State Department Launches Review of Afghan Withdrawal

U.S. ambassador Daniel Smith is tapped to lead a review to understand the lessons of U.S. involvement.

By , , and
Passengers queue to board a U.S. Air Force flight.
Passengers queue to board a U.S. Air Force flight.
Passengers queue to board a U.S. Air Force C-17 amid the evacuation of U.S. citizens, allies, and at-risk Afghans at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 24. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen

Leaving Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken launched a review into the State Department’s role in the much-criticized U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to an internal announcement sent out on Friday. 

The review began on Dec. 1 and is expected to last 90 days, and it will cover the period from January 2020, shortly before the Trump administration signed the Doha Agreement with the Taliban, to August of this year, when the withdrawal culminated in a frantic effort to evacuate tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, allies, and at-risk Afghans following the Afghan government’s unexpected rapid collapse. 

Blinken tapped Daniel Smith, acting-director of the department’s Foreign Service Institute, to lead the after-action report, according to a copy of the memo obtained by Foreign Policy, which was first reported by CNN. A career ambassador, Smith briefly led the department as acting-secretary of state in January before Blinken’s nomination was confirmed by the Senate. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken launched a review into the State Department’s role in the much-criticized U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to an internal announcement sent out on Friday. 

The review began on Dec. 1 and is expected to last 90 days, and it will cover the period from January 2020, shortly before the Trump administration signed the Doha Agreement with the Taliban, to August of this year, when the withdrawal culminated in a frantic effort to evacuate tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, allies, and at-risk Afghans following the Afghan government’s unexpected rapid collapse. 

Blinken tapped Daniel Smith, acting-director of the department’s Foreign Service Institute, to lead the after-action report, according to a copy of the memo obtained by Foreign Policy, which was first reported by CNN. A career ambassador, Smith briefly led the department as acting-secretary of state in January before Blinken’s nomination was confirmed by the Senate. 

The U.S. Defense Department announced it was launching a similar after-action review earlier this week.

Inspectors general offices in several other U.S. agencies—including the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Agency for International Development—have all launched reviews into the withdrawal, according to the Wall Street Journal. Smith’s appointment adds to a pile of ongoing reviews being conducted on Afghanistan, including one by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that will look into the State Department’s role in the withdrawal. 

A team of current and former State Department officials will conduct voluntary interviews and review internal documents as part of the 90-day assessment, which will be separate from but complementary to the department’s inspector general investigation, according to the note from Blinken.

A State Department spokesperson said the final report would likely be classified so as to go into as much detail as possible, “but, as with all endeavors, we will be as transparent as possible,” the spokesperson said. The U.S. defense bill, agreed to by Congress this week, will also create a public Afghanistan War Commission to examine the entire 20-year war. A congressional aide told Foreign Policy the State Department had not formally informed Congress of the new investigation and had resisted cooperating with an ongoing review on Capitol Hill. Classifying the report’s findings could prevent repercussions from falling on officials at the State Department, the aide said, and it would insulate the U.S. National Security Council from any wrongdoing during the evacuation effort.

The appointment of a career ambassador to lead the review was welcomed within the department. “Having a career ambassador lead it is the right move,” said a State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think that there were a lot of missteps with the draw out from Afghanistan, but I also don’t think it’s on just one department—it’s not just State that’s at fault.” 

The news comes amid continued criticism of the State Department’s role in the drawdown, even as the United States succeeded in getting 124,000 people out of the war-torn country after Kabul’s fall on Aug. 15. Thousands of special immigrant visa applicants remain stranded in Afghanistan despite promises from the U.S. government to get them out. 

Advocates seeking to get vulnerable Afghans out of the country accused State Department officials of stonewalling credentialed evacuees from getting into the airport, even after they cleared security. 

With the United States now warning citizens to evacuate from other war zones, such as Ethiopia, Blinken insisted the review was necessary to understand the lessons of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. 

“Some of our colleagues spent years in Afghanistan, some completing multiple tours, while others supported the mission from here in Washington or elsewhere,” Blinken wrote. “I believe it is critical for the Department and our country that we capture and benefit from the lessons of our engagement in Afghanistan.”

Update, Dec. 10, 2021: This article has been updated to include a reaction from a congressional aide on the State Department review.

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

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

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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