Rushed Evacuation in Kabul Highlights Disconnect in Washington

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Pentagon officials had warned the White House astir delaying a drawdown oregon afloat evacuation of American unit from Afghanistan.

A chopper  leaving the United States Embassy connected  Sunday, which was unopen  down   by the extremity  of the day, its emblem  lowered and removed.
Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Published Aug. 15, 2021Updated Aug. 16, 2021, 12:56 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON — There was gunfire astatine the airdrome and a dire informing from the State Department to structure successful spot arsenic the United States began the frantic evacuations of Americans and Afghan allies from the Afghan capital, Kabul, aft it fell to the Taliban successful 1 harrowing weekend.

In the end, adjacent the evacuation of what 1 Defense Department authoritative estimated could beryllium 20,000 Americans and an untold fig of Afghans someway managed to reflect the communicative of the full 20-year war: a disconnect betwixt American diplomats and the reality connected the ground.

That disconnect has been wide arsenic a bid of administrations presented a succession of optimistic prognoses: The Taliban were successful retreat, the Afghan subject was connected the brink of assuming power of the country, and the authorities successful Kabul was 1 measurement distant from being capable to supply information crossed the land. In the past 4 months, arsenic U.S. troops packed up and left the state nether orders from President Biden, medication officials said the unit astatine the American Embassy successful Kabul and State Department office successful Washington hung connected to anticipation that their beingness successful the state could instill immoderate backbone successful the Afghan government.

That didn’t happen. On Sunday, American C-17 transport planes bringing successful Marines — immoderate 200 per load — landed astatine Hamid Karzai International Airport, past rapidly filled with embassy staffers and returned to the skies. Urgent texts and emails from Americans stranded successful Kabul flooded inboxes successful Washington.

“We’re surely mindful of the fearfulness and uncertainty radical indispensable beryllium feeling,” said John F. Kirby, the main Pentagon spokesman. “One of the military’s top abilities is to found bid wherever determination is nary order, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Late connected Sunday, a State Department spokesperson confirmed that each embassy unit had been evacuated from the compound.

“All embassy unit are located connected the premises of Hamid Karzai International Airport, whose perimeter is secured by the U.S. military,” the spokesman, Ned Price, said.

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Credit...Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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Credit...Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

For weeks, Pentagon and subject officials warned the White House and the State Department that the longer the Biden medication waited to bid a drawdown oregon afloat evacuation of American unit from Afghanistan, the much hard the cognition would be.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told CNN connected Sunday that ensuring the harmless evacuation of Americans was “job No. 1” and said the Biden medication was “doubling down” connected efforts to assistance Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government. He bristled erstwhile asked wherefore the United States was not amended prepared for the evacuations, peculiarly for Afghans who look Taliban threats for having allied with the United States.

“We person been moving this from Day 1, we had to enactment successful spot an full strategy to woody with this,” Mr. Blinken said. “Unfortunately nary of that enactment was done erstwhile we came in, and we had to enactment that successful place.”

Administration officials sought to equilibrium the military’s logistical requirements against the interaction that immoderate hasty oregon melodramatic withdrawal of American embassy unit would person connected the Afghan military’s effort to blunt the surging Taliban offensive.

Ordering an evacuation excessively aboriginal could woody a intelligence stroke that would velocity the illness of Afghan forces and the authorities successful Kabul. But hold excessively long, subject officials warned, and the medication faced a frenzied unreserved to evacuate thousands of civilians successful what would go a bottleneck astatine the airport, the main lifeline to the extracurricular world.

“Beginning an evacuation contributes to the downward spiral arsenic there’s thing much symbolic of the U.S. nonaccomplishment of assurance successful the Afghan authorities than closing its embassy,” said Laurel E. Miller, a erstwhile apical State Department authoritative who worked connected Afghanistan and Pakistan diplomacy during the Obama and Trump administrations. “Once you interruption the solid and propulsion the occurrence alarm, there’s nary going back.”

Karl W. Eikenberry, a erstwhile apical commandant of U.S. forces successful Afghanistan and a erstwhile U.S. ambassador to Kabul, enactment it this mode successful an email connected Sunday:

“Evacuation of an embassy tin beryllium interpreted locally and internationally arsenic abandonment, akin to a subject portion fleeing from its presumption nether force pressure,” helium said. “But astatine the aforesaid time, determination is an overriding work to support U.S. Embassy unit and citizens from harm. The Taliban beforehand was truthful stunningly rapid, I expect it was hard to equilibrium these competing demands.”

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Credit...Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Meanwhile, astatine the Pentagon, Defense officials said that 3,000 Marines and soldiers were connected the crushed successful Kabul arsenic of Sunday nighttime to assistance with the evacuation, and different 3,000 were en route.

Tension had been gathering betwixt the Kabul Embassy and the Pentagon, the officials said, with Pentagon officials urging a smaller footprint and the State Department seeking to support a robust presence. During meetings and video league calls, Pentagon officials reminded their diplomatic counterparts that American troops were leaving.

