U.S. Agency Websites Removed Info on Afghan Citizens Days Before Taliban Took Kabul

U.S. agency websites began removing information on Afghan citizens days before Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, was taken by the Taliban, the Associated Press reported.

Federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), operated in Afghanistan and worked with civilians there. The scrubbed websites had articles and photos including Afghans that could be used by the Taliban or the group's supporters to identify them. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said agencies that worked in Afghanistan started clearing webpages on Friday.

"Given the security situation in Afghanistan, and out of an abundance of caution for the safety of our staff, partners, and beneficiaries, we are reviewing USAID public websites and social media to archive content that could pose a risk to certain individuals and groups," USAID told AP.

In addition, State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the agency told its employees to search for and take down social media and website content related to Afghan citizens.

The USDA also told AP it was removing similar content from its websites.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Afghans Wait in Line at Passport Office
U.S. agency websites began removing information on Afghan citizens right before the Taliban took over Kabul. Above, Afghans wait in line for hours at the passport office as many are desperate to have their travel documents ready to go on August 14, 2021, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The online scrubbing campaign appeared to begin late last week when it became clear that the Afghan security forces had completely collapsed and the Taliban would take over the country far faster than even the most alarmist official predictions. The concern is that the Taliban or its supporters would search the websites and identify Afghans who had worked with the Americans or merely benefited from their services.

Price said the department was advising personnel to scrub content featuring civilians because the safety of Afghan contacts "is of utmost importance" to the government.

"State Department policy is to only remove content in exceptional situations like this one. In doing so, department personnel are following records retention requirements," Price said.

USAID began clearing the websites one day after the decision was made to send U.S. military to secure the Kabul airport as the capital collapsed.

An official with the Agriculture Department said a similar scrubbing effort was underway there. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not cleared to speak on the issue.

An AP review of the USDA website revealed at least seven different links to Afghanistan-related press releases or blog posts that, when clicked on, defaulted to a page declaring "Access denied: You are not authorized to access this page."

While much attention has focused on protecting Afghan interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. military, soldiers were only a portion of the U.S. personnel who operated in Afghanistan over the last two decades.

Organizations, including USAID, elements of the Agriculture Department and others, began arriving in Afghanistan as early as 2002, within months of the toppling of the previous Taliban government, focused on developing the country's infrastructure, educational and agriculture sectors.

As recently as June, USAID announced the U.S. was providing more than $266 million in additional humanitarian assistance to help Afghans. Total humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan totaled more than $543 million since fiscal year 2020, according to the USAID press announcement.

The money brought the total U.S. humanitarian assistance to nearly $3.9 billion since 2002, the release said.

In some of the now-disabled Agriculture Department posts viewed by AP, several, but not all, contained details that would clearly be viewed by the Taliban as proof of collaboration, such as names and photos of Afghan agricultural specialists and governmental officials who visited the U.S. on multiple USDA-sponsored delegations or fellowships.

Others were more innocuous, such as an article about Minnesota farmers donating more than 2,500 bushels of soybean seeds to their Afghan counterparts. The fact that they have also been scrubbed from the site possibly indicates the level of caution being used—or simply that whole sections of Afghan-related material were hastily deleted in large batches.

One scrubbed article makes it clear that even while the American military was deployed across the country, Afghan civilians and government officials were in danger of retaliation for the most low-level associations with the U.S. government.

It recounts in detail the USDA's working relationship with the members of an regional agricultural authority in a province near Kabul. USDA helped coordinate a shura (townhall meeting) between the council members and local farmers. The article, which includes a photo of the meeting, notes more than 250 farmers showed up despite insurgent threats of "violence against any farmer or government official planning to attend the meeting or work with USDA."

The author praises the government officials "who risk their safety each day to bring progress and opportunity to their fellow Afghans."

U.S. Department of Agriculture Website: "Access Denied"
U.S. agency websites began removing information on Afghan citizens right before the Taliban took over Kabul. Above, a computer screen displays a U.S. Department of Agriculture website page with the words "Access Denied" on Tuesday in Washington. Jenny Kane/AP Photo