‘Rome Is Burning’: Afghan Gov’t Was Misled By US Officials And Ignored Signs Of America’s Exit, Report Alleges

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • U.S. officials sent mixed messages to the Afghan government regarding the Biden administration’s intent to carry out a complete military withdrawal, a watchdog report alleged. 
  • Instead of preparing to deal with the Taliban alone, Afghan government officials held parties and inconsequential legislative discussions in the weeks and months leading up to the U.S. withdrawal, the watchdog found.
  • The Afghan government collapsed on Aug. 15 after the Taliban took over the country’s capital city, just weeks before the full withdrawal.
  • “They had no situational awareness and some of it is our fault. And a lot of it is their fault as well,” Bill Roggio, managing editor of The Long War Journal told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Some U.S. officials misled Afghan officials on the Biden administration’s planned exit from Afghanistan in 2021, who subsequently ignored signs of the coming withdrawal, a government watchdog report alleged.

While senior U.S. government officials involved in peace negotiations accepted the Biden administration’s withdrawal policy and took steps to execute it, other staff members at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul who disagreed with the policy sought to isolate and silence the compliant officials, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found in a Wednesday report. Consequently, Afghan officials heard contradictory messages from the State Department that only encouraged an unwillingness to countenance a potential withdrawal and led to the government’s precipitous collapse in August 2021.

“They had no situational awareness and some of it is our fault. And a lot of it is their fault as well,” Bill Roggio, managing editor of The Long War Journal and a leading commentator on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. (RELATED: Docs Reveal Biden Admin Was Warned About Rapid Afghan Air Force Collapse)

Afghan officials chose to listen only to U.S. officials “who were giving them more optimistic scenarios,” former Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) Laurel Miller told SIGAR.

Instead of preparing to accept a politically legitimate Taliban or defend Kabul, Afghan government officials held parties and inconsequential legislative discussions in the weeks and months leading up to the U.S. withdrawal, SIGAR found.

The embassy staff who opposed withdrawal “based their opposition to the withdrawal decision on an idealized vision of advancing the rights of Afghan women,” SIGAR said, citing a senior U.S. official. These officials grounded their policy in the goals of a small number of individuals whose perspective did not reflect that of Afghan society writ large.

The revelations are the result of a months-long effort by SIGAR, at the direction of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, to produce a report exposing the reasons for the Afghan government’s dissolution and why 20 years of U.S. state building efforts failed to produce a viable democratic government.

Afghan officials’ behavior mirrored “Nero fiddling while Rome is burning,” International Rescue Committee Afghanistan Country Director Vicki Aken told SIGAR.

Mixed messaging emanated from high levels of the U.S. government, not only from the State Department but from the Department of Defense and the White House, Roggio told the DCNF.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised at an April 2021 press conference in Kabul that “even when our troops come home, our partnership with Afghanistan will continue. Our security partnership will endure.”

In addition, the Department of Defense did not anticipate the Afghan army and government would fall to the Taliban as quickly as it did, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley later claimed.

Roggio cited conversations with Afghan officials close to former president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at the time of the collapse, Ashraf Ghani, who assured him the Americans did not intend to pull out.

Ghani reshuffled military leadership in the final year of his administration to place loyal individuals in top postings, SIGAR said. His action disrupted the military’s command structure, preventing it from effectively mobilizing against the Taliban.

Ghani’s actions further reflect his lack of understanding that the U.S. would leave and that his government teetered on the edge of collapse, Roggio told the DCNF.

“He was more concerned about a coup than he was about the Taliban,” Roggio said.

The Taliban rapidly gained ground, even after the Biden administration persuaded Ghani to roll out a new security strategy in July 2021, a plan intended to “improve security within 6 months,” SIGAR said. The Taliban already controlled half of Afghanistan’s districts, at least six border crossings and much of the country’s highways system.

Afghan officials in turn attempted to deceive U.S. policymakers of their ability to withstand the Taliban, SIGAR said.

“I was surprised how much fake information came out from official government sources,” former Al Jazeera correspondent Charlotte Bellis told SIGAR.

Ghani’s flight to Uzbekistan on Aug. 15, 2021 marked the dissolution of the Afghan government, one day after the Taliban entered Kabul and two weeks before the U.S. military exit on Aug. 30, SIGAR said.

The Department of State referred the DCNF to their brief comments to SIGAR, included in the report.

“The standard by which the US government succeeded or failed in its political objectives in Afghanistan needs to be wholly reconsidered in this report,” the State Department said.

The White House and the Department of Defense did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

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