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 summer 2021, which contributed to the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and required a massive airlift to rescue roughly 1250,000 U.S. citizens and Afghans who had assisted the United States.
The report does not pin blame on specific individuals, and mentions Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken only in passing. It does say that the 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 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 reason for 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 U.S. visas for Afghans hoping to lead the country ahead of the Taliban’s exit. It also suggested 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.
It also repeats assertions made by Mr. Blinken and others that few U.S. officials had foreseen how quickly the Afghan military and government would collapse.
“That said,” it adds, “as security conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated, some argued for more urgency in planning for a possible collapse.” In mid-July, nearly two dozen Kabul-based American diplomats sent Mr. Blinken a memo 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.
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.