State Department Report on Afghanistan Exit Urges ‘Worst Case’ Thinking

The State Department should plan better for worst-case scenarios, strengthen its crisis management capabilities and ensure that top officials hear “the broadest possible range of views,” including ones that challenge their assumptions and decisions.

Those were some of the key findings of a State Department review of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, which contributed to the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and required a massive airlift to rescue roughly 125,000 U.S. citizens and Afghans who had assisted the United States.

The review also portrayed a department that scrambled to respond to the crisis due to unfilled senior positions, unclear leadership on planning efforts and a shortage of seasoned diplomats in Kabul.

The document addresses what even many Democrats call a foreign policy debacle for the Biden administration: its failure to more adequately prepare for the abrupt collapse of the Afghan state and avoid days of harrowing chaos in Kabul surrounding an emergency exit that included a terrorist bombing at the city’s airport that killed as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. troops.

Biden officials have long said that few envisioned such a rapid Taliban takeover of the country, that exiting under any circumstances would have been difficult, and that the United States made the right strategic decision to withdraw.

The report does not pin blame on specific individuals and mentions Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken only in passing. But it does say that in both the Trump and Biden administrations, “there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow.”

Even after it became clear that the Taliban would capture Kabul, the report says, the department’s response featured confusion about responsibilities and authorities. Under Mr. Blinken, the State Department’s participation in executive branch planning for an evacuation “was hindered by the fact that it was unclear who in the department had the lead,” the report finds.

Another shortcoming: By the time the frantic airlift from Kabul began, top State Department officials “had not made clear decisions” regarding which Afghans would be eligible for evacuation, nor where they would be taken.

It also says that the department “failed” to establish a broad Afghanistan task force as the situation there deteriorated in late July and early August 2021, and that such a step “would have brought key players together to address issues related to a possible” mass evacuations.

At the same time, the 87-page report — less than half of which was publicly released on Friday because much of it is classified — points to several factors largely beyond the Biden administration’s control to explain the chaos that followed the government’s collapse and does not directly condemn the Biden administration.

It says, as Biden officials have many times before, that the coronavirus pandemic severely limited operations at the U.S. Embassy in the months ahead of the withdrawal, making it difficult to process special visas for Afghans hoping to leave the country ahead of the Taliban’s return. The report also suggests that the Trump administration had committed to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation without planning for how the United States might maintain a diplomatic presence in the country and what to do about the tens of thousands of Afghans who, fearing Taliban reprisals, had applied for those special visas.

The report says its review team “was struck by the differences in style and decision making” between the Trump and Biden administrations, “most notably the relative lack of an interagency process in the Trump administration and the intense interagency process that characterized the initial period of the Biden administration.”

“This included a particular focus very early in the Biden administration on the fate of those eligible” for American visas and assistance, which the report says led to “successful” early steps to address a huge backlog of Afghans who had begun requesting to leave the country. “That movement, however, was still in its early days as Kabul fell to the Taliban,” the reports finds.

The report repeats assertions made by Mr. Blinken and others that few U.S. officials had foreseen how quickly the Afghan military and government would collapse and notes that close observers “apparently including the Taliban itself” agreed.

“That said,” it adds, “as security conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated, some argued for more urgency in planning for a possible collapse.”

In mid-July 2021, nearly two dozen Kabul-based American diplomats sent Mr. Blinken a cable through the department’s “dissent” channel urging that evacuation flights for Afghans begin in two weeks and that the administration move faster to register them for visas.

That cable has become a focal point for congressional Republicans critical of the administration’s handling of the withdrawal. Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee threatened to hold Mr. Blinken in contempt of Congress when he initially refused to provide the memo to his committee.

Mr. Blinken allowed Mr. McCaul to view the document in May but says he will not release it publicly to protect internal discussions within his department. Mr. McCaul has said the full committee should be able to see the cable — including the panel’s top Democrat, Representative Gregory W. Meeks of New York, who has also asked to read it. The issue remains unresolved.

Mr. Blinken ordered the review shortly after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

The rollout of the report had clear hallmarks of a calculated effort to mute its public impact. It was released on the Friday afternoon ahead of the July 4 holiday, as many in Washington were beginning vacations, and a background briefing for State Department reporters began minutes after the report was circulated to them, limiting their ability to ask detailed questions about its findings.

The report also found that the U.S. Embassy was hampered in its ability to assist people wanting to leave the country ahead of an Aug. 31 U.S. deadline to withdraw because it was undergoing “a major staff transition.” Foreign Service officers were finishing their one-year tours and departed in the weeks before the deadline.

The report found that decision “to proceed with a normal rotation rested on overly optimistic assessments of the situation in Afghanistan, which some questioned,” the report found, and left crucial positions filled by people who had only arrived in Kabul weeks before the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital.

Responding to a question about the report during an appearance at the White House, President Biden did not address its findings. But he defended his decision to continue the withdrawal initiated by his predecessor, noting that warnings of a quickly reconstituted terrorist threat in the country have not been borne out.

“I said Al Qaeda would not be there,” Mr. Biden said. “I was right.”

The president’s comments are supported by a recently declassified national intelligence assessment that Al Qaeda’s limited presence in Afghanistan poses little threat to the United States.

In a memo to department employees on Friday, Mr. Blinken said that the report had identified “several areas where we could have done better, and where processes and systems could be improved,” and said he had already acted upon many of its recommendations.

“Indeed, the lessons learned have already helped guide our responses in Ukraine, Sudan, and other places,” Mr. Blinken said.

It also addressed the often improvised way in which Afghans wanting to flee the country were assisted in reaching Kabul International Airport and the American C-17 transport places that departed at a frenetic pace for days. Many former politicians, diplomats and military personnel used personal connections to help Afghans who found official State Department channels overwhelmed or useless.

The department “needs to protect crisis responders from direct appeals for assistance outside of appropriate department channels and chains of command,” the report says.

The review was conducted by Daniel B. Smith, a retired ambassador who led Mr. Biden’s postelection State Department transition team. It included more than 150 interviews with current and former officials, including Mr. Blinken.

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