Report

‘I’m Furious. I Feel Helpless.’

American diplomats reckon with Afghanistan’s collapse.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
People climb atop a plane at Kabul airport
People climb atop a plane at Kabul airport on Aug. 16. Thousands of people mobbed the airport trying to flee as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Current and former U.S. diplomats who served in Afghanistan have watched the events of the past week with horror as the Taliban stormed through the country and ultimately seized control of the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, undoing two decades of hard-won progress in the country.

For many American officials, the collapse of the Afghan government and the hasty evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul are deeply personal, something that will leave a profound mark on America’s diplomatic corps.

Around one-quarter of the U.S. diplomatic corps has served in Afghanistan or Iraq over the past 20 years. In interviews with a dozen people who held posts in Afghanistan, current and former diplomats conveyed feelings of deep anger, shock, and bitterness about the collapse of the government they spent decades trying to build. Several currently serving officials, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, said the events had prompted thoughts about resigning from the foreign service. 

Current and former U.S. diplomats who served in Afghanistan have watched the events of the past week with horror as the Taliban stormed through the country and ultimately seized control of the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, undoing two decades of hard-won progress in the country.

For many American officials, the collapse of the Afghan government and the hasty evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul are deeply personal, something that will leave a profound mark on America’s diplomatic corps.

Around one-quarter of the U.S. diplomatic corps has served in Afghanistan or Iraq over the past 20 years. In interviews with a dozen people who held posts in Afghanistan, current and former diplomats conveyed feelings of deep anger, shock, and bitterness about the collapse of the government they spent decades trying to build. Several currently serving officials, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, said the events had prompted thoughts about resigning from the foreign service. 

But mostly the diplomats said they felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and fear for the lives of the former Afghan colleagues and local staff whom the American government left behind. 

“We did such a disservice to the local staff who worked for us,” said Shaila Manyam, a former career foreign service officer who had served as spokesperson for the president’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2015. “They take on incredible risks working for us and we’ve screwed them too,” she said. 

Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, said the fate of Afghan women weighed heavily on him. “We encouraged them to step forward, and they did. In politics, the economy, the military,” he said. “The implicit part of that deal was, ‘You step forward, and we’ve got your backs.’ And now we don’t.”

In recent weeks, current and former U.S. diplomats said they were scrambling to try to secure visas and aid for former Afghan colleagues who could face violent reprisals from the Taliban for working with the United States. But even operating within the State Department system, they have faced bureaucratic hurdles, including a logjammed visa system.

“We’re all watching what’s going on intimately because we’re all so tied to this country,” said one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We want to help people get out but there’s only so much we can do.” 

Afghans who worked for the United States and their immediate family members are eligible to apply for special immigrant visas (SIVs), but the system is slow and plagued with backlogs. An estimated 300,000 Afghans have been affiliated in some way with the U.S. missions in Afghanistan. Some 16,000 have been granted SIVs since the program was launched in 2009, and a further 18,000 applications were pending as of this June.

Biden administration officials say they are working to get as many applicants out of Afghanistan as possible, ferrying them either to the United States or third countries while they await their visa processing. The Pentagon is reportedly preparing plans to house as many as 30,000 Afghan SIV applicants at military bases in the immediate future. 

In August, the State Department opened a second refugee program expanding eligibility for Afghans who worked for U.S.-funded development projects and employees of American media outlets and nongovernmental organizations.

The State Department has established a task force led by three-time Ambassador Tracey Jacobson to oversee efforts to relocate at-risk Afghans who worked for U.S. missions. 

“I’m confident that they’re doing all they can to make sure that the folks that are waiting for the SIV can do so in a safe and secure location whether that’s in the United States or a third country,” said Thomas Yazdgerdi, a former political counselor at the embassy in Kabul who is now a vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, a professional organization that represents U.S. diplomats.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Time may be running out, however, as the Taliban complete their rout of Afghan forces and assume power in Kabul. Reports have already emerged from Kabul of militants going from house to house making lists of women who have worked in the government, in media, or for programs supporting U.S.-led nation-building efforts. 

An accounting of the lives lost and billions of dollars spent—coupled with dramatic images and videos of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban—have all sparked a painful reckoning within America’s diplomatic corps. And they have fueled questions about who will be held to account in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon for the execution of the withdrawal. 

“There’s a difference between the Biden decision to leave and the Biden execution of the decision,” said Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. “The decision to leave is arguably justifiable. The execution of that decision is a lamentable disaster.”

“Because the foreign service is heavily involved in the implementation of policy, there will be bitterness about how avoidably bad the implementation was for years to come,” Neumann said. Still, he said, the foreign service “overall has performed with great credit and willingness to take risks” across four administrations. 

Neumann was an Army infantry officer in Vietnam before turning to a career in diplomacy. Reflecting on his decades of government service, he said: “It’s not fun to begin and end your career with national defeats.”

Other former diplomats said they were haunted by the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. “It feels at times as bad as questioning a 30-year career,” said Annie Pforzheimer, a retired career diplomat who served as acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan until 2019. “I’m furious. I feel helpless.” 

“I​ am a good sleeper, but have had trouble sleeping these past few months,” said Hugo Llorens, who served as top U.S. diplomat at the embassy in Kabul from 2016 to 2017. “It has a real psychological effect. It’s a very haunting thing.”

The rapid fall of Kabul appears to have caught the Biden administration off guard. On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price rebuffed a question on whether a full evacuation of the embassy was underway. By Sunday, all remaining U.S. diplomats had been evacuated to Kabul airport, and the American flag was removed from the U.S. Embassy, a sprawling bunkerlike compound built up over two decades of U.S. involvement in the conflict. 

A total of 6,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan to help secure Kabul airport, taking charge of air traffic control to facilitate the evacuation of U.S. officials, citizens, and Afghans who worked for the United States. Chaotic scenes played out at the airport as crowds of Afghans attempting to flee Taliban rule swarmed the tarmac, running alongside a U.S. Air Force jet and clinging to its undercarriage as it taxied. 

Sunday is not the first time the flag has been removed from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The embassy closed in 1989 and the gates were welded shut in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, amid fears of spiraling instability. It remained closed throughout the Taliban rule, reopening in late 2001 and eventually becoming one of the largest U.S. missions in the world, with at one point 8,500 staff and 22 agencies operating out of the highly fortified compound. 

In a post on social media on Thursday, Pforzheimer, the former acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan, recalled watching the flag being raised at the embassy in 2009, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at an event attended by a small crowd of guests, including the gardener who tended the embassy grounds during its closure. Pforzheimer then described how the scene had changed almost a decade later, when she returned to serve as second in command at the embassy,

“[T]he Embassy is bigger, the crowd of Afghans who work for us is younger and more female,” she wrote. “I am moved to tears that out of the grim horror of 9/11, had grown an affirmation of my country’s good heart and great willingness to do difficult things for people whose lives had been shattered by war and poverty.”

“Only three years after that, the scene—if it happens—will involve a skeleton crew of embassy employees—almost all American,” Pforzheimer wrote. “I hope there are no speeches. Because if we tell the truth we’d have to say that we have no sympathy for the plight of vulnerable people facing murder and displacement, no pride in our shared project, and no intention of breaking stride as we move on to some other project we temporarily think is the most important in the world.”

Three days after she wrote the post, all U.S. Embassy staff had been evacuated to Kabul airport, and the American flag was lowered from the embassy.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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