‘Shameful’: Expert Assails State Department on Afghanistan ‘After Action’ Report

By Published on July 7, 2023

The State Department has released an “After Action Review on Afghanistan” nearly two years after the U.S.’ catastrophic military withdrawal from that country, which concluded on Aug. 30, 2021.

The report was released following a 90-day review and included more than “150 interviews with current and former State Department officials at all levels of the organization and reviewed relevant documents and other materials.”

The State Department released the report, finalized in March 2022, on June 30.

“It’s just shameful, and starting with the timing of the release, they dropped it on the afternoon of the Friday before the Fourth of July, which is just a naked attempt to bury it, to not have anybody pay attention to it,” says Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation. “But fortunately, there is such interest in this topic that they can’t. They can’t hide how bad this is and this is their own people doing the reporting.” (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.) 

Coates adds:

The State Department was shifting blame to the Department of Defense, and basically nobody wanted to be left holding the bag. And what the result was was 13 dead American heroes in Kabul that didn’t need to be sacrificed.

Coates joins today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the State Department’s report and her thoughts on the timing of its release, as well as on the end of Israel’s recent military operation in the West Bank city of Jenin.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

 

 

Samantha Aschieris: Joining today’s episode is Victoria Coates, senior research fellow in international affairs and national security at The Heritage Foundation. Victoria, thanks for joining us again.

Victoria Coates: Of course.

Aschieris: So, one week ago, the State Department released a report titled “After Action Review on Afghanistan,” which it details the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to The Washington Post, the report “faults the agency’s crisis management and awareness before and during the fall of Afghanistan.” First and foremost, can you walk us through some of the key findings of this report?

Coates: Yeah. It’s just shameful and starting with the timing of the release, they dropped it on the afternoon of the Friday before the Fourth of July, which is just a naked attempt to bury it, to not have anybody pay attention to it. But fortunately, there is such interest in this topic that they can’t hide how bad this is and this is their own people doing the reporting.

So I think they tried mightily to be as sympathetic as they could and they did blame the Trump administration, which had been out of office for 10 months and had not departed from Afghanistan before President [Donald] Trump left office. But they tried to blame us anyway for it. But nothing can hide what was apparently completely disorganized, rudderless drawdown of American troops with no leadership.

Nobody wanted to own this thing, obviously. And so the White House was providing no direction. The State Department was shifting blame to the Department of Defense. And basically, nobody wanted to be left holding the bag. And what the result was was 13 dead American heroes in Kabul that didn’t need to be sacrificed.

Aschieris: Yes, definitely. And as you just mentioned, it was released before the July Fourth weekend. Many people had off on Monday going into a long weekend. What was interesting, for me at least, was that this report was dated March of 2022. So not even that it was completed and released right away. It was more than a year that it was held. Why do you think it took so long for the report to be released in the first place?

Coates: Well, obviously, they didn’t want to release it. It is damning. But also, bear in mind, we only have a quarter of the report. Three-quarters of it was redacted on security grounds as containing very sensitive information. And I have to wonder what that is. I mean, clearly the Taliban knows what’s in that report, so it sort of seems to me the American people could know as well. So we only have a fraction of it.

As you said, it was completed over a year ago, and then amazingly, they dropped it on the Friday before the Fourth of July. So the whole thing just doesn’t pass the smell test. They know, the administration knows perfectly well that the president’s poll numbers tanked right after Afghanistan and they’ve never recovered. He can insist all he wants that this was a great success, but the American people know otherwise.

Aschieris: And just speaking of the administration, it’s hard to believe that it’s almost two years since the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan. Do you think anyone in the Biden administration, given the amount of time that has passed, will be held accountable for what went down, what happened in Afghanistan?

Coates: It certainly doesn’t seem so. The president just last week made this claim that there’s no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which is, again, doesn’t pass the smell test. Of course there’s al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, these senior folks were moving back in as the U.S. came out. And so the president is sort of delusional about what’s going on and is insisting it was a success.

It was what he had campaigned on. And so it’s what he did. Then why would they hold anyone else accountable? I mean, they think it was well done, in their opinion. And the inconvenient facts of this report notwithstanding.

Aschieris: And just looking at more of the specifics of the report, if you were to pick the most significant or the most shocking take, what would that be for you?

Coates: Really the lack of coordination, that this is what the National Security Council staff, and maybe that’s my own particular background talking, but this, it’s precisely what the NSC is designed to do because if you look at a problem like this and the president’s given you direction, it’s an interagency problem. And if you as the NSC are not creating a very solid plan and issuing direction to the departments and agencies, they will naturally do what was done, which is, they’re going to try to shift the blame between each other, try to do as little work as possible and sweep the whole thing under the rug.

So this goes right up to the top, this goes to the White House, and the fact that the president would give these orders and then abdicate his responsibility to see them executed in an orderly fashion that was as safe as possible for both Americans and for the Afghans who had helped us. He just let all those lives go to risk. And that to me is just a shocking dereliction of duty.

Aschieris: And hopefully this situation that happened in Afghanistan will never happen again. But looking forward to potential, if we did ever find ourselves in a similar situation with having to withdraw from somewhere, if it happens in this administration, what should the Biden administration and even future administrations learn from this specific report and what happened in Afghanistan almost two years ago?

Coates: Well, what’s that old saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes? And I think we all in August of 2021 were painfully reminded of the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War and a similar chaotic scene of the United States retreating in some disarray. And so, again, the president insisting it won’t be like Saigon, then it was like Saigon.

