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White House output on Afghanistan withdrawal leaves GOP leaders unsatisfied

A House panel demands to see the unclassified version of a summary the State Department prepared on America's 2021 exit from Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The State Department should make public the full version of a posthumous review of the 2021 U.S. exit from Afghanistan, Texas Republican Michael McCaul relayed Tuesday to the Biden administration’s top diplomat.

McCaul, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has leaned hard on the agency in recent months for documents related to the Afghanistan drawdown, including the agency’s official after-action report compiled in December 2021 by Ambassador Dan Smith.

Earlier this month, the State Department appeared to have answered the lawmaker's demands — at least in part — with the transmission of a classified, redacted version of the after-action report. McCaul contended Tuesday, however, that the American people should also get a chance to look over the document themselves in the name of transparency.

“There is a strong public interest in the Department sharing the results of its After-Action Review to the fullest extent possible,” McCaul told Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a letter dated Tuesday.

McCaul and other congressional Republicans have been heavily critical of the Biden administration’s approach to withdrawing from Afghanistan, calling it a military and diplomatic failure that caused unnecessary loss of life. The congressman pointed to several findings in the State Department’s review that he said bolster those claims.

“The After-Action Review directly acknowledges the Biden Administration’s role in the withdrawal’s failures,” McCaul said. The report’s first unclassified finding notes that decisions made by both the Trump administration and the Biden administration had serious consequences on the Afghan government and security forces’ ability to maintain control of the country, and that senior-level officials did not adequately consider worst-case scenarios when planning the exit.

McCaul also cited a finding in the after-action report that concluded the Biden administration’s April 2021 decision to be out of Afghanistan by September 11 put undue pressure on the military to plan for a withdrawal and protect U.S. forces and noncombatants.

“[I]t is clear that while not exhaustive, the document provides considerable new insight into the Department’s botched response to the Afghanistan withdrawal,” McCaul told Blinken. “Some of the information within it stands directly at odds with the White House’s narratives.”

The lawmaker also questioned why the State Department had marked the after-action review as classified, which the Department has said prevents it from making the report public. “Of the portions of the document marked ‘Secret,’ it is often unclear as to why they were classified as such, and whether they even genuinely merit classification or are merely politically sensitive or embarrassing,” McCaul said.

The foreign affairs panel chair called on the State Department to publicly release the after-action review’s unclassified executive summary, findings and recommendations immediately, and publish the full document within two months. McCaul also demanded a fully unredacted version of the report for the committee’s review.

Secretary Blinken is already facing a congressional subpoena from House Republicans related to a diplomatic cable from Kabul embassy staff during the 2021 troop drawdown, known as a dissent channel. McCaul has positioned the dissent channel, which allowed diplomats to voice countervailing opinions on the withdrawal to Washington, as critical for establishing a public understanding of the Afghanistan exit.

The Biden administration has defended its decision to follow through on what it has positioned as plans laid by the Trump White House to end the war in Afghanistan. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, during an April 6 press briefing, pinned much of the blame for the rocky exit on former President Trump.

“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 options available to him,” Kirby said at the time, pointing to a deal struck in 2020 between the Trump administration and the Taliban in which the U.S. agreed to remove its troops by May 2021.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan produced some harrowing scenes, including an attack that took place in April 2021 at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and more than 150 Afghans. ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The country is now largely under the control of a Taliban government.

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