Report on Pentagon role in Afghanistan is under review

A file photo of evacuee children waiting for the next flight after being manifested at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo: AP)
A file photo of evacuee children waiting for the next flight after being manifested at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo: AP)

Summary

The highly classified assessment may not be released, raising questions about public accountability

WASHINGTON : The Pentagon leadership is reviewing an assessment of the military’s role in the Afghanistan conflict but hasn’t decided if aspects of the highly classified document will be released, according to people familiar with the issue.

The draft report, which was submitted to top Pentagon officials earlier this month, is one of a series of assessments—known as after action reports—that each agency is conducting to assemble a record of the American role in Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s report was sent back earlier this year for revisions to broaden its scope, according to a Department official.

But so far, none of the reports has been released, preventing a public accounting of the administration’s decision-making and execution, particularly in the conflict’s final days.

The results of these internal reviews are politically fraught as midterm elections approach in November. President Biden has faced bipartisan criticism from Congress for his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, as well as from within national security circles, including some in the military.

But the final, chaotic days of the U.S. withdrawal have drawn the most condemnation. While more than 120,000 Afghans were evacuated, the execution of Mr. Biden’s decision was full of missteps, according to critics.

Seth Jones, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, said he hoped the need to keep some material classified wouldn’t get in the way of accountability and some form of public release.

“If the government takes stuff out because it’s politically damaging, that would be a big problem," said Mr. Jones, a former military adviser in Afghanistan.

The U.S. withdrew all its forces Aug. 30, leading to a tumultuous end to the 20-year conflict. Afghans and others who had assisted the U.S. over the years overwhelmed the airport in Kabul, and while thousands got out, many were left behind after the Western-backed government fell faster than any officials believed it would.

In some of the worst imagery of the period, Afghans who had clung to a departing aircraft could be seen falling midair. Days later, a suicide attack killed 13 troops and scores of Afghans near the airport.

An initial draft of the Pentagon’s assessment, completed by authors affiliated with National Defense University, was submitted in March. That assessment was critical of some of the Pentagon’s own leadership, according to individuals familiar with that version of the report, which focused only on the last 18 months of the Afghanistan war.

Top officials then asked for the report to be revised to reflect volumes of additional information and data, and to expand the scope of the report beyond the initial assessment, according to a senior defense official. A new draft was resubmitted in recent days, but officials said it wasn’t clear when the report would be complete.

“Defense officials and the Joint Staff believed that the draft they saw was too limited in scope and did not present the thorough review that they believed was necessary," the official said. “So they sent it back."

The problem with the report submitted in March wasn’t that it was too critical, the official said. “A draft document would not have been returned because the belief was that it was too critical; you get nothing out of an after-action analysis if it is not critical enough," the official said. “The real concern was one of substance."

Officials wouldn’t comment on what was lacking in the initial draft or how it was expanded, except to say that it was too narrow in scope.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Sept. 1, the day after all American forces had pulled out of Afghanistan, that the Pentagon would conduct a full after-action assessment.

“We want to make sure that we learn every lesson that can be learned from this experience," he said. “But I want to take the time to do it the right way, and so we’ll do that in the days ahead."

No department or agency was spared in the initial, public criticism of the execution of the evacuation, and some officials have said the Pentagon should have done better planning to get Afghans who had assisted the military over the years out safely. But the State Department faced harsh criticism for delaying the evacuation.

Only as the government was falling did senior State Department officials agree to begin evacuating eligible Afghans and pull Americans out of the embassy compound, a decision that is now subject to an internal investigation.

The State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are also compiling reports on their respective roles in the waning months of the conflict, but officials declined to comment on the specifics. It remains unclear if those reports will ever be released.

“We don’t presently have an update to provide, but, as we’ve said, we will be as transparent as possible with the final report, consistent with classification and other considerations," said the State Department spokesperson.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council declined to comment.

Separately, U.S. intelligence agencies are carrying out an internal review of how they assess foreign militaries’ “will to fight" after the swifter-than-expected collapse of U.S.-backed security forces in Afghanistan last year and Ukraine’s unexpected resilience in blunting Russia’s invasion this spring.

Retired Air Force Gen. James Clapper said this week that Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines asked him to work with the team studying the issue, “and they’re not having a lot of success."

“We have never been able to accurately gauge will to fight," Gen. Clapper said during a public event in Washington.

Congress last year mandated the creation of a 16-member Afghanistan War Commission, a three-year effort that is supposed to write a full narrative of the conflict, starting with the U.S. invasion in 2001.

There is no legal requirement for agencies to turn over their internal reports to the commission, a Senate staffer said, but the hope is the Biden administration will cooperate. The commission has yet to formally convene because Republican leaders have yet to name a co-commissioner, officials said.

“We want a holistic look, a clean-sheet approach, to really see what went wrong, where we had strategic missteps and it’s hard to do that in a stovepipe fashion," the staffer said. “We certainly hope that government agencies that had a role in the war will cooperate and provide information."

 

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