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White House defends Afghanistan pullout, blames Trump administration for lack of prep

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The White House has released a long-awaited review of its highly criticized withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Biden administration is now acknowledging it should have moved more quickly to get Americans and Afghan friends out of Kabul. But there are very few other admissions of any kind of misjudgment about the end of America's longest war. Instead, the report largely blames the Trump administration. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is at the White House. And, Franco, how did this report come about? Why now?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: You know, it came about because there was such interest in how the war ended. I mean, as you remember it, as we all remember, it was just so chaotic, those images at the airport, desperate Afghans chasing after that U.S. Air Force plane, some even hanging on and falling to their deaths. There was also, of course, the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate, also at the airport, that killed 13 service members. And at the time, the White House promised an extensive examination of every aspect of the mission. The national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, he called it a hot wash, a review of every detail. So there was all this anticipation for some kind of explanation about how things seemed to go so wrong.

KELLY: And what is the explanation? What did they find?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, the report, frankly, was a bit underwhelming, I mean, especially considering all those details. I mean, I will also note that the White House kind of dropped this report on us reporters just minutes before the briefing started. All of us were in the room trying to pore through it, searching for that explanation. But as you turn the pages, it reads more as a justification for the administration's actions and really does not take blame. It places more of the blame, as you noted, on former President Donald Trump for not helping in the transition. And it specifically states that the Trump administration provided no plans for how to conduct the withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies.

KELLY: OK. But it was the Biden administration that actually did conduct that withdrawal and which was criticized for bad intelligence. I remember interviewing officials at the Pentagon and other agencies that summer. They did not predict Kabul would fall, certainly not as fast as it did. What did they say about that?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, exactly. John Kirby, the national spokesman for the National Security Council, he was at the podium today and us reporters asked him a lot about that. He generally defended U.S. intelligence assessments, but he did acknowledge that there - some of it was off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: And clearly, we didn't get things right here with Afghanistan about how fast the Taliban were moving across the country. I don't think we fully anticipated the degree to which they were constructing these deals in the hinterlands that kind of fell like dominoes.

ORDOÑEZ: But he also insisted that these reports, these after-action reports, are not about accountability.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRBY: After-action reviews are not investigations. They're not criminal proceedings. It's not hunting for heads.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, instead, he says they're a chance to learn from and apply those lessons as needed. And he says they're actually applying those lessons in conflicts in Ukraine and Ethiopia, such as doing more worst-case scenario planning, for example, and communicating more about the risks of the impending invasion in Ukraine.

KELLY: It'll be interesting to see how that line lands, that these reports are not about accountability. So what does happen now? What happens to this report?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the 12-page report we saw was just a summary, and that's the one that was released to the public as well. The White House says that it will submit another report to Congress. Kirby said that report would be more detailed and include classified information that could not be released to the public. And as you know, the criticism about the withdrawal has not relented at all and has come from diplomats and lawmakers on both parties. We're likely to hear much more of that in the coming weeks because Republican leaders in the House, they've said that they're going to do their own investigation. And they have started their own investigation of the withdrawal.

KELLY: All righty (ph). NPR's Franco Ordoñez reporting from his post at the White House. Thank you, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.