Servicemen forced to ‘play God’ amid chaotic Afghan withdrawal, details of Army investigation


New documents explain how the lack of administrative coordination on the withdrawal made Afghanistan Putting the burden on young military personnel to “play god” on those who have left Kabul.

The Army Inquiry into the 26 August Abbey Gate attack at Kabul Airport, which killed 13 US soldiers and 170 Afghan civilians, contained interviews with over 130 people, detailing the weeks leading up to the fighter-free evacuation and their final days.

“In addition to crowd control, the Marines at Abbey Gate were forced to play god by determining who is allowed onto the airfield,” a military official told investigators.

Investigation of the attack determined that it was carried out by a single suicide bomber and was not a complex attack as originally believed. In conducting the investigation, officials uncovered more about the unarmed evacuation in August than just the Abbey Gate attack.

This image, provided to AFP on August 20, 2021 by human rights activist Omar Haidari, shows a US Marine grabbing an infant over a barbed wire fence during an evacuation on August 19, 2021 at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

-/Courtesy of Omar Haidiri/AFP via Getty Images

The investigative documents, which contain portions of interviews, were released through a Freedom of Information Act request. The Washington Post first reported on the documents.

The interviews revealed frustration at the lack of planning between the State Department and the rest of the administration for when to call for a fighter-free evacuation [NEO]what documents were required to process evacuees and how the various entry points had to be staffed.

Marine Corps Brigadier General John Sullivan, who was the commanding general of Joint Task Force Crisis Response during the evacuation, told investigators “it was like pulling teeth” when he tried to get the embassy to put plans for a NEO up to be discussed in early August.

“Honestly, not much leadership came from within [Department of State] Staff at all, especially the senior ones,” said another official involved in the evacuation of US Embassy Kabul staff to Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). The official said his unit went through the embassy compound and staff of the State Department had been “drunk and cowering in rooms.”

In the interviews, officials told investigators that young military personnel manning the gates were forced to expend significant energy to locate specific evacuees on behalf of various US government officials, senior military officers and interest groups.

According to an interview with an official, service members faced large crowds at the gate, in part because State Department messages detailing where to go caused swelling at each gate, forcing the Marines to “speed ahead.” Prioritize accuracy” when it came to who was let in .

“Abbey Gate just had one big parking lot full of people, there were people sitting under cover at the checkpoint who had been waiting there for days,” one official said. “There was no methodical control system like there was at North or West Gate. For me that is failure. I don’t want to say that the attack was inevitable, but it was the risk.”

The same official who visited the abbey gate the day before the attack said the chaos was alarming: “We didn’t know what the hell was going on. You couldn’t tell friend from foe.”

According to the interviews, there had been a rehearsal of peaceful evacuation from HKIA, but that was not the setting when troops arrived in Kabul and evacuations began.

“We thought [the evacuation] would be an orderly process the way we practice it,” one official said. “It just didn’t work that way.”

The identification documents required by the State Department to let evacuees through the gates and onto the airfield changed almost every hour, the investigation said. “[The Department of State] did not properly convey a single message to Afghans during NEO,” an official said.

Two of the recommendations from the research focus on evacuation planning. One is to establish an interagency NEO doctrine, as Afghanistan has shown that there is no common terminology between the Department of Defense and the State Department. And another is to ensure that evacuation categories are clearly delineated and projected before evacuations.

Interviews also brought to light previously unreported incidents outside of HKIA involving US military personnel. An Afghan national lost an eye to a flashbang, US Marines shot dead two Taliban soldiers after pointing “guns” at the Marines, and a Marine accidentally destroyed part of his hand with a flashbang.

The released documents also show that the Abbey Gate suicide bomber used between 15 and 20 pounds of “commercial or military grade” explosives with a ball-bearing directional charge to inflict maximum fragmentation damage. One official described the ball bearings as “the size of a marble,” leading some respondents to believe there were gunshot wounds in addition to those hit by shrapnel.

Troops involved in medical treatment and transporting the injured from the Abbey Gate attack described the scene after the blast.

“Some of the bodies were quite mutilated,” said a military official who helped coordinate medical treatment for the Abbey Gate victims.

“I remember seeing a Marine with injuries to his face. I remember seeing a dead baby on the ground,” added another officer who helped carry the injured to safety.

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