Top US diplomat who ran botched Afghanistan evacuation was picked after Kabul fell, given no plan: testimony – New York Post

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WASHINGTON – The State Department official tapped to oversee the chaotic and bloody US evacuation from Afghanistan in August 2021 told congressional investigators he was sent only after Kabul fell to the Taliban and was given no plan, no insight into who qualified for evacuation and only a basic understanding of the mission’s goals.

Though Ross Wilson had been leading the US embassy in Kabul since January 2020, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman dispatched former Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass to help evacuate the capital city four days after the Taliban took control on Aug. 15, 2021, Bass told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a Jan. 22 interview, according to a transcript released Thursday.

Ten hours after receiving his assignment, Bass was on a plane knowing little about what he would face and having received almost no preparation, he recalled. Neither Secretary Antony Blinken, President Biden nor anyone on the National Security Council had reached out to him prior to his arrival in Kabul.

The testimony of Bass and others released Thursday painted a vivid picture of how a lack of planning by the State Department led to major challenges that may have been preventable.

Former United States Ambassador to Afghanistan and Turkiye John R. Bass speaks at the US-Turkiye Business Forum in Washington, United States on March 13, 2023. Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Who’s in charge here?

On Aug. 19, 2021, Bass arrived in Kabul – with the Taliban in firm control of the city – without a guide to the State Department’s role in the evacuation of Americans and their Afghan allies. He also had no sense of how long the mission would last.

“Our goal was to enable the departure of as many American citizens and Afghans with ties to the United States as we could enable within whatever time was available to us and to try to ensure good coordination with allied and partner nations who were trying to do the same thing,” he said.

However, Bass said, he had no idea who or how many Afghans could be considered to have “ties to the United States.”

“I don’t recall being given a list of those particular categories or prioritization,” he told the committee. “I, in part based on my tenure as Ambassador, understood broadly what the categories were and the kinds of people who would be at risk in that environment at that time.”

Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at a perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. AP

Once in place, Bass — now an acting deputy assistant secretary of state — said he faced a myriad of challenges, from crowd control to physical security.

“I was struck by the numbers of people who were seeking to depart, the challenges that the physical security infrastructure of the [Kabul] airport, which was designed to limit access, the challenges that posed for dealing with masses of people, and the challenges we faced in helping specific individuals to find ways to safely and securely access and enter the airport complex at a particular point in time,” he said.

While Wilson oversaw embassy staff still in the country, Bass said he was placed in charge of temporary personnel who had been sent to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation.

Wilson, as the chief of mission in Kabul, should have had “the overall authority” over the evacuation, according a publication by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, Bass said, that was left to the Defense Department, with which Bass – not Wilson – was the main State Department point of contact.

Other then-State Department employees also told the committee that they directly reported to Bass and were unsure of Wilson’s exact purview despite his title.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III flown from Kabul to Qatar on August 15, 2021. US Airforce/AFP via Getty Images

Senior Foreign Service officer James DeHart, sent Aug. 20 to Kabul to serve as Bass’ assistant, said he “didn’t have a good sense of what [Wilson and his embassy staff] were doing throughout the day.”

Sam Aronson, who served as a consular volunteer during the operation, said Wilson acted as little more than the “public face of this evacuation, while, behind the scenes, you know, behind the curtain, was John Bass actually leading the evacuation.”

“He seemed overwhelmed,” Aronson added of Wilson. “His physical health did not seem great. His emotional health also did not seem great. And I did not get the vibe that he was a strong leader, or, at least at the time I was there, I do not believe he was exhibiting strong leadership.”

“State Department leadership sent in the correct officials to get the job done, but they were not able to necessarily remove the incorrect officials who were already in place,” he added.

Making it up as they went

Though the noncombatant evacuation had begun days earlier, DeHart, who described what happened in Kabul as “a spectacle the likes of which I’d never seen before,” said he and Bass were given no hard plans on what the State Department should do.

“We had to, I would say, create from scratch tactical operations that would get our priority people into the airport,” he said.

A US Marine grabs an infant over a fence of barbed wire during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in 2021. Courtesy of Omar Haidiri/AFP via

Even the most basic planning remained in flux throughout their time there. Ultimately, it wasn’t until Aug. 30 – the day the last US troops left Afghanistan – that DeHart was given a departure deadline.

The uncertainty over the mission’s end date made on-the-ground planning difficult, as “a lot of the decisions we made depended on how much time we had,” DeHart told the committee.

“The question was constantly on our minds: ‘Would they stick to this timeline … or would it get changed?’ he said. “That was a question that hung over everything we did because we had to make decisions on how we were going to …. get people into the airport.”

What’s more, the lack of clarity about who constituted a friendly Afghan meant that the evacuation process and determining who was eligible to be flown out was largely ad hoc.

“We tried to prioritize lawful permanent residents, although that could be more complicated depending on the documentation that they had with them and whether they were considered by the Taliban to be Americans, as opposed to Afghans,” Bass said.

Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in the city of Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. AP

“Beyond that, we prioritized categories of Afghans who had worked closely for or with the United States government, whether civilian or military, and prospectively were at risk as a result of those working relationships,” he added.

In fact, Bass said the State Department was continuously revising the eligibility standards as the chaos unfolded.

“Day to day, sometimes hour to hour, we were shifting priorities to reflect the realities of the circumstances on the ground with an eye to maximizing our ability to help as many people taking access to the airport complex from those categories as possible,” he said.

Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the Kabul airport in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee the group’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. AFP via Getty Images

Eventually, Bass said he told his senior consular managers to “use their judgment” in determining who got on a flight and acknowledged “some” Afghans were evacuated without proper documentation.

“We had a set of consular professionals who had spent a lot of time making these kinds of determinations, in visa interviews, at US embassies and consulates around the world, and I trusted that they would be exercising good judgment in evaluating people’s eligibility for legal pathways to the United States,” he said.

Of the more than 120,000 people that were ultimately evacuated, Bass said roughly 6,000 were Americans and “easily 20,000” were Afghans who had worked with the US government during its two decades in the country.

“Several hundred” Americans, Bass said, elected to remain in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan “because they were part of complex families and their extended families did not have a legal pathway to the United States, or elected to stay for other reasons.

“Didn’t feel secure enough trying to get themselves to the airport.”

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