Three weeks ago, arsenic Afghan cities began to autumn to the Taliban, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III extended the deployment of the amphibious battle warship U.S.S. Iwo Jima successful the Gulf of Oman truthful that it would beryllium adjacent to the region. One week aft that, helium ordered the Marine expeditionary portion connected the vessel — immoderate 2,000 Marines — to disembark and hold successful Kuwait truthful that they could much easy deploy to Afghanistan.

On Sunday, the subject evacuated 500 people, officials said, adding that they expected that fig to spell up to 5,000 a time successful the coming week.

All U.S. embassies overseas person exigency evacuation plans, but Kabul posed important hurdles. First, with immoderate 4,000 employees, the embassy is 1 of the largest successful the world. Shutting it down and destroying immoderate delicate documents and different materials takes time. Second, fixed that the Taliban power borderline crossings retired of the country, the evacuation has to beryllium done wholly by air, officials said.

Thousands of others, including dual citizens and U.S. contractors, are besides successful the country.

Embassy officials urged American citizens who are inactive successful Afghanistan to structure successful spot and resubmit paperwork to petition assistance to permission alternatively of showing up astatine the airport, fixed reports of gunfire there.

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Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

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Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

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Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The archetypal elements of troops assigned to the portion were connected 72-hours’ announcement to onshore successful Kabul successful an exigency to assistance velocity and unafraid the evacuation. But the Biden medication held off, with officials believing they had much clip to act.

“I fishy those connected the crushed were acrophobic that our exigency departure would beryllium a immense intelligence stroke to our Afghan partners and look to beryllium the benignant of Saigon infinitesimal that would beryllium domestically damaging, arsenic well. So they held off,” David H. Petraeus, the retired wide who commanded the planetary forces successful Afghanistan from 2010 until helium was appointed C.I.A. manager the adjacent year, said connected Sunday.

“But the Afghans were already staggering successful the look of galore simultaneous actions each astir the state without U.S. aerial powerfulness to assistance them out,” helium said. “And erstwhile antithetic leaders saw others capitulate, they did what survivors bash — sought to chopped a deal.”

Ms. Miller pushed backmost connected the disapproval that the evacuation of American embassy unit was mishandled.

“Doing it rapidly doesn’t needfully mean it’s being executed badly,” she said. “You can’t truly bash it slowly. If they did it weeks ago, the U.S. would person been complicit successful hastening the illness of an Afghan authorities it was trying to support, earlier illness was certain.”

As precocious arsenic July 24, Mr. Austin voiced cautious optimism that a nascent Afghan strategy to reconsolidate antiaircraft positions astir important cities inactive successful authorities control, on with constricted U.S. airstrikes, could alteration Afghan forces to clasp the line.

“The archetypal happening to bash is to marque definite that they tin dilatory the momentum and past — and past beryllium capable to enactment themselves successful a presumption wherever they tin retake immoderate of the crushed that they’ve lost,” Mr. Austin told reporters traveling with him. “We’ll spot what happens.”

A week later, a elder U.S. authoritative conceded that the White House had severely misjudged the implications of the American unit withdrawal — mostly completed astir the July 4 play — connected Afghan morale, information conditions and the quality of the U.S. authorities to evacuate Afghan interpreters who had helped the U.S. military, and their household members. About 2,000 Afghans person landed successful the United States successful the past 2 weeks, the State and Defense Departments said Sunday evening. Many of them were taken to Fort Lee successful Virginia to decorativeness their visa processing earlier being resettled permanently elsewhere successful the country. Thousands much are stuck successful a bureaucratic morass aft applying for peculiar visas.

As information deteriorated rapidly past week, the Pentagon and State Department quarreled implicit however overmuch clip the embassy had near earlier the superior mightiness beryllium overrun. On Thursday, a elder subject serviceman said that nary authoritative appraisal was pessimistic enough, and that the model for immoderate semblance of orderly departure was vanishing fast.

Even successful announcing past Thursday that the Pentagon was sending 3,000 Marines and soldiers to Afghanistan and an further 4,000 troops to the portion to evacuate astir of the American Embassy and U.S. citizens successful Kabul, Biden medication officials said they still had time.

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Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

“We’re not classifying this arsenic a noncombatant evacuation operation,” Mr. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters connected Thursday, eschewing a politically charged term, NEO, that is associated with failed missions. “We are, arsenic I said, astatine the precise beginning, this is simply a precise narrowly focused impermanent ngo to facilitate the harmless and orderly departure of further civilian unit from the State Department” arsenic good arsenic Afghan visa applicants.

But aboriginal Sunday, a NEO is precisely what was underway. A elder subject authoritative monitoring the concern successful Kabul said the medication was present simply trying to “buy clip and abstraction to implicit the NEO and get our folks out.”

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