". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


State Dept. Releases Afghanistan Report During Long Holiday Weekend

July 5, 2023

As Americans left to celebrate a long Independence Day weekend with their families, late on Friday the State Department released a report it completed 15 months ago. The After Action Review (AAR) of the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been eagerly anticipated ever since Secretary of State Anthony Blinken unashamedly told an astonished Congress in September 2021 that the withdrawal was a success, despite stranding 500 Americans, even more Afghan allies, and Christians and other religious minorities to the mercy of the Taliban, and permitting a suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and 170 Afghan civilians at the Kabul airport.

The timing of the AAR’s release received as much attention as its contents. Secretary Blinken launched the 90-day review on December 1, 2021, and the document is accordingly dated to March 2022. However, it was not publicly released until June 30, 2023, more than a year later.

“People who are proud of their work don’t put it out on Friday before a four-day weekend,” remarked Family Research Council Senior Fellow and former Trump administration official Meg Kilgannon. “In one sense, it’s expected that presidential administrations will try to manage the public’s perception of their work,” she told The Washington Stand. “But when a report like this one is released on a Friday, about such a grave matter of much interest to the public, the ‘Friday news dump’ is shown to be more than just a messaging tactic.”

“Releasing reports that aren’t favorable late on Friday is an old practice designed to minimize the attention something receives,” agreed Joseph Backholm, Family Research Council Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement.

“In this case, it looks like an attempt to hide information from the American public that we have a right to know,” said Kilgannon. “It is disrespectful all Americans, but especially to the men and women who fought and died in the global war on terror and their families to release crucial information about the final withdrawal from Afghanistan in this way.”

“Members of both political parties have used this strategy when there is something that must be released that could be politically damaging,” Backholm told TWS. “In many ways, the reports released late on Friday, especially right before a holiday, are the reports the public should be most aware of because those are the reports politicians want them to know nothing about.”

The unclassified AAR largely applauded the actions of frontline personnel but identified multiple failures by senior officials in Washington. It echoed Secretary Blinken in insisting that the Trump administration bore at least a share of the blame. After describing the context of the operation and limits of its review, it set forth 28 findings and 11 recommendations.

Much like the Biden administration’s COVID Origins Report, released on the previous Friday, the AAR does not provide the public with the source material necessary to verify its interpretation of the facts, as indicated by an un-advertised discrepancy in the page numbers. The page numbers for the 24-page document jump suddenly from Page 20 to Page 85. According to the Table of Contents, a section titled “Narrative” runs from Page 21-84, which would likely contain firsthand accounts of the State Department employees interviewed by the AAR team. No explanation is provided for why this 64-page-long section is omitted from the published report (as opposed to being included with personal and classified information redacted).

The AAR adopted a defensive posture from the get-go, declaring that the State Department “confronted a task of unprecedented scale and complexity,” and that “the stress, demands, and risks of the situation are hard to exaggerate.” It emphasized, “the Department’s greatest asset is its people, including an extraordinary group of dedicated and talented professionals who worked tirelessly on the ground in Kabul, in Washington, and at other sites domestically and abroad to evacuate and assist as many people as possible.”

The AAR listed several contextual factors that complicated the Afghanistan withdrawal, including the prior evacuation of U.S. military personnel, unexpectedly rapid collapse of the non-Taliban Afghan government, and the expectation “that the U.S. government would help evacuate at-risk Afghans and their families alongside the U.S. citizens.” These all increased the obligations on State Department personnel.

Additionally, the Kabul embassy suffered “a debilitating COVID outbreak in June 2021,” said the AAR, which forced the embassy to adjust to “pandemic safety requirements” and direct Afghan employees to stay out of the compound. Once the evacuation began, it was difficult to staff and run the Department’s in-person crisis response because of “Washington personnel engaged in telework” due to abundantly cautious COVID regulations.

