Fact check: Biden’s shaky claim of US readiness in Afghan

Calvin Woodward and Hope Yen
Associated Press

Washington – President Joe Biden made dubious assertions that the U.S. was well-prepared for the sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s government during the U.S. drawdown and glossed over his broken promise to keep U.S. troops there until the last Americans are out.

In his remarks Tuesday declaring an end to America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, Biden claimed “extraordinary success” in the mission. That defied the reality on the ground of a rushed and chaotic evacuation of Americans and their allies, including deadly violence around the airport.

President Joe Biden speaks about the end of the war in Afghanistan from the State Dining Room of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Washington.

Biden offered the faint assurance – even with the last U.S. planes gone – that it’s never too late for U.S. citizens to leave.

But with its forces withdrawn, the U.S. is left with diplomatic persuasion instead of military muscle to get the Taliban extremists who’ve been fighting the U.S. to give remaining Americans safe passage out.

A look at the claims:

Biden: speaking of his decision in April to withdraw U.S. troops by Aug. 31 based on the “assumption” – later proven wrong – that 300,000 Afghan forces would be able to “hold on for a period of time” against the Taliban: “I still instructed our national security team to prepare for every eventuality – even that one. … So, we were ready when the Afghan Security Forces, after two decades of fighting for their country and losing thousands of their own, did not hold on as long as anyone expected. We were ready when they and the people of Afghanistan watched their own government collapse and their president flee.”

The facts: His claim of U.S. readiness for the sudden collapse of the Afghan government strains the truth.

By all accounts, the evacuation operation that began Aug. 14 was initially chaotic, with too few State Department officials available at the airport to process evacuees. Crowd control inside the airport and outside was problematic, and the U.S. had to execute an airlift in such a rush that large numbers of Afghans swarmed the airfield.

On Aug. 16, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said evacuation flights had been suspended for several hours in order to reestablish security following breaches on the civilian side of the airfield.

The flow of evacuees from Kabul also was slowed in the airlift’s early days because the U.S. had nowhere to fly the evacuees to – the waystation in Qatar was filled to capacity and the State Department had yet to work out arrangements with other countries for additional waystations. Kuwait, Germany and other countries in Europe and elsewhere later agreed to provide those, and the pace of the evacuation accelerated rapidly.

About 2,500 U.S. troops were at the airport at the beginning of the evacuation, and eventually that number would grow to about 5,800. The State Department struggled to determine how many American citizens were in Afghanistan and how many wanted to be evacuated.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that 124,334 Americans, Afghans and other allies from Afghanistan were evacuated in all – the most exact number offered thus far. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called it the largest air evacuation of civilians in American history. But a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport during the frenzied evacuations left 13 U.S. service members and 169 Afghans dead.

Biden: “The bottom line: 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave. For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out, if they want to come out. Secretary of State Blinken is leading the continued diplomatic efforts to ensure safe passage for any American, Afghan partner or foreign national who wants to leave Afghanistan.” – White House remarks.

The facts: For the record, Biden vowed that he would get 100% of Americans out before withdrawing forces.

And his suggestions Tuesday that many of the remaining Americans are dual nationals who may be undecided about leaving do not reflect the full reality.

He contended 100 to 200 Americans are still there and have “some intention to leave,” adding: “Most of those who remain are dual citizens, longtime residents, but earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan.”

The White House later said actually 98% of Americans wishing to leave had been evacuated, without explaining how it came up with such a precise percentage in Afghanistan’s tumult. White House press secretary Jen Psaki also said that Biden is telling those people that if they decide in two weeks that they want to go, “we will get you out.”

Those comments may understate the desperation of Americans trapped in Afghanistan. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said Monday that Americans tried to get to the Kabul airport for the final evacuations but couldn’t. No Americans, apart from military and government personnel, were on the last five jets to leave.

“We maintained the ability to bring them in up until immediately before departure, but we were not able to bring any Americans out,” he said. “That activity ended probably about 12 hours before our exit, although we continue the outreach and would have been prepared to bring them on until the very last minute. But none of them made it to the airport, and were able to be – and were able to be accommodated.”

Biden told ABC News unequivocally on Aug. 19 that the U.S. would not leave any Americans stranded.

“Americans understand we’re going to try and get it done before Aug. 31,” Biden said then. “If we don’t, we’ll determine at the time, who’s left.”

And then? “And if there are American citizens left, we’re going to stay until we get them all out.”

The last U.S. planes took off from the airport Monday night, Aug. 30, one minute before midnight in Kabul.

U.S. officials estimated up to 200 Americans were left behind, along with unknown numbers of Afghans and others who were trying frantically to leave. By then, more than 100,000 people, mostly Afghans, had been flown to safety in the multinational evacuations.

Now that has become a matter for diplomacy,

U.S. officials said diplomats are in talks with neighboring countries and others to try to arrange non-U.S.-military evacuations for those remaining. Among the options, if the diplomacy works, are potential charter flights from the airport when it re-opens and overland routes.

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Burns is national security writer for The Associated Press. AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.