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November 17, 2021

‘This experience broke a lot of people’: Inside State amid the Afghanistan withdrawal

Credit: Politico, Natasha Korecki

In the days after the Taliban took Kabul in August, a desperate Afghan father pleaded over the phone with a State Department official to help get his family out of harm’s way.

On the call, the Washington, D.C.-based State official, manning the phone half a world away from the turmoil, could hear pounding on the man’s door.

“The Taliban, you could hear them in the background. You could hear the women in the house screaming. It was awful,” the official said in an interview. “It’s so scary. You don’t know if you’re going to be on the phone with someone when they get shot. You don’t know if the email you’re getting from that person is going to be the last email from them.”

Over the course of several weeks, conversations like that one played out on repeat, thousands a week, as State Department employees scrambled to respond to the urgent pleas for help from those looking to flee Afghanistan. The Biden administration, like most everyone, was surprised by how rapidly the Afghan government fell to Taliban militants as the U.S. military withdrew. It happened in a matter of days, not weeks or months as the intelligence had suggested. And, as a result, confusion reigned in the region, as well as in Foggy Bottom.

Interviews with more than half a dozen State Department employees in addition to government officials and advocates, as well as a review of internal administration emails POLITICO obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the desperation and disorganization that consumed frontline State Department employees. As they feverishly attempted to assist Afghans and Americans stranded in the war-torn country and fielded a crush of calls and emails — the inbox where the State Department directed Afghans to send Special Immigrant Visa applications crashed at least once — officials say they were unclear of their own authorities and what policies they were allowed to employ to help evacuate people. It all triggered mental health issues for some staffers, from which some are still attempting to recover, months later.

Their stories are a testament to the U.S. government’s lack of preparedness for the cratering security situation, even as President Joe Biden pushed through his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31.

“This experience broke a lot of people, including me,” a second State Department official said. “We were all getting inundated by personal requests to help specific people from everyone we’ve ever known or worked with. And we were powerless to do anything, really. Feeling like you’re supposed to be the government’s 911, but knowing the call for help didn’t go very far beyond you was extremely demoralizing.”

It was, as yet another State official put it, “like we were throwing grains of sand into the ocean.”

In interviews with POLITICO, State Department staffers describe having been “manic” or suffering “a complete mental breakdown” at the time of the evacuation. They spoke of the need for mental health support in its aftermath. One official reported that colleagues continue to meet on occasion for breakfast “just to cry.” Another disclosed seeking out therapy. More than one State Department official described the Afghanistan withdrawal as having damaged them emotionally. The people interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous so they could speak candidly.

“We’re not used to failure at State, and in every single possible circumstance, it was failure,” one of the officials said. “You’re failing with the email, you’re failing with getting guidance on what we could do and what we could not do. We weren’t empowered enough. No one really understood what our policy was.”

In response to this article and questions about caring for the mental health of its employees, the State Department released a lengthy statement to POLITICO that said Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s top priority was the health, safety and well being of department personnel and their families. Department officials said they made mental health professionals available to staffers in the United States and abroad, even using therapy dogs, among other types of support. They acknowledged, however, that given the flood of information staffers had to deal with, many may have missed the notices on mental health.

HEAD OF VA PUBLIC HEALTH FLAGS STATE EMPLOYEES “DISTRESS”

The VA’s head of public health flags that he’s heard State Department employees are “experiencing much distress” over the calls they’re receiving to help those stranded in Afghanistan. “I suspect they don’t have an effective process in place.”

“During crises, like the Afghanistan withdrawal, we work to amplify the availability of these services and remind our employees that it is okay not to be okay and that asking for help is healthy,” said Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesperson. “The mental health ramifications of the Afghanistan evacuation are not over — we expect employees to potentially have adverse mental health in the months and years to come.”

In the immediate days after the Taliban swept into Kabul on Aug. 15, the United States and other countries struggled to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies via the main airport in the Afghan capital. At least 125,000 people were evacuated from the country ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal, but thousands of people who had worked alongside Americans are believed to have been left behind. Along the way, a bombing blamed on the ISIS-K terrorist group killed 13 U.S. troops securing the airport and scores more civilians hoping to catch a flight out — a tragedy that only deepened American frustrations and alarm with how the drawdown was handled.

State employees knew their efforts could make the difference between death, torture, and the nightmare of life under the brutal Taliban regime — or freedom in the West.

State Department employees were so shaken under the strain of the evacuation that at one point, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which itself was grappling with how to assist Afghanistan war vets and others who were despondent over the Taliban’s takeover of the country, offered to provide mental health assistance to staffers at Foggy Bottom.

“I have heard a number of State Dept staff are experiencing much distress over calls they are receiving for assistance from people feeling stranded in Afghanistan,” VA acting Undersecretary of Health Steven Lieberman wrote in an Aug. 26 email to a handful of top VA officials, including chief of staff Tanya Bradsher. “I suspect they do not have an effective process in place to deal with this type of distress. We could have some of our Vet Center staff provide support virtually if the State Dept were interested.”

The VA had offered to make its 24-7 support line, which focused on PTSD and suicide prevention, available to State. The VA also offered in-person support to personnel in countries temporarily hosting newly evacuated Afghans. According to a U.S. official familiar with the issue, State sought more information about the VA’s offer but ultimately decided its services were not needed. The State Department already had similar assets and personnel in place, including overseas, the U.S. official said. The official added that the State Department told the VA that if the need did arise in the future, it would reach out to them.

