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Afghanistan After-Action Report Fuels GOP Oversight Plans
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Afghanistan After-Action Report Fuels GOP Oversight Plans

Plus: An interview with Sen. Jeff Merkley on China policy.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on March 23, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Biden administration has finally released its after-action review of mistakes it made before and during the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021. But the way in which it did so—in a report quietly published by the State Department last Friday while lawmakers were out of town for the Fourth of July recess—garnered criticism from House Republicans who have put the administration’s handling of the disastrous operation under its investigative microscope.

“The Biden Administration’s attempt to bury their Afghanistan withdrawal report in a Friday news dump is yet another effort to conceal the facts of their botched withdrawal from the American people,” James Comer, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, tells The Dispatch in a statement.

Republicans will “continue to push for answers and accountability,” he adds.

The internal review found that the State Department failed to prepare for the withdrawal of Americans who were in Afghanistan and Afghan allies who were entitled legal permanent residence in the United States, and that the Biden administration lacked a “sufficient sense of urgency.” The last-minute airlift operation as Kabul fell to the Taliban saw more than 120,000 Afghans evacuated, but as many as 150,000 more—many of them interpreters for coalition forces during the 20-year war and their families, who face serious risk of retribution from the Taliban—were left behind. 

The report notes a lack of clarity on who was taking the lead on the evacuation operation at the State Department, which hindered planning. The agency also dealt with “constantly changing policy guidance” on who was eligible to be evacuated from Afghanistan, adding to the confusion. Meanwhile, embassy staff in Kabul underwent a major staff transition in the run-up to the withdrawal, even though some questioned the decision to maintain the normal rotation of embassy staff.

Policies implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic also made it more difficult to approve visa applications and to “convene classified discussions” among employees who were working remotely. 

The team that put together the review interviewed more than 150 current and former State Department officials and studied documents and materials from January 2020 through August 2021.

The report’s release comes after House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul pushed for it, previously raising the threat of a subpoena if the administration didn’t comply by July 14. But the 87-page report was heavily redacted, and Republican lawmakers want more transparency.

“This is not sufficient,” Rep. Brian Mast, who is a veteran and served in Afghanistan, tellsThe Dispatch in a statement, pressing for a more comprehensive unclassified version of the report. “The American people have a right to know how the Biden administration got this so wrong.”

Lawmakers want to examine other aspects of the chaotic withdrawal, including weaponry left behind and the suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 160 Afghans. A U.S. military drone strike shortly after that bombing was also a failure: It killed 10 innocent people, including seven children.

“Just 23 of the 87 pages were released,” Rep. Young Kim, a California Republican who is a member of the Foreign Affairs committee, tweeted after the report’s release. “This is inexcusable.”

The report “shows what many of us already knew—that a lack of planning and strategy leading up to the withdrawal resulted in the deaths of 13 service members and hundreds of Afghans, Americans and Afghan allies being left to the mercy of the Taliban,” Kim tells The Dispatch in a statement.

The report primarily focuses on the State Department itself rather than pointing fingers at the White House, and it states that the decision to pull out of Afghanistan “was beyond the scope of this review.” Still, it said neither the Trump nor Biden administration sufficiently considered “worst-case scenarios.”

President Joe Biden, meanwhile, insists the withdrawal was the right course of action.

“I was right,” he told reporters after the report was released.

Sen. Jeff Merkley Talks China Policy

The Dispatch interviewed Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, about China policy this week. Merkley is co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a panel tasked with monitoring human rights in China. He was a leading sponsor of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, the most significant American response to the Chinese government’s genocide of mostly Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang to date. The Q&A is below, edited for length and clarity.

The Dispatch: Did you think Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to China was a good idea, and do you think it was successful?

Merkley: I think it was a very good idea. We have many tensions with China and expanding communications between various administration officials, in my mind, is very positive. We may or may not get issues worked out, but we may at a minimum get a clear understanding of each other’s positions and create channels of communication that will be useful in the future. There were some minor agreements that were worked out in the trip, and it’s okay that they were minor and modest, because I think the key was to establish a rhythm of communication that may well enable Blinken to follow up with key individuals as issues arise in the future.

Some human rights activists are worried the genocide in Xinjiang and other human rights concerns are taking a backseat in the Biden administration’s priority list as officials are trying to reopen conversations with the Chinese government. Reuters reported in May that the State Department delayed sanctions responding to the genocide for months, because officials worried it might harm Blinken’s planned trip to China. Do you have any thoughts on those concerns, and have you spoken with any administration officials about that report?

