Military leaders claimed that the August 26, 2021, attack in Afghanistan that killed 13 American service members at the Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate was “not preventable.” However, sources who were on the ground, as well as a recently released Army investigative report, say that President Joe Biden’s order to evacuate as many people as possible contributed to the attack.
“Based on our investigation at the tactical level, this was not preventable,” U.S. Army Central Command Lt. Gen. Ron Clark, the lead investigator, told reporters at a briefing on his findings last month.
However, his report, which was released via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the Washington Post in February, said as one of its key findings, “The attack was not preventable at the tactical level without degrading the mission to maximize the number of evacuees.”
A U.S. government source who was on the ground during the evacuation and close to officials conducting it told Breitbart News in an interview that Biden had directed them to get “asses in seats” — an order to get as many people on planes out of Kabul as possible.
That mid-evacuation order led to the ballooning of the non-combatant evacuation operation’s scale, which the military would fulfill at great risk.
“It was basically the second day, you know, the president of United States called — I didn’t talk to him, not saying I talked to him — but I heard the conversation. He was like, ‘I want f-cking asses in seats,’” the source said.
“And so what happens when you do that? The gates get opened. And that’s why I believe the last statistic I saw is like maybe 10% of the people that out of the 124,000 that we got out of there are actually warranted to be out of there,” the source said.
Although the U.S. government had planned for months for an orderly non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) for U.S. officials, allies, and designated Afghans, what unfolded was an all-out fight by tens of thousands of desperate Afghans to get into the four-and-a-half-mile perimeter airport — stemmed only by a few thousand U.S. troops at various gates that were in constant danger of being breached.
The investigation found a situation where commanders had to choose between protecting forces or getting more evacuees through, per Biden’s order.
“The priority for the Marines at Abbey Gate was maximizing the flow of evacuees through the gate to the [evacuation control center],” the report said. “Any time spent emplacing obstacles was time not spent searching and screening civilian evacuees.”
“Additionally, many force protection measures that could have been implemented, such as additional T-Walls or HESCO barriers, would have inherently reduced the flow of evacuees,” it continued.
“Leaders struck the balance of protecting the force and maximizing the flow of evacuees as best as possible under the circumstances,” it said.
The Army report also said gate commanders were allowed to shut the gates in response to threats but that they were under “tremendous pressure from the strategic level (Combatant Command (CCMD), Joint Staff (JS), White House) to continue to process and evacuate civilians to the maximum extent possible, so gate closures were done rarely, locally, and temporarily.”
An interviewee told investigators:
The [president of the United States] says to open the gates and get as many people on planes as possible. Any American ID and their families was to be let in. We had to make sure every aircraft is full. Then we also receive a statement saying women and children were at risk and should be brought through as priority like [American citizens]. This increased the inflow of personnel massively. This set the stage for the 26th.
“The decision to get ‘f-cking asses in seats’ crushed us,” the U.S. government source told Breitbart News.
An August 18, 2021, email released by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) in October 2021 backed up the source’s claim that Biden had ordered U.S. officials to allow people through to fill out planes.
Consular officials instructed to “err on the side of excess” and put people on planes
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) October 26, 2021
The email’s subject line was “Presidential Directive.”
Biden’s directive came after shocking footage of Afghans trying to flee Afghanistan — even clinging to departing planes — and some aircraft leaving Afghanistan almost empty.
Leaders at the Pentagon were clearly feeling the pressure. On August 17, Joint Staff Director of Current Operations Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor pledged to accelerate evacuation flights out of Afghanistan, from 700 to 800 a day to 5,000 to 9,000 people a day.
Another interviewee told Army investigators that during the NEO, top U.S. commander in Kabul Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely spent “8-10 hours a day” on the phone with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Central Command commander and was “constantly pressured to get more people on planes.”
“The constant theme during POTUS calls was, ‘How do we get more people out?’” said the interviewee, whose identity is redacted.
“The directive we had at the time was to fill all of the planes, which led to tons of people at the gates knowing they might be able to get through,” the interviewee said, adding:
The pressure was high to evacuate a population that was under duress and we had to sift through massive threat streams. People were waiting outside of the gates to get in for days. We had to execute a NEO, combat, and humanitarian operation all at the same time. All of that was combined with the logistics of supporting over 10,000 people on HKIA. It was a challenging, multi-facetted [sic] situation.
The U.S. government source told Breitbart News there was “definitely” more pressure to evacuate more people after Biden’s order.
“Without a doubt that directive, that order, it got people in and it got asses in seats, but I don’t, I don’t believe it was the asses we wanted,” the source said.
