The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 was an ugly end to 20 years of American and allied efforts, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to remove the al-Qaeda-harboring Taliban from power and free the people of Afghanistan from its repression. The Biden administration has made the argument that the United States could no longer remain in Afghanistan and that the withdrawal was bound to be messy in any case. Perhaps so. But the withdrawal didn’t have to be as awful as it was. Tens of thousands were evacuated, but many were left behind. The United States appears to have miscalculated the speed with which its Afghan allies collapsed. Afghans, particularly women and girls, are paying — and will continue to pay — a high price for the Taliban’s return to power.
It’s reasonable for Congress to look hard at the administration’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan and its execution. But it can do so without compromising some of the very mechanisms that provide crucial, real-time checks on U.S. policy from the inside. The State Department’s Dissent Channel is one of those.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is conducting hearings to investigate the Biden administration’s conduct of the Afghanistan withdrawal. As part of this process, committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) has demanded the administration provide relevant documents, which it has done. But the administration did not provide everything the committee requested, and McCaul has demanded three documents in particular that were omitted in the department’s response: a “Dissent Channel” cable reportedly sent by diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in July 2021, an “After Action Report” prepared by Ambassador Daniel Smith (who was acting director of the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute at the time and was tapped to review the department’s role in the withdrawal), and two iterations of the U.S. Embassy Emergency Action Plan. (Full disclosure: Ross Wilson, then chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and Smith are longstanding colleagues and friends.)
In testimony to Congress, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered that the “After Action Report” would be available to Congress by mid-April, and a summary of such a report appears to have been released yesterday. In a letter to Blinken, however, McCaul noted that the Dissent Channel Cable remained the committee’s top priority and, on March 30, he issued a subpoena to obtain it.
As often happens in disputes between members of Congress and the administration, debates about substance take the form of fights over process. McCaul is right to press the administration on Afghanistan. His demand for a Dissent Channel cable, however, is off the mark.
The Dissent Channel dates from the Vietnam War era. Opposition to U.S. policy was widespread in the U.S. Foreign Service and the State Department, and in 1971, the State Department sought to address it by creating a channel for dissenting views, with pledges to protect the dissenter and give confidentiality to the entire process.
State Department personnel have used the Dissent Channel many times over the past 50 years of its existence, including to take issue with aspects of U.S. policy in Vietnam, to criticize U.S. support in the 1970s for Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, to protest lack of U.S. action in the initial stages of the Bosnian War in 1993, to object to U.S. outreach to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in 1994, to oppose aspects of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, to challenge aspects of Trump administration policy.
The impact of Dissent Channel cables has been mixed. They usually do not result in immediate reversals of policy. Some of the dissenting arguments have, in retrospect, been proven mistaken, such as the protest against providing a 48-hour U.S. visa for Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams for public appearances in January 1994, which turned out to be an early step toward the 1998 Good Friday Accords that helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. But some dissents have foreshadowed later policy changes, such as the 1992 dissent message that reflected widespread and justified frustration with initial U.S. policy on the increasingly brutal war in Bosnia and helped set the stage for the stronger policy that led to the Dayton Accords that ended the war. The American Foreign Service Association, which represents Foreign Service personnel, regularly awards such staff in its “Constructive Dissent Awards,” as it did again just last year.
The Dissent Channel is hardly the only way to change policy. (In my 40-year Foreign Service career, I never used it but challenged policies – and sometimes accomplished changes — using other bureaucratic methods, which is another story.) Still, it is a valuable tool and worth protecting. It can alert senior policymakers to problems that might have been overlooked or buried. It can, as in the case of the Bosnia Dissent message, point out policy weaknesses. The State Department has tried to keep the Dissent Channel confidential both to protect internal deliberations and protect its users. Older Dissent Channel messages have been made public, some have leaked, and some are made public when the dissent carries the day. But, generally, the Dissent Channel has maintained its confidential status, as it should. The Dissent Channel’s basic deal – confidentiality of the message and protection for the dissenter – is sound and should be respected. McCaul addressed some of these points by offering to have State redact the names of the drafters. But the use of a Dissent Channel message in an investigation still raises problems.
McCaul is conducting a reasonable investigation, but he does not need access to the Dissent Channel to do the job. The “After Action Report,” plus testimony from Chargé Wilson, for example, would give as good or better a picture of the timing and execution of the withdrawal and possible alternatives. Forcing release of Dissent Channel cables would chill their candor, intimidate potential senders of Dissent Channels messages by making them subject to fights between Congress and the administration, and inject an element of gamesmanship into the process. The right answer is to investigate but not weaken the Dissent Channel in the process.