‘This experience crushed a lot of people’: Inside the State Department in the middle of Afghanistan’s withdrawal

Interviews with more than half a dozen Foreign Ministry employees in addition to officials and lawyers, as well as a review of internal administration emails obtained by POLITICO through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the desperation and disorganization that consumed frontline Foreign Ministry employees. As they frantically tried to help Afghans and Americans stranded in the war-torn country and made a lot of calls and emails – the inbox where the State Department asked Afghans to send special immigrant visa applications crashed at least once – officials said. that they were unclear their own authorities and what policies they were allowed to apply to help evacuate people. It all triggered mental problems for some employees, which some are still trying to recover from 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 his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan through Aug. 31.

“This experience shattered many people, including me,” said another State Department official. “We were all flooded with personal requests to help specific people from everyone we’ve ever known or worked with. And we were powerless to do anything. To feel like you should be the government’s 911, but to know that the call for help did not go far beyond you, was extremely demoralizing. “

It was, as another government official put it, “as if we were throwing grains of sand into the sea.”

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In interviews with POLITICO, Foreign Ministry staffers describe having been “manic” or a bit of a “complete mental breakdown” at the time of the evacuation. They talked about the need for mental health support in its aftermath. An official reported that colleagues continue to meet occasionally for breakfast “just to cry.” Another revealed that he was seeking therapy. More than one State Department official described the withdrawal from Afghanistan as having hurt them emotionally. The people interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous so that they could speak honestly.

“We are not used to failure in the state, and in all possible circumstances it was failure,” said one of the officials. “You fail with the email, you fail to get guidance on what we could do and what we could not do. We were not 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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a lengthy statement to POLITICO, saying that Foreign Minister Antony Blinken’s top priority was health, safety and well-being for the department’s staff and their families. Department officials said they made mental health professionals available to employees in the United States and abroad, even by using therapy dogs, among other forms of support. However, they recognized that given the flow of information staff had to deal with, many may have missed the mental health messages.

Head of VA Public Health flags state employees “distressed”

The VA’s head of public health says he has heard Foreign Ministry staff “experience much distress” over the calls they receive to help those stranded in Afghanistan. “I suppose they do not have an efficient process in place.”

“During crises, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are working to increase the availability of these services and remind our staff that it’s okay not to be okay and that it’s healthy to ask for help,” Ned Price said. Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The mental health consequences of the Afghanistan evacuation are not over – we expect employees to potentially have a negative mental health in the coming months and years.”

In the immediate days after the Taliban swept into Kabul on August 15, the United States and other countries fought 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 by the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but thousands of people who had worked with Americans are believed to have been left behind. Along the way, a bomb attack killed by the ISIS-K terrorist group killed 13 US troops securing the airport and many more civilians hoping to reach a flight – a tragedy that only exacerbated US frustrations and alarms over how the pull-down turned out. handled.

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

Foreign Ministry staff were so shaken during the evacuation that the Ministry of Veterans Affairs, which itself struggled with how to help war veterinarians in Afghanistan and others desperate for the Taliban to take over the country, offered to provide mental health care to staff at Foggy Bottom.

“I have heard a number of employees in the State Department experience great distress over calls they receive to get help from people who feel stranded in Afghanistan,” VA acting Secretary of State Steven Lieberman wrote in an email on August 26 to a handful of top officials in VA. , including Chief of Staff Tanya Bradsher. “I suppose they do not have an effective process in place to deal with this type of emergency. We could get some of our veterinary center staff to provide virtual support if the state department was interested.

VA had offered to make its 24-7 support line, which focused on PTSD and suicide prevention, available to the state. VA also offered personal support to staff in countries that temporarily hosted newly evacuated Afghans. According to a U.S. official familiar with the issue, the state sought more information about VA’s offerings, but ultimately decided that its services were not necessary. The State Department already had similar assets and personnel in place, including abroad, the U.S. official said. The official added that the State Department told the VA that if the need arose in the future, it would contact them.

The decision to reject VA’s offer angered one State Department staffer who spoke to POLITICO, who said not enough attention has been paid to U.S. officials who have suffered from the inflexible mental and emotional demands.

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

Another official spoke of a massive, uninterrupted workload and what felt like a lack of recognition “or understanding of the toll it takes … We’re just being crushed.” Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some government employees both abroad and in the United States have worked from home, although many also go into their offices.

VA addresses State Dept.

In late August, the VA chief of staff told the State Dept. that it could provide advisory assistance to staff who have been under pressure to help evacuate those stranded in Afghanistan.

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

“It was really hard to see everything we had been working on crumbling,” said a U.S. diplomat involved in the situation. “We have many contacts and friends who are still there.”

The flood of SOS requests continued for several weeks after the withdrawal period for troops on 31 August.

Photo after photo of passports appeared in the employees’ inboxes. Joking pictures of stranded babies, young girls or the bloody victims of the Taliban filled their texts and emails.

And still the phones kept ringing: Senior Hill staff, congressmen, senators, cabinet members, even a retired admiral all asked for help with a stranded American or Afghan ally. Every call was of the utmost importance.

“You have to find a high-level contact in the State Department to get this marked at the highest level,” said an email written by the rep. David Trone (D-Md.), Who was among the leagues of politicians asking for help in an emergency evacuation.

Rep. David Trone asks

Trone, a Maryland Democrat, is among the dozens of government officials who worked with the state Department overnight to help bring those stranded in Afghanistan back to safety.

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

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

The congressman said he reached out to the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond and retired Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, a former deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who Trone believed still had links in government, including with VA Secretary Denis McDonough. The request went back to the state. Finally, Trone’s office worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on telephone calls at 3 and 4 in the morning

“In my many phone conversations with people in the State Department, they seem stretched to the extreme, very tired, literally working around the clock,” Trone said. “But they realize that there is a moment in time that if these people are not brought to freedom, the doors will eventually 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 that is changing,” Trone said. “It’s life – changing on such a dramatic level that it’s hard to understand.”

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