The AAR also fingered staffing issues, caused by both neglect and misplaced optimism. On one hand, “many critical domestic and overseas Department positions were not filled by Senate-confirmed appointees.” One such unfilled position was the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, which covers Afghanistan and the surrounding countries. This represented a lack of negotiating authority and of policy direction from the administration. On the other hand, the Kabul embassy was largely filled with brand new staff, as “many officers who had served in 2020-2021 departed in late-July and early-August” after completing their one-year rotation. “The decision to proceed with a normal rotation rested on overly optimistic assessments of the situation in Afghanistan,” noted the AAR.

Some of those overly optimistic assessments “seemed to rely on received assurances” from the Afghan government that it could successfully resist the Taliban offensive — which proved to be wildly optimistic. However, crediting these assurances did not prevent the State Department from being “better prepared for a worst-case scenario,” the AAR said.

The AAR found that the State Department’s headaches largely accelerated with the speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops to meet President Biden’s arbitrary deadline of September 11, including, “critically, the decision to hand over Bagram Air Base.”

However, its findings focused much more on the department’s own leadership failures. Even before the military withdrawal, it complained that “during both administrations there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow.” The State Department failed to name a “7th floor principal” — a high-ranking aide — to oversee and coordinate the effort. Then it “failed to establish a broader task force as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated,” and the task force it did establish was plagued by poor communication, staffing shortages, and physical separation. The department also lacked “a centralized case management system” to track the individuals it sought to extricate.

Another prominent theme throughout the AAR findings is the confusion spread by a lack of clear decision-making. The State Department failed to fully participate in the U.S. military’s evacuation planning because “it was unclear who in the Department had the lead.” Senior officials “had not made clear decisions … by the time the operation started” regarding “whom to evacuate and to where they should be evacuated.” Aggravating the confusion, “constantly changing policy guidance and public messaging from Washington regarding which populations were eligible for relocation … often failed to take into account key facts on the ground.”

“Most important” to the AAR, the State Department “proved unable to buffer those on the ground in Kabul from receiving multiple, direct calls and messages from current or former senior officials, members of Congress, and/or prominent private citizens asking and in some cases demanding that they provide assistance to specific at-risk Afghans.”

This flood of direct advocacy rose when members of the public became convinced that the State Department was bungling the evacuation and launched private efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghans. Family Research Council Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom Lela Gilbert reported in September 2021 that the U.S. State Department was actively “blocking the rescue operations” undertaken by non-governmental organizations, dissuading neighboring countries from allowing chartered planes to refuel, constantly changing the rules for evacuee documentation, and refusing to let planes take off from Afghanistan. Yet the AAR makes no mention of these unexplained, obstructive actions by State Department personnel, concluding instead that the largest problem was former officials and private citizens contacting State Department personnel to bring attention to cases the department would have otherwise ignored.

The AAR’s recommendations largely focused on better crisis management planning, but two stand out as unique. Under “Department Leadership During a Crisis,” the AAR advised the department to “appoint a single, principal-level crisis leader,” “proactively and clearly message policy priorities and limitations,” and “provid[e] clear mission objectives and guidance.” Under “Support for U.S. Citizens and Other Vulnerable Populations in a Crisis,” it urged the department to “determine how it will treat local staff,” “include more explicit information as to when and under what circumstances the Department would evacuate,” and “clarify” the criteria it would use in determining whether to reimburse evacuees.

While some of the failures — those committed in the summer and fall of 2021 — are solely attributable to the Biden administration, the AAR also faulted the Trump administration on several counts. Both the Trump and Biden administrations committed to withdraw all military personnel, it noted. When the administration changed, the Trump administration had left many unanswered questions about just how the evacuation would be conducted. The Trump administration also signed a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, but then “made no senior-level or interagency effort to address the backlog” in special immigrant visas for Afghans.

“The Biden administration had plenty of time to develop a new plan that the DOD and the State Department would have been comfortable with and confident in,” responded Family Research Council Executive Vice President Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, in a comment provided to TWS. “Why wasn’t that done? Was it because the administration was more concerned or focused on creating a woke military and State Department?”

“How much of the time that was spent on that could have been spent to prepare for what became an international incident and possibly the largest geopolitical failure in American history?” asked Boykin.

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.