President Joe Biden said he is “rejecting” the accounts and findings of an official U.S. Central Command report released this week, which details the impossible situation American troops and Afghan civilians found themselves in during the Kabul evacuation last August.
In an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt that aired on Thursday, Biden said the findings of the 2,000-page report don’t ring true, and are “not what I was told.” There was “no good time to get out” of Afghanistan, he said, and if the U.S. had not withdrawn “we would have had to put a hell of a lot more troops back in.”
“I just want to clarify,” Holt said. “Are you rejecting the conclusions or the accounts in this report?”
“Yes I am,” Biden said.
“So they’re not true?” Holt asked.
“I’m rejecting them.” Biden responded.
The report, which is an official 15-6 investigation carried out by Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Clark, focuses on the suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26, which killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghan civilians. It was first reported by the Washington Post. Its findings were informed by sworn testimony and interviews from both military commanders and junior service members who were there.
The investigation found that troops knew there was a high risk of an attack, given the frenzied situation they were dealing with that included desperate and unruly crowds full of distraught people looking for a way out. It detailed the unlikely and fragile partnership between the U.S. and the Taliban — the very enemy it had fought for 20 years — in an attempt to screen people approaching the airport. It included wrenching accounts from service members who were there, like the Marine who recalled spotting a 1- to 2-year-old little girl and her mother “desperate to escape being trampled or crushed” in the crowd, and who went in after them, refusing to leave them behind.
“I couldn’t leave the little girl in the red dress and the mother,” the Marine said.
The investigation also mentioned tensions between the military and other U.S. officials regarding the situation on the ground. Troops would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation had policymakers “paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground,” Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasley told investigators.
Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Washington Post there are “profound frustrations” about what happened in Afghanistan. There may have been “other plans that we would have preferred,” he told the Post, “but when the president makes a decision, it’s time for us to execute the president’s decision.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the Post that the Defense Department is “committed to, and are intensely engaged in, an ongoing review of our efforts during the evacuation, the assessments and strategy during the conflict, and the planning in the months before the end of the war.”
“We will take those lessons learned, and apply them, as we always do, clearly and professionally,” he said.
While officials may have different opinions about the decisions that were made in the lead-up to the fall of Kabul, by the time it came, American troops were left to make order out of chaos. Desperate to escape, civilians rushed the airfield, some even clinging to the sides of military aircraft as it took off from the ground. Once crowds were pushed back outside of the airport, they continued surging forward in an attempt to be brought inside the perimeter, “crushing women and children up against the barricade,” one Marine told investigators in the report.
Leaders on the ground knew that the situation at Abbey Gate only increased the chances of an attack. The gate was “out of control,” 82nd Airborne Division Command Sgt. Maj. David Pitt told investigators, in part because of the many foreign militaries using the gate to bring in their own evacuees. It wasn’t the fault of the Marines, Pitt said; if they’d had total control of the gate, “they would have shut that gate down.”
“What they were being asked to do was not in accordance with what anyone should have been asked. With that many countries operating in front of them, something wasn’t bound to happen, but the risk was so high,” Pitt said. “Nobody was synchronized, but you still had to try to establish security. Security was left to the Marines, but how can you pull security without synchronization … If you had been there, you would have seen that an attack was coming. It wasn’t imminent, but it was a high probability.”
The attack came on Aug. 26, when a suicide bomb exploded, killing 11 U.S. Marines, a Navy corpsman, and an Army special operations soldier.
Despite various reports at the time of multiple bombings, or small arms fire, the investigation concluded that the attack was a single suicide bombing, not a complex attack. Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, told investigators that they originally believed it to be a complex attack “because fish weights were used in the suicide vest which look more like a bullet wound on impact.”
It also concluded that the attack “was not preventable” without disrupting the mission of evacuating civilians.
“Given the priority of effort, time, resources, partner nation requirements, and terrain restraints, the only mitigation possible would have jeopardized the flow of evacuees and potentially risk mission failure,” the report said.
While officials squabble over who knew what and when they knew it, an indisputable fact lies among the report’s 2,000 pages and harrowing accounts retold to investigators: The men and women on the ground were often the ones forced to make impossible decisions — who was brought into the gate, and who wasn’t. Who was evacuated, and who was forced to stay behind. At the end of a war that started when many of them were children themselves, young soldiers and Marines became the last hope for desperate men, women, and children.
The impact of those decisions was so present that the investigators recommended mental health evaluations for “all personnel” who worked at Abbey Gate between Aug. 17-26, to address the “mental and emotional strain placed on these young Marines and other Service Members.”
“A consistent trend during interviews with young Marines were stories involving traumatic injuries and death of children, separation of families at gates, and outright rejection of evacuees culminating in their distraught return to the civilian population outside the gate,” the report says. “During the response to the attack at Abbey Gate, young Marines heroically recovered the wounded and rendered life-saving care. Others carried the bodies of their deceased friends away from the canal.”
Mike Breen, president of Human Rights First, told The Atlantic that the administration “took the life-and-death decisions that should have been at the highest level of the government and sent them down to the lowest level, which is a pretty good metaphor for the whole war.”
“It ended as it was fought,” he said. “Same old story.”
What’s hot on Task & Purpose
- The bitter debate over the Army’s fleece jacket is finally settled
- How ‘Starship Troopers’ inspired Jim Mattis to make infantry training more realistic
- ‘Cold, isolated, and stretched thin’ — Why so many airmen hate Minot Air Force Base
- Veterans donated to a woman who said she was a Marine combat vet dying of cancer. It was all a lie.
- An Air Force general openly shared his mental health appointment: ‘Warrior heart. No stigma’