I disagree with my colleague Ambassador Dan Fried’s argument in these pages against releasing to Congress a July 2021 cable sent by diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, using the State Department’s “Dissent Channel,” on the impending Afghanistan withdrawal. I do so with trepidation as, in this hyper-politicized climate, almost any position can be seen as partisan. But the issues here are too important — and the Biden administration has signaled it is unlikely to voluntarily provide full disclosure — to inhibit a full airing of what went wrong, if only to preclude doing the same thing again. Furthermore, I believe release of the dissent cable, as an exception, and with appropriate redaction, would encourage, not inhibit, this important State Department accountability process.
The importance of the issue is undeniable. Polling and comments by allies signal that the execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal, regardless of where one stands on the basic policy decision to end the war (I strongly supported leaving), was a disaster impacting global confidence in U.S. leadership, only partially offset by the administration’s impressive response to the war in Ukraine. Moreover, this disaster is not a one-off, but reflects repeated failures to get U.S. operations abroad right in times of war or crisis, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Many of these failures have dramatically impacted U.S. foreign and domestic policy, from the penetration of the Saigon Embassy compound by North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive and then the largely-botched evacuation of the embassy at the end of the war in 1975, to the failure to pull out personnel after the first Tehran embassy takeover in 1979, the Beirut bombings contributing to the Iran-Contra scandal, the Benghazi disaster in 2012, and most recently the Kabul withdrawal.
As someone who helped organize three diplomatic evacuations — Kuwait in 1998, Beirut in 2006, and northeast Syria in 2018 — and who served in war zone embassies for many years, I repeatedly witnessed strategic failures related to the State Department’s procedures, assumptions, and underlying culture that desperately need airing.
Dan’s hope that we can trust administration reviews and testimony to provide “as good or better a picture…of the withdrawal” than examination of the dissent authors’ arguments rings hollow in the face of the pollyannaish administration summary of a 1 ½-year review of the withdrawal that the White House released on April 6. The Washington Post referred to the summary as “a disappointment” for failing to grapple forthrightly with the “ugly optics of the United States abandoning its ally in Kabul.”
As Dan stressed, protecting the integrity of the Dissent Channel is an important consideration, and that includes ensuring State Department staffers are not discouraged from using it. I just do not see release harming this important tool, assuming not only the authors’ names are redacted (as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) will likely accept), but also those of any department or administration leaders, as again this is not about possible individual mistakes, but rather policy process failures.
As Dan noted, some dissent cables have been made public. In fact, that was the case beginning with one on the Obama administration’s Syria policy, then continuing into the Trump administration. Drafters of such missives, by widely distributing proposed cables for additional signatures, all but ensure the cables would leak. While not condoning that approach, I cite it as evidence authors do not necessarily fear publicity.
And it is hard to imagine they would do so in this case. Indeed, news of the U.S. Embassy Kabul dissent cable already leaked just a month later, in the midst of the withdrawal. Despite fairly rigid department protections, those dissenting take career risks in challenging policy, and thus can be expected to want the department and the larger U.S. government to take their arguments seriously. If, in the case of this Kabul cable, the department followed their advice, that is important to know. If it did not, it is important to understand why, particularly if the advice appears correct in hindsight.
It is very hard to understand why those drafting this cable would see this as inhibiting their and others’ willingness to dissent in future contingencies, but rather as assurance that the political process is functioning as it should and that administrations will truly consider dissenting views. Furthermore, the possibility that such views will eventually be reviewed by Congress and the public would likely encourage the department to take dissent seriously, which is the whole point of the Dissent Channel. When the department has good grounds to reject dissent positions, as Dan pointed out with the Gerry Adams case, so be it; when it does not, as could be the case with Kabul, the possibility that the administration will later be held to account for dismissing dissent could ensure a more serious review of arguments contained in such cables.
Again, I recognize the partisan aspect to this issue, but the tradition of inter-party comity in the foreign affairs committees is to some degree still alive, and there is also strong bipartisan interest in avoiding repeats of past mistakes that put American lives on the ground at risk. The State Department should release the dissent cable expeditiously to ensure that Congress — and the American people — gain a fuller picture of the events leading up to the withdrawal and the lessons that should be learned.