The decision to turn down the VA’s offer infuriated one of the State Department employees who spoke to POLITICO, who said not enough attention has been paid to the U.S. officials who have suffered under the unyielding mental and emotional demands.

“My colleagues need help. And I think the resources need to be provided. It’s really disturbing to me that there was an opportunity for us to have help, given to us by the Department of Veterans Affairs that was rejected,” the official said. “It’s a disgrace, and leadership should be ashamed of themselves.”

Another official spoke of a massive, nonstop workload and what felt like a lack of acknowledgement “or understanding of the toll it’s taking … We are just getting crushed.” Because of the coronavirus pandemic, some State employees both overseas and in the United States have been working from home, though many also go into their offices.

VA REACHES OUT TO STATE DEPT.

In late August, the VA’s chief of staff tells State Dept. it could provide counseling help to staffers who’ve been under the strain of helping evacuate those stranded in Afghanistan.

Redacted State Dept documents


The emotional wear on U.S. officials was made worse by the fact that so many had a direct connection to Afghanistan and its people during the U.S.’s 20-year presence there. A huge number of U.S. diplomats have served in the country at one point or another.

“It was really hard to watch everything we’d worked on crumble,” a U.S. diplomat involved in the situation said. “We have a lot of contacts and friends who are still there.”

The inundation of SOS requests went on for weeks beyond the Aug. 31 troop withdrawal deadline.

Photo after photo of passports popped up in employee inboxes. Haunting images of stranded babies, young girls or the bloodied victims of the Taliban populated their texts and emails.

And still the phones kept ringing: Senior Hill staffers, congress members, senators, Cabinet members, even a retired admiral were all asking for help with a stranded American or Afghan ally. Each call was of the highest importance.

“Need to find any high level contact in State Department to get this flagged at the highest level,” said an email written by Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), who was among the leagues of politicians asking for help with an emergency evacuation.

REP. DAVID TRONE MAKES AN ASK

Trone, a Maryland Democrat, is among the scores of public officials who worked with the State Dept. in overnight hours to help bring those stranded in Afghanistan back to safety.

Trone: Redacted State Dept documents


In an interview, Trone said he was attempting to assist the evacuation of contractors from a company called Gold Belt, which has employees in his district.

“The bottom line was a tremendous sense of terror for the position they were in in Afghanistan, especially for wives and children,” Trone said.

The congressman said he reached out to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond and the retired Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, a former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who Trone thought still had connections in government, including with VA Secretary Denis McDonough. The request made its way back to State. Eventually, Trone’s office worked with the State Department in phone calls at 3 and 4 a.m.

“In my many phone conversations with folks in the State Department, they seem stretched to the limit, very tired, literally working around the clock,” Trone said. “But they realize there’s a moment in time that if these folks aren’t brought to freedom, the doors are going to ultimately close.”

In his case, it paid off — they managed to help get 380 people to the United States, Trone said. “It’s not just life changing,” Trone said. “It’s life changing at such a dramatic level it’s hard to comprehend.”

State Department officials who spoke to POLITICO for this article say they’re struggling psychologically as they fear the fate of those left behind.

Physical and mental exhaustion set in as State Department officials working in the U.S. said they’d stop to sleep for just a couple of hours a day. Many feared closing their eyes to rest could rob precious minutes that could have gotten one more person out.

One official grew emotional in an interview when describing the full strain the weeks-long crisis placed on family members.

“I heard from in-laws, I heard from my parents, from my spouse. I heard from my kids …” the official trailed off, pausing to allow a wave of emotion to pass. “How impossible it was to not have their [parent] present in any physical, emotional, mental, psychological capacity.”

A spokesperson for the State Department said its Bureau of Medical Services deployed mental health professionals to the various third countries where Afghans were first sent before being taken to the United States, namely Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The department also sent social workers and psychologists to U.S. military bases housing relocated Afghans, offering services to both U.S. government personnel, family members, and Afghans who had been employed by the State Department.

The department also brought in therapy dogs to its headquarters in Washington, D.C., a service appreciated by the employees, including several interviewed for this article. The medical bureau also produced videos, held multiple support group meetings and offered webinars focused on mental health, the spokesperson said. And, as of Oct. 19, the Office of Employee Consultation Service (ECS) held over 600 one-on-one counseling sessions with employees involved in Afghanistan-related activities, with about half of the sessions with those overseas, according to the State Department.

Top State Department officials sent emails and other notices to employees urging staffers to seek mental health assistance amid the crisis, the spokesperson said. But it’s hard to say how well those messages broke through as staffers were inundated with emails, especially in August. The medical bureau is still trying to figure out how best to reach its employees, given the information

In some cases, State Department employees may have chosen to avoid seeking assistance because of a perception that it could hurt their ability to work by affecting their medical or security clearances. The medical bureau has tried, through its messaging, to dispel that notion.

But several of the officials said their trauma was only exacerbated by the disappointment they felt in their own leaders and what they described as a lack of a clear plan.

While Biden and others have blamed the chaos on a failure of intelligence, several State officials weren’t ready to let their leadership off the hook, saying the problems went beyond faulty intelligence.

“I think there was a general consensus that Kabul would fall and it would fall across the backs of the people who were closest to the United States the hardest. And it was inevitably going to lead to panic,” one of the officials said. “I think anyone who works with human rights or women’s rights or democracy or had spent time in Kabul, our embassy or in our mission staff would have been able to say that. So I don’t think it was an intelligence failure. I think it was a management failure.”