Evacuating US Embassies in Times of Crisis Simply Leaves Us Without Information

Embassies are the eyes and ears of the US government abroad and serve multiple functions. Our diplomats represent the administration’s initiatives abroad. They meet regularly with local officials to explain US policy and solicit feedback. They report on political, security, economic, military and cultural issues to keep Washington informed. Embassies also provide protection for classified reports, in addition to military, police, and political activities, and they provide services to U.S. citizens in the country. There’s a lot to lose when they close. Foreign crises are exactly why we have foreign missions in the first place.

The United States has maintained embassies in war zones and hostile countries for years, enabling on-the-spot reporting, crisis management, and intelligence reporting. We had a functional embassy in Moscow throughout the Cold War, missions in Kabul and Baghdad during the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and diplomatic representation in Cuba. Even in environments like Russia and China, where our diplomats are closely followed, harassed and watched, they provide crucial understanding of our adversaries. I know: when I served overseas in a hostile counterintelligence environment, I was followed everywhere and my house was monitored with audio and video. But even under such circumstances, US missions are able to develop insight into closed cultures and keep Washington well informed.

It surprised me last summer when the administration so quickly closed the embassy in Kabul – and when it left Kyiv this week. The United States Embassy in Kabul was a $800 million complex with state-of-the-art security that included reinforced barriers and blast walls, and it maintained the protection of classified materials through years of combat. When it closed, it was one of the largest American missions in the world, housing about 1,500 American diplomats and employees and an even larger contingent of Afghans.

At the time, embassy staff were in direct negotiations with the Taliban and got agreements to stop targeting Americans and maintain a diplomatic presence in any future Taliban-led government. While a Taliban takeover was to be devastating for Afghan citizens who had grown accustomed to life under a more liberal elected government, few expected all official Americans to leave for good, especially more than there were so many other embassies left.

For professionals who know what we have built and what we are losing in Afghanistan, the fallout from the withdrawal from Kabul has been particularly difficult. It was infuriating to hear foreigners so casually declare that the United States could easily supersede its intelligence gathering and engage in counterterrorism operations in an “over the horizon” manner. It may seem so on the outside — making the pullout look less like a mistake — but the dirty little secret for anyone who has worked in national security is that high-tech solutions rely heavily on low-tech enablers. Nothing replaces Americans on the ground in difficult places. Trying to understand people, institutions, politics and a society from a distance is difficult and easily leads to misunderstandings. Intelligence is much more than secret reports. He is there to provide the insight, context, nuance and ability to meet sensitive sources and act with partners in the field. For critical information now, the United States relies on a handful of journalists who travel to Afghanistan and updates from allies who have maintained a presence. Counter-terrorist operations have fallen to almost zero.

We will pay the price for the transfer of our diplomats from Kiev to Lviv. The Ukrainian government – ​​its ministries of defence, intelligence and foreign affairs which our diplomats visit daily – is in Kyiv. Maintaining up-to-date contacts will be more difficult and meetings with key sources will be interrupted. How efficient is the embassy in Lviv when all the people it needs to see are in Kyiv? National security and foreign policy are deeply personal matters. Relationships with individuals and institutions are built over the years. A discreet comment or warning outside of school can be crucial in a crisis. We’ve all learned over the past few years that building or maintaining close relationships over Zoom and phone calls is difficult. This is compounded when the communication is sensitive or needs to be secured, as it is easily intercepted by hostile actors. For these and other reasons, almost all of my former colleagues in the intelligence community say the same thing: they would seek to increase the presence in Kyiv, rather than reduce it.

Many of our most damaging foreign policy debacles have taken place in areas where there was no US embassy or other official US presence. There was no American embassy in Cuba before the missile crisis, no American embassy in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, no embassy in Afghanistan when we entered the war after 9/11. In all these cases, we were blind. Before the invasion of Iraq, we were easily misinformed by an Iraqi refugee in Germany who reported to the German government that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program. We accepted the information as true, even though no Americans met the source – we had no one in Iraq to collect the pieces or confirm the information through in-person observation. We have no American presence today in Iran, North Korea or Afghanistan. This means that the public should be skeptical of any future claims that officials understand the decision-making processes of these closed companies. The commitment “beyond the horizon” does not work.

On a more practical level, our embassies house sensitive information that can be lost if we leave too hastily. As the United States prepared to punish Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia for its actions in Bosnia and Kosovo, American diplomats were ordered in 1999 to quickly burn sensitive documents, destroy technical equipment and leave the country before the start of an impending NATO bombing campaign. When American security experts returned to the embassy after the war, they found that the Serbs, Russians and Chinese had ransacked the embassy and discovered a trove of sensitive documents mistakenly forgotten. Before and during the war, the United States had no one in the country to verify the coordinates of a planned airstrike in central Belgrade. In May 1999, US forces mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy there, killing several journalists and causing a horrific diplomatic crisis. A simple visit could have avoided the tragic error. I can only imagine what the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, Taliban and others learn from ransacking the former US Embassy building in Kabul. Don’t let anyone tell you that nothing has been forgotten.

It is a mistake to regard foreign embassies as a relic of the past or to use their closure to send signals to adversaries. Field reports and personal relationships are the backbone of successful diplomacy, intelligence gathering and military action. Like recently reported in the New York Timeslack of local knowledge and sustained presence resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians in Syria: a US military unit killed “farmers trying to harvest crops, children on the streets, families fleeing the fighting and villagers sheltering in buildings “.

The world is full of dangerous places and we need to protect our professionals. But we also need to put people in these dangerous places, or we will be blind and deaf the next time we face a crisis.

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