One Marine interviewee told Army investigators that by August 19th, he understood “there was a push from the executive branch to get the flow started.” “Doing the right processing was too slow, so the quality of intake dropped because we were barely checking paperwork,” he said.
An August 21st Central Command (Centcom) slideshow, titled “Noncombatant Evacuation Operation Withdrawal Plan,” released with the Army’s report showed that Centcom had to balance how to “maximize the evacuation” and start bringing U.S. troops back home by an August 31 deadline.
“Problem statement: How does USCENTCOM maximize the evacuation of [American citizens] and designated personnel while retaining the ability to retrograde all deployed NEO forces [no later than] 31 Aug?” the slideshow asked.
Another released Centcom document showed a “NEO execution timeline” that marked August 18 with “POTUS decision to ‘fill all planes.’”
A second U.S. government source also attested to the effect of Biden’s order.
“We got out all the [local embassy staff], all the AMCITs, and all the SIVs. But we also took a bunch of people that had no paperwork. But we were told, ‘They’re threatened, they’re getting on a plane,’ by people that had more authority than we did,” the source told Breitbart News in an interview.
The order meant not only sifting through and pulling in more people at the gates, but it also meant crises inside the airport, according to a third U.S. government source. The airport terminal was so crowded and hot that evacuees were dying of heat exhaustion and dehydration, according to the source.
“It was a complete mess,” the source told Breitbart News. “They were shoulder-to-shoulder packed, in like the few areas that we let them go through. I do know some people actually died in there from a heat stroke and just lack of water and stuff.”
“There was no room for them to move. There was no bathroom or anything like that. So there was just human waste all over the place, discarded food, all kinds of stuff,” the source added.
The Army investigation found that the logistics system never had more than one-day supply on hand for the 21,000 people at the airport at the height of the NEO. “We were on a razor’s edge,” an interviewee told investigators. “It was one [Meals-Ready-to-Eat] a day for evacuees, and two a day for Service Members.”
According to one interviewee, the State Department’s early NEO planning estimated 40,000 evacuees — less than a third of the 124,000 who were ultimately evacuated.
“I trained for NEOs — this was different than any type of deal I’ve ever done. The scale of this was insane to say the least,” the second source told Breitbart News. “I don’t think anybody in the planning cells at the Pentagon anywhere thought it was going to be as big as what it was.”
The source said in addition to Biden’s order, thousands of special requests from the White House, Congress, and other groups to evacuate certain people, as well as freelancers showing up in Afghanistan, made their jobs more difficult.
For example, conservative media figure Glenn Beck organized an effort to evacuate Afghan Christians, and former Green Beret Tim Kennedy actually showed up in Afghanistan, as did Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Peter Meijer (R-MI).
The source said that Beck tried to “shortcut the line” of evacuees with a convoy full of Afghans who were not cleared, vetted, or manifested for a flight, and some people on buses that Beck had chartered had hand grenades in their pockets.
The source added that Moulton and Meijer wanted to talk to the Taliban — which would have taken resources and time away from the evacuation. “Their hearts are in the right place, but all they did was make a complicated situation more complicated,” the source said.
The Army report talked about the tremendous toll the mission took on forces and recommended they receive mental health evaluations.
One Marine talked about the moment she heard the blast and ran to look for her fellow Marines assigned to search women and children at the gates. She found one, who told her not to look at the body on the ground. She looked anyway, saw Sgt. Nicole Gee, and tried to pick her up not realizing she had perished. Gee had just been meritoriously promoted a month before.
In the end, 13 young service members were killed in the Abbey Gate attack, and at least 39 more were wounded. “The number of wounded from the attack at Abbey Gate will almost certainly continue to grow,” the Army report said.
Centcom Commander Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie signed off on the Army report’s findings in a memo to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in November 2021, reiterating that “the attack was not preventable at the tactical level without degrading the mission to maximize the number of evacuees.”
“Based on the totality of the facts and circumstances detailed in the [Army Central Command] investigation, I do not believe that any adverse administrative or disciplinary action is necessary or appropriate for any U.S. personnel involved in our operations at Abbey Gate,” McKenzie added.
Biden — or anyone from the administration — has not accepted fault for the chaotic withdrawal but has instead called the withdrawal a “success” for evacuating so many people.
In January, Biden was asked at a press conference about his administration’s competence on the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“There is no way to get out of Afghanistan after 20 years easily. Not possible no matter when you did it. And I make no apologies for what I did,” he said.
This is the third in a series of stories on the NEO.