little to impact evacuation operations.”
Government officials had warned as early as 2007 that plans for withdrawal from unsafe and hostile nations would need a significant overhaul, particularly the reporting requirements for American citizens in those countries. A key factor in those plans is the reliance on the host government in providing an accurate number of Americans in need of evacuation. This issue has not been corrected across four presidential administrations.
“The lack of host nation accounting for Americans is likely not unique to Afghanistan and will be a persistent feature in countries with weak central governments and inefficient accounting systems,” the report notes. “It is exactly these countries that are most prone to rapid onsets of instability requiring the evacuation of Americans.”
Despite these logistical failures, as well as the death of 13 American service members in an ISIS-K terrorist attack, the Biden administration has claimed its withdrawal efforts a success.
“We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history. With more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety, that number is more than double what most experts thought was possible. No nation – no nation has ever done anything like it in all the history,” Biden said in a speech marking the final withdrawal of American forces and embassy officials.
“The bottom line: 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave,” he added.