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HomeUSState Department 'did not send their best' to Afghanistan evacuation: Ex-official

State Department ‘did not send their best’ to Afghanistan evacuation: Ex-official

WASHINGTON – The State Department did not dispatch their best and brightest to help with the botched August 2021 evacuation of Americans and their allies from Afghanistan, a former foreign service officer told congressional investigators.
“I can’t speak for every single person who was there, but there were at least several – at least four, if not more than that – who were, in my perspective, not the correct choice to send there,” Sam Aronson, who served as a consular volunteer during the operation, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a Sept. 15, 2023, transcribed interview released Monday.
“They did not have the soft skills, such as adaptability, resilience; the experience serving in a dangerous or high-threat overseas environment,” added Aronson, who recounted that volunteers to assist in the pullout were sought from major US embassies and consulates around the world — as he put it, “large offices that wouldn’t necessarily miss three or four people, as opposed to a smaller embassy, where the entire consular section might only be three people.”
7 Samuel Aronson, former State Department foreign service officer, served as consular volunteer during the Afghanistan evacuation. He saved 70 people during the US evacuation in Kabul, Afghanistan. LSE
Aronson, who joined the Foreign Service in 2015 and had spent time in Niger and Nigeria in West Africa, claimed of some of his fellow volunteers that that “when it came to really high-risk and high-threat scenarios – such as the Abbey Gate bombing – from my perspective, they were not emotionally equipped to handle the stress that came with that.”
On Aug. 26, 2021, 13 American service members and hundreds of Afghans were killed when an ISIS-K suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest at Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate, where the military members were processing would-be evacuees.
Aronson told investigators that the selection process for volunteers “seemed ad hoc” and suggested that “consular chiefs sent individuals out of their respective countries because they were a burden to those consular sections.”
“In my perspective, they did not send their best,” he added. “In fact, they may have sent their worst.”
7 US Marines provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 20, 2021. via REUTERS
7 Evacuees assemble before boarding a C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, August 18, 2021. via REUTERS
Aronson also said the State Department should have dispatched diplomats to Afghanistan sooner, lamenting his late arrival in Kabul on Aug. 20, 2021 – five days after the capital city had fallen to the Taliban.
“I think having me or having any extra-competent officials on the ground, even one minute sooner, would have provided at least 1 minute or more of the successful ability to evacuate people,” he said.
The theme of ill-equipped employees extended even to the Kabul embassy, where Aronson said Chief of Mission Ross Wilson played second fiddle to his predecessor, John Bass, after the State Department sent the ex-ambassador in to clean up the deteriorating situation.
7 Ambassador Ross Wilson, U.S. Charge D’Affaires, speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 30, 2021. REUTERS
Instead of taking charge himself, Wilson acted as the “public face of this evacuation, while, behind the scenes, you know, behind the curtain, was John Bass actually leading the evacuation,” said Aronson.
“He seemed overwhelmed,” the witness said of Wilson. “His physical health did not seem great. His emotional health also did not seem great. And I did not get the vibe that he was a strong leader, or, at least at the time I was there, I do not believe he was exhibiting strong leadership.”
“State Department leadership sent in the correct officials to get the job done, but they were not able to necessarily remove the incorrect officials who were already in place,” Aronson added. “The optics, in my perspective, would have looked embarrassing and … would not have looked great if, when John Bass arrived, Ambassador Wilson was sent home.”
7 Aronson claimed that the State Department “did not send their best” to help with the evacuation of Afghanistan. LSE
Wilson, who was charged with evacuating the roughly 4,000 US diplomats and consular employees in Afghanistan, gave hazy testimony about the withdrawal.
“The outlook wasn’t great,” he admitted in an Oct. 24, 2023, interview. “We can be honest about that. But we had good reasons to believe that the Afghan security forces could defend the government and significant parts of the country for some time.”
“I think it was obvious long before that that there were a substantial number American citizens, there were [special immigrant visa] recipients and applicants that we hoped to get out of the country, there were lots and lots and lots of other Afghans on whom we had depended one way or another, with whom we had close relations, who we would want to get out,” he added.
7 A baby getting handed to US soldiers over the wall of the Kabul airport on Aug. 19, 2021. OMAR HAIDARI/via REUTERS/File Photo
Committee members pointed to an interview that Wilson gave to CBS News on Aug. 25, 2021, five days before the final military airplane left Afghanistan, in which Wilson claimed he “put out repeated warnings” as early as March 2021 and “people chose not to leave.”
“I regret everything about that interview,” Wilson responded. “I was criticized by a number of people over what I said, blaming the victim, and it was absolutely right. And I am sorry that I did that. I won’t make excuses.”
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The diplomat noted elsewhere that the US military’s “concrete planning” for the withdrawal only got underway around May 2021 — with a Sept. 11 deadline initially set by President Biden — and that US “intel became increasingly negative about the Afghan Government’s prospects, especially as we got to late July.”
7 Afghans crowded on a road near the airport during the evacuation. Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images
Wilson ultimately recommended the evacuation of all personnel on Aug. 15 — a 15-day undertaking that still stranded more than 1,000 US citizens in the country.
“I absolutely accept a level of responsibility for what happened there and what went wrong, but I’ll come back to maybe the second thing I said: This is a shared responsibility,” Wilson testified. “That’s the nature of this beast.”
“If we had left earlier, several thousand SIV applicants that we got out in whatever the number of days that you want to talk about would not have been able to leave the country,” he added. “We would not have been able to provide support to American citizens trying to get out.”
“Our eyes and ears about what was happening around us would’ve been drastically degraded. So I will repeat: I am comfortable with the recommendation that I made and with the time that I made it. Hindsight is 20/20. I had to deal with the situation I had, and I’m satisfied I made the right decisions,” he went on.
“I regret that we don’t have an embassy now, because we don’t know what’s going on there. And we have absolutely no way to help people who helped us, to say nothing of anybody else. I think that’s a mistake. I understand why that happened. I brought it about. But I think it’s a big loss. A big loss. And it’s a big loss for Afghanistan and our interests there.”

web-intern@dakdan.com

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