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State Department lacked clear leadership in chaos of Afghanistan withdrawal, review finds

Key failures by both the Trump and Biden administrations contributed to a chaotic and deadly end to the two-decade U.S. presence in Afghanistan, according to an unclassified State Department review published Friday

Senior officials did not prepare for worst-case scenarios nor appreciate how quickly the situation could devolve; key leadership roles were not empowered with authority; and firmly held policy positions failed to take into account dissenting opinions, the review detailed. 

The report narrowly focused on the State Department’s responsibilities during the period when the U.S. was ending its military presence in Afghanistan, offering recommendations on how the agency could better prepare for and respond to extraordinary crises in unstable security environments.

The After Action Review was commissioned by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the aftermath of the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan, which formally ended on Aug. 31, 2021.

The review was conducted over the course of 90 days and included interviews with more than 150 current and former State Department officials at all levels of the organization, and a review of relevant documents and materials, the report notes. The interviews were voluntary, and those interviewed requested anonymity or to not be named in the report, it noted. 

It was released with little notice and fanfare in the afternoon of a holiday weekend, when Congress is out of session and the administration is unlikely to face public questioning from journalists at press briefings. 

It also comes nearly two years after U.S. officials first committed to critically reviewing the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan. It marked one of the lowest moments for President Biden’s term, and contributed to intense criticism of and raised alarm over how the U.S. government prepares for evacuating Americans in times of crisis.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, slammed the State Department for declassifying only half of the full review as “another blatant attempt to hide the Biden administration’s culpability in the chaotic and deadly evacuation from Afghanistan.”

While the U.S. managed to evacuate more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan over the course of two weeks, including more than 85,000 Afghans, the disorganized effort led to a swell of people rushing to the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport over several days as the evacuation deadline neared. A subsequent suicide bomb blast killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghans among the crowds outside the airport. 

In this Aug. 24, 2021, file photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, families walk towards their flight during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan. More than 30 California children are stuck in Afghanistan after traveling to the country to see their relatives weeks before the Taliban seized power and US forces left, according to school districts where the kids are enrolled. (Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps via AP, File)

Republicans have faulted the State Department, in particular, for failing to prepare for a worst-case scenario that resulted in more than 100,000 Afghan allies left behind.

The report notes that diplomats serving in Kabul who were forced to shutter their operations at the embassy faced “a task of unprecedented scale and complexity” to initiate an evacuation plan at the airport.

“Overall, the Department’s personnel responded with great agility, determination, and dedication, while taking on roles and responsibilities both domestically and overseas that few had ever anticipated,” the review noted.  

But the review takes to task that senior leadership was lacking in both the Trump and Biden administrations, failing to consider the worst-case scenarios and how quickly they could occur.

“When the Trump administration left office, key questions remained unanswered about how the United States would meet the May 2021 deadline for a full military withdrawal, how the United States could maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul after that withdrawal, and what might happen to those eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program as well as other at-risk Afghans,” the review stated.

The report also noted that the Trump administration had almost no interagency process in its decision-making processes around Afghanistan and that the Biden administration was characterized by an “intense interagency process.”

Under the Biden administration, the State Department and embassy prepared for a number of contingencies with Biden’s commitment to withdraw all U.S. military from Afghanistan, but the absence of a clear State Department lead to coordinate with the Department of Defense hindered effectiveness of planning, the review noted. 

U.S. officials’ concern that the broadcasting of crisis and contingency planning would undermine the stability and security of the Afghan government is also highlighted as inhibiting efforts to prepare for the worst-case scenario.  

The review also points out that the State Department lacked Senate-confirmed diplomats in key leadership roles and that while highly capable career officials filled these duties in an acting capacity, “it is not the same as having a confirmed official in position.”

In particular, the review points out that the position of Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs — the top official critical to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and South and Central Asia — was filled by a rotation of career officials in an “acting role” throughout the Trump administration and most of the first year of the Biden administration. 

The review described the officials who filled that role as “talented career officials” but added, “No matter how qualified the ‘acting’ person is, it is not the same as having a confirmed official in position.”

The review also pins blame on the Trump administration for failing to process Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for those who worked alongside U.S. service members over the 20-year course of the war. The group was deemed a priority for evacuations, but many eligible for such visas failed to get to them in time.

The lengthy process requires sign-off at multiple stages of the process, including approval by the embassy, creating a significant backlog that lawmakers warned would fail to dole out visas ahead of the withdrawal.

“At the time the Trump administration signed the agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, there was a significant backlog in the Afghan SIV process. That administration made no senior-level or interagency effort to address the backlog or consider options for other at- risk Afghans despite its commitment to a military withdrawal,” the department concluded in its report.

But military allies are estimated to be just a fraction of those who were left behind in the evacuation who are considered particularly vulnerable under Taliban leadership, a group that includes those who worked on women’s rights or pro-democracy efforts.  Many vulnerable Afghans remain in the country, where a lack of diplomatic services makes it difficult to gain entry to the U.S. Others who have fled in hopes of eventually reaching the U.S. likewise have limited pathways to do so

The report highlights key improvements for the State Department to prioritize that can be applied to future scenarios of complex evacuations in dangerous and unstable security environments. 

“The AAR’s [After Action Review’s] recommendations identify the need to plan better for worst-case scenarios, to rebuild and strengthen the Department’s core crisis management capabilities, and to ensure that senior officials hear the broadest possible range of views including those that challenge operating assumptions or question the wisdom of key policy decisions.” 

Under Secretary for Management John Bass said in a statement that recommendations from the review have been put into practice and applied to how the U.S. has been responding to unfolding crises like the outbreak of civil war in Sudan in May, Russia’s war in Ukraine and other conflict zones. 

In a forward, the review noted that those interviewed were still processing the emotional trauma “of working to help U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, locally employed embassy staff, and at-risk Afghans leave the country under incredible duress” and commended them for dedication and professionalism. 

Source: The Hill

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