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State Department launches review of its role in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan

<i>Sayed Zakeria/Sputnik/AP</i><br/>The State Department has begun a 90-day review of its role in the withdrawal from Afghanistan that will focus on its actions during the last year of the Trump administration.
Sputnik via AP
Sayed Zakeria/Sputnik/AP
The State Department has begun a 90-day review of its role in the withdrawal from Afghanistan that will focus on its actions during the last year of the Trump administration.

By Kylie Atwood, CNN

The State Department has begun a 90-day review of its role in the withdrawal from Afghanistan that will focus on its actions during the last year of the Trump administration and the first nine months of the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced in a message to the department’s workforce Friday.

“Some of our colleagues spent years in Afghanistan, some completing multiple tours, while others supported the mission from here in Washington or elsewhere. I believe it is critical for the Department and our country that we capture and benefit from the lessons of our engagement in Afghanistan,” Blinken said, describing the effort as an after-action review “of the Department’s execution of its duties pertaining to closing out the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.”

The review began last week — around the same time that the Pentagon launched its own review — commencing about three months after the chaotic withdrawal. The scope of the review covers a specific period: from January 2020 to August 2021, which includes actions the department took during both the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration.

The goal is to “seek to assess the lessons learned from our engagement in Afghanistan and provide recommendations going forward,” Blinken said. The expectation is that the final report will be classified, said a senior State Department official. It is unclear if there will be an unclassified version as well. The department “will be as transparent as possible,” the official said.

There are at least six separate inquiries into the Afghanistan withdrawal underway at the State Department, the Pentagon and their respective oversight bodies, all of which are in fairly early stages.

A former senior State Department official, Ambassador Dan Smith, was asked to come out of retirement to take on the hefty project at the department. Smith is working with a team of about a dozen officials, including current and former diplomats with deep experience in the applicable areas: crisis management and planning, consular affairs, diplomatic security and emergency evacuations, Blinken and the department official said.

Blinken encouraged everyone to cooperate with the new inquiry, but there appears to be no legal or department requirement to do so, which could make it hard to get certain officials — particularly Trump administration officials — to partake.

“The team will have access to relevant documents and records, and is authorized to interview on a voluntary basis any individual it deems holds information relevant to the scope of the review,” Blinken said. “This will include individuals from the previous and current administrations in leadership positions and from relevant bureaus, offices, and overseas posts. I encourage anyone who is approached to cooperate with interview requests, consistent with Department guidelines.”

Many administration officials acknowledge privately that they are concerned about what the reviews might find; any spotlight on mismanagement or malpractice could further harm President Joe Biden politically, they say. Yet career diplomats, particularly those who were involved in the withdrawal, believe that the State Department probe in particular is necessary. The officials describe a process that was all hands on deck, but at times haphazard and they believe the department could learn something from reflecting on what could have been done better.

On August 17, two days after Kabul fell to the Taliban with hardly a shot fired, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said there would be an “extensive hotwash.” Sullivan vowed the administration would “look at every aspect of this from top to bottom,” promising to share the results of the analysis with the public.

Some diplomats have expressed concern about how the National Security Council will be held accountable, given its role in many key decisions made during the withdrawal, multiple diplomats involved in the withdrawal told CNN.

The expectation is that the State Department review will have access only to department officials — not to NSC officials — and interagency documents that involved the department, which is frustrating to some State Department officials, the diplomats told CNN. The NSC said it will review the lessons learned after the inquiries at the separate departments are conducted.

“Departments and agencies have already begun, or will soon begin, their own independent after-action reviews of the operations at the end of the US military mission in Afghanistan,” an NSC spokesperson said. “Once these internal reviews are done, we will have an opportunity to look at the full picture in a way that will help inform future operations. Departments and agencies will share lessons learned consistent with operational and classification security.”

Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee are charting out their own investigation into the withdrawal. The committee’s Republicans say the State Department has not responded to their requests for documents or transcribed interviews with department officials, weeks after those requests were made. And they are handicapped because, as the minority in the chamber, they don’t have subpoena power.

The State Department has provided regular briefings to Capitol Hill focused on the Afghanistan withdrawal, which Democrats say have revealed sufficient information.

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