It has been six months since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. While the American public is currently focused on another foreign policy crisis, the need for answers and accountability into last year’s events in Afghanistan should remain a top priority.
Luckily, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFR) has stepped into the breach. This past month, this Committee issued a report critical of the federal government’s actions in Afghanistan. SFR criticized both the Biden administration’s failures that allowed for a quick Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and a botched withdrawal that left thousands of Americans (according to the report) and tens of thousands of Afghan partners behind.
Thanks to this report, we now know without a shadow of a doubt that President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were misleading the public when they claimed that only “100 to 200 Americans” or even “under 200” Americans were left behind on August 31, 2021, after the federal government airlifted 123,000 people, including 6,000 American citizens, out of Kabul. Since that time, the federal government has evacuated at least an additional 479 American citizens. And that’s not all. The SFR report claims between 4,000 and 9,000 American citizens were left behind in Afghanistan on August 31. My organization, CASA, hopes to use multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the State Department and other federal agencies to discover the truth of how many American citizens were left behind.
The SFR report documents that the failure to evacuate these citizens was due to general incompetence on the part of the federal government. For example, officials were still formulating a withdrawal plan a day before Kabul fell to the Taliban, despite the fact that President Biden had announced the withdrawal from Afghanistan four months earlier. Also, there was a failure of coordination between the State Department and the Defense Department. And the Transportation Department waited five days to issue an order allowing foreign airlines to deliver evacuees to U.S. airports, and seven days to activate the Civil Reserve Aircraft Fleet, which is a private fleet that can aid the U.S. military in a crisis, but “was barely used and did little to impact evacuation operations.”
SFR’s report also provides more information about the State Department “dissent cable.” This cable, which was written by State Department personnel who dissented from the official – and more positive – view of the military situation in Afghanistan, “warned of rapid territorial gains by the Taliban and the subsequent collapse of Afghan security forces, and offered recommendations on ways to mitigate the crisis and speed up an evacuation.” But it seems unlikely that this memo prodded State Department leadership into any action. The State Department has refused to release the cable to Congress, or to discuss any actions taken as a result of it. CASA has also issued a FOIA request to the State Department for this cable and related communications.
A pivotal decision in the whole affair remains the early abandonment of Bagram Air Force Base, which the Committtee calls “a strategic unforced error that negatively impacted the security of thousands of American citizens and vulnerable Afghans left behind.” Not only did this action demoralize Afghan allies, it deprived the U.S. of an airport to evacuate dependents, and resulted in the release of thousands of Taliban and other prisoners, including the bomber who killed 13 American soldiers in Kabul. President Biden has attempted to justify the decision to close Bagram prior to the evacuation by citing recommendations from the Defense Department. However, what is known about the decision does not back up the President’s assertion. As records are released around this decision, we will have a clearer picture of what really happened.
Unfortunately, this report does not address the arms, equipment, and vehicles the U.S. left behind when it evacuated Kabul. The price tag for this may be as high as $18 billion dollars’ worth, including aircraft, armored vehicles and sophisticated defensive systems.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of our information requests have been met with resistance and bureaucratic hurdles. Clearly, the administration is not eager to inform the American public about botched military and national security decisions, like those made in Afghanistan. Most disappointing of all, not only has the Defense Department provided no responses to these requests but recent attempts to obtain information about their status have resulted in emails being kicked back with “Mailbox full” messages. So much for the Attorney General’s recent declaration that “Transparency in government operations is a priority of this Administration,” as he declared in the new FOIA guidelines.
The need for transparency and accountability on one of the biggest stains on America’s reputation abroad continues to be a pressing concern.
Adam Turner is the Director of the Center to Advance Security in America.