New details expose State Department disarray before Afghanistan’s fall

US forces standing in front of a crowd that is waiting for their evacuation at Kabul airport on August 16, 2021.

Hours of private testimony from top State Department officials have laid bare the extensive confusion that characterized the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, underscoring a series of missteps in response to the Taliban’s rapid takeover.

During a chaotic scene at Kabul’s airport in August 2021, Americans and Afghan allies desperately scrambled to secure flights out of the country, following the Taliban’s swift ascendancy to power.

U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul has released transcribed interviews with key State Department officials tasked with orchestrating the civilian evacuation. This release includes the latest batches of testimonies, shedding light on the turbulent weeks leading up to the evacuation.

Among those interviewed was Derek Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State and senior policy advisor to Secretary Antony Blinken. Chollet, also nominated by President Joe Biden as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, repeatedly indicated in his testimony—over 100 times—that he could not recall critical details concerning the administration’s preparedness and response to the crisis in Afghanistan.

Significant issues highlighted in Chollet’s testimony include his lack of recall regarding briefings about the evolving situation in Afghanistan throughout 2021, interactions with countries during the non-combatant evacuation operation, and strategic recommendations made during the interagency process.

Chollet’s inability to remember specifics about whether the Taliban had severed ties with terrorist groups was particularly noted.

Chollet testified that the 2020 troop reduction decision—from 4,500 to 2,500—did not align with the Doha Agreement, referencing reports by the U.S. Department of Treasury that indicated the Taliban maintained ties with al-Qaeda.

Yet, he admitted to not considering these ties when assessing the Taliban’s adherence to the Doha Agreement.

“In 2021 while serving as Counselor, I did not recall considering the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda and did not compare that to their obligations in the Doha Agreement,” he said.

Brian McKeon, sworn in as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources in March 2021, described his role during the withdrawal.

McKeon’s office was next to Chollet’s, and the two frequently discussed various issues informally:

“His office was literally next to mine and we shared the use of a bathroom…I would often go in there and we would shoot the breeze on stuff,” he said.

McKeon highlighted the leadership vacuum in planning the withdrawal, emphasizing that the White House and National Security Council predominantly directed the interagency efforts. He stated that no specific plans were crafted for the scenario of the Taliban entering Kabul.

“Yeah, I don’t think — as we discussed the evacuation and the NEO, I think we considered all possibilities. I don’t think there were discrete elements of the plan, Taliban in Kabul or not. I don’t remember,” he said.

Moreover, McKeon acknowledged being responsible for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) operations, though he was vague about the potential number of SIV applicants.

“I was lead on the SIV issue and the anticipated flow of refugees out of Afghanistan if the Taliban started taking over parts of the country… I don’t remember the number. Potentially eligible, you know, that would’ve been very hard to forecast, because there are so many people who might have worked for the Department of Defense, in particular, that we would not necessarily have a sense of that universe,” he said.

The released testimonies paint a picture of a poorly coordinated effort fraught with uncertainties, as senior officials struggled to formulate a clear response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.