He had done nothing to prepare for it. And there are tons of things you can do. You can start by not giving up your personal airfield outside of Kabul and creating a situation where you’re going to have to rely on the Taliban to give you security for Kabul International Airport. So we should have kept [inaudible] as our basis for the evacuation if we were going to evacuate.

And then we have tremendous logistical capabilities within particularly the Department of Defense. And so you need a logistics supply chain general to be in charge of that. And the president would need to very personally say, “You are the go-to person. You are in charge. You run this thing.” And they know they can do that all day long, but they just need the direction. They need the personal intervention of the president and a clear plan. But there’s no reason that this should ever happen again.

Aschieris: Now, we’ve been discussing a lot about what happened in the past in terms of Afghanistan, and I wanted to just shift a little bit and talk about the present situation in Afghanistan. And if you could give us a little insight into what the country looks like now and just sort of the status of what’s going on there.

Coates: It’s extremely sad. One of the sort of byproducts of the 20-year American presence in Afghanistan was an increasing liberalization of that society; educational institution, particularly for women and girls; some start at a judicial system—and all of that is gone.

The Taliban are determined to take Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages. They have been systematically demolishing any opportunities, particularly for women, but then for anything cultural or historic. Remember, these are the folks who participated in the blowing up of the gigantic Buddhas 30 years ago. So they’re unchanged and they are taking Afghanistan, as I said, back to the Middle Ages.

The United States continues to try to get humanitarian aid in and to get the Afghans who are still there, who want to get out out. It’s not clear how much of that is being siphoned off. The aid is being siphoned off by the Taliban. But certainly, they have the opportunity to do that and basically be subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, which is certainly not a desirable state of affairs.

Aschieris: And one of the criticisms of when the U.S. left was the fact that there were both U.S. citizens and Afghan allies that were left behind. Do you happen to know how many U.S. citizens are still in an Afghanistan and how many of our Afghan allies are still there?

Coates: It’s very hard to tell. I’ve seen estimates. The State Department will tell you it’s a couple hundred, I’ve heard thousand. So that number is going to be hard to pin down. But there shouldn’t be any, we really should not be leaving, particularly our citizens, but then our allies in this kind of incredibly dangerous situation that we created, essentially.

And so the fact that the administration has been slow-walking any attempts to get those folks out and has not resolved a lot of the visa issues that I’ve been hearing about for folks who have gotten to the United States is, again, really shameful.

Aschieris: Now, I just want to pivot to two other topics while we have you. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is currently in China for a four-day visit. According to the Treasury Department, while in Beijing, Secretary Yellen will discuss with [People’s Republic of China] officials the importance for our countries as the world’s two largest economies to responsibly manage our relationship, communicate directly about areas of concern, and work together to address global challenges. What do you hope that the secretary addresses or accomplishes during this four-day trip?

Coates: Well, I was hoping she wouldn’t go. I mean, both this and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken’s trip are just an ill-advised attempt to create some kind of cooperation with the People’s Republic of China when Beijing has absolutely no interest in cooperation. Everything they’re actually doing is extremely hostile and challenging to the United States. And the sooner we realize that and stop trying to go on these charm offenses, the better.

I mean, the treasury secretary would be doing much better to be going over to London to negotiate a financial free trade deal with the U.K. than going to Beijing to try to get cooperation on Ukraine or climate, which are the two things I think they’re hoping for.

But the problem is that China has no interest in cooperating with us on Ukraine or climate. So they may say some nice things to string us along, but they’re not going to do anything that’s materially helpful. So I would say this trip is just a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Aschieris: And just another topic that I wanted to get your thoughts on is Israel’s military operation that just ended. ABC News is reporting that the operation lasted 48 hours and included drone airstrikes, hundreds of special forces, and tanks. What was the purpose of this operation in the first place? And if you could just break down more about this operation and what we know after it.

Coates: Yeah. The operation took place in the so-called West Bank in the refugee camp of Jenin, which is a camp of about 17,000, which does have a United Nations presence in terms of medical facilities and schools, but is a hotbed of Iranian-sponsored terrorism against Israel. And this has been the most extensive operation in Jenin in 20 years. And so this is a big deal.

And the reason it happened is this past year has been the deadliest year for both Israelis and Palestinians in decades. And I think you can draw a direct line between the uptick in violence that has taken place in 2022, 2023 time frame and the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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It’s now, I think, over a billion dollars that the Biden administration started pouring into Palestinian-related institutions right after they came into office in 2021. They say their intentions were the best, that they wanted to fund schools and hospitals, they wanted to provide economic opportunity, but what we’ve found is you would provide unfettered resources into these communities. The Iranians hijack it and use it as a means to sponsor terrorism against Israelis.

And that’s what [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu decided was intolerable. And he launched this exercise and hopefully it will be effective and will have much reduced violence in Israel going forward.

Aschieris: Well, Victoria, thank you so much for joining me today. Just before we go, I wanted to give you the opportunity to share any final thoughts on the Afghanistan report or any of the other topics that we discussed.

Coates: … I really appreciate it and I’m hopeful that at some point, Samantha, I’ll come on and have some good news to discuss with you. I feel like I’m kind of a bad news buffet when I come on.

But I think keeping attention on the Afghanistan report, I think asking for the redacted passages to be reviewed and hopefully released so we can get a really full picture of what happened as we approach the second anniversary is critical. I think the president on down, this administration has to be held accountable for this. And if the president won’t hold his people accountable, then the American people need to, through Congress, continue to demand information on this.

Aschieris: Absolutely. Victoria Coates, thank you so much for joining us. Always a pleasure to have you. Thanks so much.

Coates: Thanks, Samantha.

 

Samantha Aschieris is a senior news producer for The Daily Signal.

Copyright 2023 The Daily Signal

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