McCaul presses Blinken to hand over documents on Afghanistan troop withdrawal

Bagram Airfield after US forces left in July 2021.

The US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul has sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken the department’s continued failure to provide documents and information to the committee on Washington’s disastrous troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

According to a statement issued by the committee on Friday, the state department has so far produced only 236 pages of documents – most of which were publicly available or included “substantial redactions”.

The statement noted that in his letter to Blinken, McCaul stated that the requests for the documents and information go back to the first letter sent just days after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021. 

“If the department’s noncompliance persists, the committee will be forced to proceed with compulsory process,” the statement read.

McCaul meanwhile reiterated that on January 12, 2023, he renewed and updated longstanding requests for documents and information regarding the Biden administration’s “catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan”.

In his letter he said he gave the state department until January 26, 2023, to produce the documents and information, however, “more than seven weeks after the letter’s transmission and over a month past the deadline, the Department has still only provided two small document productions to date.”

He said: “On January 26, 2023, the Department provided a 218-page initial production consisting of documents related to Afghanistan responsive to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Of the 218 pages produced, 88 consisted of a previously embargoed version of the Afghanistan Study Group’s Final Report – a document released to the public on February 3, 2021. 

“Most of the remaining pages included extensive redactions that severely limit their usability and value. Notably, many of the redactions appear to cover the prepared answers from the question-and-answer portion of talking points documents.

“That is to say, the Department redacted information from Congress that it was prepared to share with the public at the time the documents were generated. Furthermore, the Department failed to provide any legal justification or privilege log for these redactions, as is standard practice, he said.

McCaul stated that on February 10, 2023, the Department made an additional production consisting of the texts of unclassified opening statements from a June 15, 2022, classified briefing on Afghanistan, totaling 18 pages. 

The lack of documents produced by the state department to date comes despite the committee having repeatedly requested that the department begin identifying responsive documents.

The Department chose not to do so, McCaul said in his March 3 letter to Blinken. He also repeated his request for three pieces of information – information and material that have been requested multiple times since August 2021.

The three pieces of information are the Dissent Channel cable reportedly sent on July 13, 2021, by 23 State Department officials and the Department’s response to it; the After-Action Report prepared under Ambassador Daniel Smith; and two iterations of U.S. Embassy Kabul’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP).

McCaul said the documents requested by the committee are essential to its investigation of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The committee chair stated in his letter to Blinken that the state department indicated on February 14 that Ambassador Smith’s After-Action Report had yet to be finalized. Department officials were unclear on the status of the report and timeline for its release, indicating they believed it was undergoing a Secretary-level review. “This is surprising, given that Ambassador Smith’s review was characterized by the department as a ‘90-Day Review’ in December 2021, and in August 2022, State Department spokesman Ned Price stated, ‘We are finalizing elements of that report.’ The Committee has requested clarification on the report’s status but has still yet to receive it.

“Incredibly, when asked, department officials were unwilling or unable to even provide the name or office of the After-Action Report’s official custodian, McCaul said in his letter.

McCaul also complained in his letter that the State Department officials responsible for responding to congressional oversight had “insulted” Congress and the American taxpayer over comments made at a February 14 meeting. “The Department’s position cannot be taken seriously under any reasonable standard, particularly after 18 months of waiting.”

He called for the reports to be “immediately produced” and “without redaction.” He went on to state that “in the event the department’s noncompliance persists, the committee will be forced to proceed with compulsory process.”

McCaul’s letter to Blinken came just two days after the committee announced its first hearing of its review of the chaotic troop withdrawal in 2021.

The hearing will start on March 8 and is expected so far to hear testimony from leaders of two groups that organized charter flights for the evacuation process immediately after the collapse of the former government in August of 2021.

In a statement Wednesday, McCaul said “the full Committee will convene a hearing entitled ‘During and After the Fall of Kabul: Examining the Administration’s Emergency Evacuation from Afghanistan’.Republican legislators launched an investigation into the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which allowed an immediate takeover by the Taliban and led to thousands of people storming Kabul airport, some clinging to departing US planes as they sped down the runway.