Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby defended the Biden administration Tuesday against accusations that its Afghanistan withdrawal was unprepared for the speed of the Taliban’s incursion into Kabul — revealing the Defense Department had been conducting drills as far back as May to rehearse the mass evacuation of noncombatants from the country.
Still, Kirby acknowledged the “disturbing and heartbreaking” nature of the scene Monday at the Afghan capital’s international airport and conceded that U.S. officials failed to foresee “the level of panic that was going to happen” on the tarmac.
Kirby’s remarks came hours after the United States resumed operations Monday at Hamid Karzai International Airport following efforts by American, Turkish and other international troops to reestablish security there. Thousands of desperate Afghans had stormed the tarmac in a series of overnight breaches from the airfield’s civilian, southern side — seeking to flee their country after the Taliban’s government takeover.
The chaos resulted in the United States temporarily suspending all flights out of Kabul amid a rapidly deteriorating security situation and an urgent U.S. military operation to evacuate American civilians and Afghan allies out of the Taliban-controlled capital.
On Tuesday, however, Kirby rejected the notion that the administration was caught flat-footed by the disorder at the airport, explaining that U.S. officials has been “planning for noncombatant evacuation operations” since May — “right after” President Joe Biden announced his withdrawal decision in April.
“In fact, we held a big drill here at the Pentagon, downstairs in the Joint Operations Center with the entire interagency, to walk through what the retrograde was going to look like — the withdrawal — as well as including the possibility for these kinds of evacuation operations,” Kirby told MSNBC in an interview.
Kirby also detailed another drill that took place “just as recently as two weeks ago,” when U.S. officials “held a tabletop exercise here at the Pentagon to walk through what it would look like to do exactly what we’re doing now — which is a noncombatant evacuation operation from Hamid Karzai International Airport.”
Despite that planning, at least seven people died Monday during the storming of the airport in Kabul, including several Afghans who clung to a departing U.S. military jet and fell mid-air as it gained altitude. Additionally, the body of one Afghan was found in the landing gear of an American C-17 transport aircraft hours after it hastily took off from the runway.
U.S. troops also were twice forced to respond to “hostile threats” at the airport, resulting in the deaths of two armed individuals who were shooting at them, as well as the possible wounding of an American soldier.
Kirby insisted Tuesday that U.S. officials had “planned for almost every contingency” surrounding evacuations. “But as an old military maxim says, no plan survives first contact. So obviously, we had to adjust in the moment,” he said.
“It would have been difficult to predict for the level of mayhem and chaos that we saw there,” Kirby added. “We’re mindful of the images, the graphic nature of them. Certainly, nobody wanted to see it result like it did over the last 24 hours.”
While the military, northern side of the airfield “is back up and running again,” Kirby said U.S. officials would continue to better secure the civilian, southern side throughout Tuesday.
“No plan is ever perfect, and no plan can be perfectly predictive in terms of what friction, what unknown aspects and factors you’re going to deal with on the backside,” he said.