A top US commander in Kabul during the chaotic withdrawal last August was recently revealed to have stated that continuous calls for help from the White House, Congress and beyond hampered US military missions to evacuate US citizens and foreign allies from Afghanistan, even calling the calls a "distraction."
Rear Adm. Peter Vasely called the countless outreaches from White House officials, media outlets, members of Congress, veterans, and even the Vatican a "distraction" that "created competition for already stressed resources," according to the Washington Post.
His comments appeared in sworn testimony provided for a US Army investigation of the August 26 suicide bombing that killed 13 US military members and an estimated 170 Afghan civilians at the gates of Kabul’s international airport.
The 2000 page declassified report was obtained by the Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request, and contains, according to the outlet, "the most detailed official account to date of the 17-day evacuation."
As thousands of phone calls, text messages and emails flooded in, Vasely, a Navy SEAL, was forced to divert personnel and establish a "coordination cell" responsible for handling the vast amounts of communications coming in.
He noted that social media exacerbated the problem further, broadening the "aperture of ambition" to a point where people even campaigned for the military to rescue specific dogs.
Vasely said that the military’s priority had always been to first evacuate American citizens, followed by lawful permanent residents, and then Afghans who had aided the United States throughout its 20-year war.
"But you had everyone from the White House down with a new flavor of the day for prioritization," Vasely told the Army investigators.
The Army’s lead investigator, Brig. Gen. Lance Curtis, asked Vasely whether reports were true that Pope Francis and first lady Jill Biden had requested help on behalf of specific people.
"That’s accurate," Vasely responded. "I was being contacted by representatives from the Holy See to assist the Italian military contingent … in getting through groups … of special interest to the Vatican. That is just one of many examples."
"I cannot stress enough," he added, "how these high-profile requests ate up bandwidth and created competition for already stressed resources."
Vasely and other military leaders involved in the evacuation efforts also told investigators that senior White House and State Department officials failed to grasp just how quickly the Taliban was advancing on the Afghanistan capital, and how they resisted efforts made by the Pentagon to prepare for evacuating the embassy and Afghan allies weeks before Kabul fell.
President Biden was asked on Thursday by NBC News if he was rejecting the conclusions or accounts in the report. He responded: "Yes, I am."
When asked if the accounts were true, he merely said: "I’m rejecting them."
Biden stressed his belief that it was time for the US military to withdraw.
"Look, there’s no good time to get out, but if we had not gotten out, they acknowledge that we would have had to put a hell of a lot more troops back in. It wasn’t just 2,000, 4,000," Biden said. "We would have had to significantly increase the number of troops, and then you’re back in this war of attrition."
Vasely told investigators that by August 22 or 23, "it was clear we weren’t going to get all Americans out" and that he "started having conversations at senior levels" with the US government about extending the evacuations beyond the August 31 deadline.
Following the end of the mission, State Department officials said that they believed around 100 American were left in Afghanistan who wanted to leave. That number was later revised to 450.
Vasely told investigators that the administration briefly considered extending the date into September, but scrapped it after a "visceral response" from Taliban leaders.