State Department report details failures of chaotic Afghan withdrawal

Washington – The State Department released an unclassified version of its “After Action Review” report on Afghanistan on Friday, which blamed the Trump and Biden administrations for “insufficient” planning and said a lack of clear and of decision-making “added significantly” to the challenges American personnel faced during the frantic and ultimately deadly military withdrawal and evacuation from Kabul in 2021.

Commissioned by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the review was completed last year and follows an earlier White House report that was released in April. A Pentagon review remains classified.

The State Department review, which draws on more than 150 interviews with current and former State Department officials as well as documentary evidence, recapitulates the difficult circumstances leading up to and during the U.S. withdrawal, including including many senior officials acting on an interim basis, backlogs generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a significant staff transition at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in July and August.

“The Department has compelling reasons to limit tours to one year in demanding and dangerous unaccompanied posts like the Kabul Embassy, ​​but the decision to proceed with a normal rotation was based on overly optimistic assessments of the situation in Afghanistan, that some have questioned,” he said.

The 24-page unclassified document, which omits more than 60 pages of material included in the classified version, said Presidents Trump and Biden’s decisions to end the US military mission “posed significant challenges for the Department as that he sought to maintain a strong diplomatic and assistance presence in Kabul and provide continued support to the Afghan government and people.”

“[D]During both administrations, there has not been enough senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly these might follow,” the report said.

A “major challenge”, he noted, “was determining the scale and scope of the operation, particularly in terms of how many at-risk Afghan nationals would be included, how they would be priorities and the duration of their evacuation.” U.S. officials “had not made clear decisions” on the matter, which intensified the challenges and added to the confusion faced by diplomatic and military personnel on the ground, according to the review.

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit by the roadside near the military part of Kabul airport on August 20, 2021. / Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit by the roadside near the military part of Kabul airport on August 20, 2021. / Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

An “overwhelming volume” of calls from the public, government agencies and Congress to the State Department about potential evacuees also added to the chaos. “Responding to such requests often exposed Department employees to even greater risk and hampered efforts to move larger groups of people,” the report said.

The United States evacuated about 125,000 people, including 6,000 Americans, during its withdrawal. Dozens of Afghans and 13 American soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing outside Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul as thousands sought to flee the country.

At a briefing for reporters convened ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend, a senior State Department official said the department had already “internalized many of these painful lessons and applied them in crises. later,” including handling the U.S. response to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Sudan earlier this year.

The report makes 11 recommendations, the first of which is to “strengthen the Department’s crisis preparedness and response capabilities”. He suggests that for emergency scenarios, the department designate a single “crisis chief” and strategic communications manager, improve communication channels for diplomatic security officials and establish “flying teams” that could be dispatched quickly. in crisis areas.

“What this report reveals is that in crises that last longer, that are particularly complicated, that occur on a large scale, that affect populations far beyond the official American community, we have not had over time the appropriate structure and resources available to provide that foundation, a stable and consistent set of capabilities that we can draw on when we suddenly face something large scale,” said the department head of ‘State.

In a letter to State Department employees obtained by CBS News, Blinken said the department has “already acted on many of the report’s recommendations to strengthen our preparedness, response capabilities, communications, and resource deployment.” .

“I am grateful for this ongoing work,” Blinken wrote.

In a statement Friday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said the redacted version of the review “completely omitted” the narrative contained in the full 87-page report.

“There is no reason not to produce a declassified version of the full report, as much of it is marked ‘Sensitive but Unclassified’ or ‘Unclassified,'” McCaul said. “This is another blatant attempt to hide the Biden administration’s culpability in the chaotic and deadly evacuation from Afghanistan.”

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