Merkley: I have not talked to anyone in the State Department about that particular issue, and I’m seeking to get more information about the scope of that. I would be very concerned any time it looks like the administration is downplaying human rights. We do see a kind of rhythm in which—whether it’s with Saudi Arabia, whether it’s with India—human rights sometimes are put lower on the list as other strategic objectives are pursued. I personally believe it always needs to be up front as part of how we present ourselves in the world and the values that we strive for.

You mentioned other countries as well—India and Saudi Arabia. Why is it such a consistent trend that members of Congress push for stronger action on human rights and White Houses of both parties often focus more on military agreements or trade? Is there anything Congress should be doing to get the Biden administration to prioritize human rights in China more?

Merkley: The world is a complicated place, and we do have security issues and economic issues. And when those are focused on, folks want to downplay human rights issues for fear of alienating the parties that they’re working with. I think the best answer to that is to always raise human rights issues, so every country knows those are going to be part of the dialogue.

We recently interviewed Rep. Mike Gallagher, the House member chairing the select committee on competition with the Chinese Communist Party. He’s been critical of the Biden administration’s outreach to China, describing it as a zombie engagement push. He has questioned why officials would think the Chinese government might change its behavior now after decades of engagement failed to do so. Do you have a response to that?

Merkley: Well, China is clearly a major world power, and we’re going to have a lot of areas that we have to kind of coexist with them. Developing and expanding communication is critical to that effort. No one can expect that the issues we have with China—with a vastly different set of values, a vastly different set of security priorities, and an economy that’s structured in a very different way—there’s no way that we wave a magic wand and these issues are resolved. This is going to be an ongoing, complex set of challenges for probably generations to come. So I wouldn’t place too much expectation on any one visit, but to fail to engage would be, really, malpractice in international affairs.

Do you have any updates on the new China competition legislation Senate Democrats are working on?

Merkley: It’s a set of pretty complicated pieces: Limiting the flow of advanced technology and curtailing investment that strengthens China at the expense of the United States, strengthening our domestic economic investments, underscoring our commitment to our allies in terms of the structure of our relationship with China. And in that context, safeguarding our partners’ security. That’s a very complicated bill. Even simple bills become very difficult in the U.S. Senate and in Congress. So I would just have to refer you to Sen. Schumer in that regard. But I think there is a high priority placed on this, high interest from leadership, but it will take time to assemble such a major piece of legislation.

It seems like this legislation may be more difficult to pass than the first version of this kind of bill, the Chips Act. Republican lawmakers are skeptical about investing more in domestic industries. Do you think this bill will have the same kind of support the first version did?

Merkley: My expectation is those issues will get worked out. The bill will get shaped by those differences in perspective. My larger concern is not the difference in perspective so much, because there is a lot of overlap regarding competition with China. My larger concern is that partisan feelings about the upcoming election will interfere with the bill getting done. It has become a common Republican strategy to try to prevent important work from getting done because it might make the Democratic team look better, and to stonewall or obstruct in that context. And that would be extremely unfortunate.

Customs and Border Protection statistics show the administration has released many of the shipments it initially blocked for forced labor concerns under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. And as you’ve previously mentioned, the administration has only added a couple of entities to the list of bad actors it is targeting since the law went into effect last year. It looks like the law isn’t being enforced as strongly as it could or should be. Why do you think that is? Is it purely a resource issue, or do you think some of these priorities, such as pursuing a thaw with China, are creeping into these decisions?

Merkley: It’s important to pick up the pace of implementation. It is a complicated new undertaking for the administration, but it is extremely important that it be enforced with the spirit in which it was written and passed. And we’re going to keep pressing to accelerate enforcement. The reason we want transparency on shipments that have been released and not reported to Congress under this so-called applicability review is that we need to understand better how it is that things that have been flagged with a close connection then get released. I’m also concerned that companies can simply ship released products to Canada. If that’s what’s happening—again, we need more transparency—that’s also a problem, because it’s not a very expensive penalty to just reship to Canada. And of course, this is where we need Canada and Europe to be partners with us, or it won’t be nearly as effective in responding to the challenge of slave labor in China.

I think we’ve had substantial cooperation from the administration for the first year in setting up the institutions to implement the bill. But the real test is going to be in this year to come. Now those procedures are in place, how strongly are they going to be enforced? If companies find ways to easily bypass because of leniency on the part of the administration, that will be extremely disappointing. I’m counting on the administration to really be dedicated and thorough in its implementation, and to the degree it isn’t, I’m going to keep working to change that.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.