Afghanistan withdrawal was gummed up by the Pentagon fighting with the State Department
The US flew the core of its diplomatic staff out of Kabul on August 30, 2021, indicating the US is now nearing its completion of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. © Aamir Qureshi, AFP

While many are focusing on getting as many people out of Afghanistan as possible, Republicans are already promising hearings for the mistakes that were made and focusing on what went wrong. One report from Vanity Fair reporter Adam Ciralsky revealed that turf wars between the State Department and Pentagon hampered the exit from Afghanistan.

The story began by explaining that a physician and a veteran of the Army's elite special operations unit, "Doc" Walters ran Operational Medicine or OpMed. The unit is out of the State Department and is used to help organize dangerous rescues of U.S. officials or Americans abroad. It was started in 2013 after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Secretary Anthony Blinken had wanted to elevate the unit, renaming it the Bureau of Contingency and Crisis Response (CCR), but that all changed in July.

The unit would now be forced to answer to a series of administrators, a director, an acting undersecretary and the deputy secretary for management and resources. Effectively the new process crushed the unit under the weight of bureaucracy. So, Walters told Blinkin that he was resigning.

"America's chaotic departure from Afghanistan was not unforeseeable," the Vanity Fair report said. "Nor was it an intelligence failure—that old chestnut often used to absolve leaders of culpability. Instead, the Biden administration's tumultuous exit from the war-torn country seems to have been the result of incremental and baffling bureaucratic decisions."

U.S. officials spent the majority of the summer warning of doom in Afghanistan with horrific stories of what the Taliban could do.

One senior official said that the State Department was "pressing the DOD easy button," meaning they were trying to shove their Afghanistan problem onto the DOD. The individual told Vanity Fair that the State Department decisions being made were made with "pathological optimism." Others believe that killing off the CCR or "degrading OpMed" was a result of "meta-ignorance," meaning that they were ignorant of their own ignorance.

Blinkin had credited OpMed for their work during the COVID crisis and getting Americans abroad home as borders were locked down in the middle of the pandemic. But Walters described COVID as a kind of side-mission with OpMed forces being put in situations where they would be "medics with guns."

"The second you stand up a task force and imply that we're starting to plan for evacuation is the second you're eroding the confidence of the government in Kabul that we were trying to support," a senior State Department official told Vanity Fair as part of the explanation into why colleagues waited to create a task force ready to evacuate embassy staff. "We were constantly having to balance our policy imperatives with the other policy objectives."

Mike Pompeo's OpMed team used every means necessary to get Americans home. Ahead of Trump leaving office, Pompeo worked to ensure the unit would be permanent

"The writing was on the wall, according to State and congressional sources: OpMed, though an Obama brainchild, had somehow been tainted by its promotion under Team Trump, whose secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had not exactly been welcomed with open arms by either Team Biden or the State Department's rank and file," said the report. "What's more, to some in the foreign service, Doc Walters and his team were loose cannons who almost revelled in defying the buttoned-up veneer that diplomats tend to project."

When Blinkin took over, he did a review of whether the unit was in the interest of the department. He concluded a new bureau wasn't the right approach, discontinuing it.

Republican Rep. Michael McCaul has blamed Blinkin and the Biden administration for killing a unit desperately needed for Afghanistan's withdrawal.

"After the president made his decision to withdraw troops, it should have been all hands on deck from Day One. The [State] Department's contingency planners and crises managers should have been consulted from the get-go and utilized at every juncture," McCaul said.

The Defense Department, by contrast, has been working on its contingency plans since last winter, the report said. Pentagon goals were different from the State Department, however. Before anyone could be evacuated, the military had to withdraw troops.

"There was a clear lack of urgency by the Department of State. DOD got pushback from State. I can confirm that DOD told State that they needed more contingency planning and needed to do so earlier," said a senior national security figure.

"It didn't take high-fidelity intelligence to know that the Afghan national security forces were deteriorating as the Taliban were quickly overwhelming both the forces and the civilian population throughout Afghanistan," said a top Pentagon planner. "The State Department very much wanted to run this and control it, and then at some point it kind of became clear that it was very much over their head."

You can read the extensive report from Vanity Fair.