Biden administration will share reports on Afghanistan withdrawal with Congress, official says

The White House will also release a 10-page unclassified summary on the exit.

ByLuis Martinez, Matt Seyler, Sarah Kolinovsky, and Justin Gomez ABCNews logo
Thursday, April 6, 2023
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WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon and State Department have shared with Congress their after-action reports on the 2021 military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the White House announced at Thursday's press briefing -- immediately drawing a flurry of questions from reporters on an issue that has long been controversial.

National security spokesman John Kirby was tasked to respond to the findings and made two things clear at the top of the briefing: The administration still believes ending the war was the "right" decision and they were left with limited options because of the lack of planning by the Trump administration.

NOTE: The video in the media player is from a previous report.

"First, and most critically, the president's decision to end the war in Afghanistan was the right one," Kirby insisted at the top of his remarks.

Overall, he said, President Joe Biden takes responsibility for the outcome of the withdrawal -- both the tragedies and the successes.

"He's the commander in chief and he absolutely has responsibility for the operations that our men and women conduct and the orders that he gives. And he continues to believe that the order to withdraw from Afghanistan was the right one," Kirby said.

An image of late Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, is displayed during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Still, Kirby and the report both placed plenty of blame on the Trump administration for, in their telling, putting Biden in a bad position regarding Afghanistan. (Trump, for his part, has taken the opposite view, saying in 2021: "Biden's botched exit from Afghanistan is the most astonishing display of gross incompetence by a nation's leader, perhaps at any time.")

"While it was always the president's intent to end that war, it is also undeniable that decisions made and the lack of planning done by the previous administration significantly limited the options available," Kirby said Thursday. "Thus, President Biden's choice was stark, either withdraw all our forces or resume fighting with the Taliban. He chose the former."

"Despite having his options curtailed, President Biden led a deliberate, rigorous and inclusive decision-making process that was responsive to facts on the ground," Kirby added. "In fact, President Biden directed his top national security leaders to begin planning for withdrawal even before he had made the final decision to leave Afghanistan."

Kirby also maintained that some of the intelligence Biden received on the state of the Afghan government was faulty or flawed.

"There were some assessments passed to him that proved faulty, that proved to be wrong, that proved to not shake out the way he had been given to understand that they would," he said.

He said the failures surrounding Afghanistan -- from which the U.S. and allies executed a hasty, chaotic exit as the Taliban overtook the capital in 2021 -- informed the administration's approach to dealing with the crisis in Ukraine.

Foreigners board a Qatar Airways aircraft at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.
(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

"I should note here that our experiences in Afghanistan informed our decision to set up a small group of experts for worst-case scenario planning on Ukraine, which included simulation exercises, and our ability to forcefully and plainly speak publicly about the risks we saw of impending invasion," Kirby said.

"Now, look, there's always going to be tension between highlighting warning signs that a country may collapse and undermining that same government. And that's a difficult balance to strike," he added. "But in Ukraine, and before that, in Ethiopia, for that matter, we prioritized earlier drawdowns of our personnel when each of those capitals were under threat."

Kirby appeared to choke up when pushed on the report's conclusion that without a permanent, expanded military presence, nothing would have prevented the Taliban from taking control. ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce asked what his message was to veterans and families of the dead who may wonder if their service was worth it.

"Just because the mission changed over time, under previous administration and leadership and scenarios, doesn't mean that anybody who served in Afghanistan doesn't have something to be proud of doesn't have, doesn't have -- sorry -- doesn't have service to this country that they can take with them the rest of their lives and feel honorable about it," he said.

The reports were also provided to lawmakers via a secure portal so members can access them electronically, according to a U.S. official.

"This review was an important step to inform future DoD decision-making, and we will continue to support other reviews, including the Afghanistan War Commission's efforts to review the full 20 years of the war," Secretary of Defense Llloyd Austin said in a statement. "I strongly believe that a thoughtful and comprehensive examination of the entirety of America's longest war by the Commission will be an important contribution to the nation."

The White House further publicly released a 12-page unclassified summary on the withdrawal, which has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans for nearly two years.

At the briefing, Kirby would not promise to release more of the report to the public, insisting the release even of the 12-page, heavily curated narrative is "an extraordinary step."