US agencies scrub websites to protect Afghans left behind

US Politics

A computer screen displays a United States Department of Agriculture website page with the words “Access Denied” on it Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Washington. Multiple federal agencies that operated in Afghanistan and worked with Afghan citizens have been hastily purging their websites, removing articles and photos that could endanger the Afghan civilians who interacted with them. An Associated Press 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.” (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Multiple federal agencies that operated in Afghanistan and worked with Afghan citizens have been hastily purging their websites, removing articles and photos that could endanger the Afghan civilians who interacted with them and now fear retribution from the Taliban.

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.

State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the department was advising personnel to search for and remove social media and website 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.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said in a statement the agencies who operated in Afghanistan began clearing the websites last Friday — one day after the decision was made to send U.S. military to secure the Kabul airport as the capital collapsed.

“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,” the agency said in an email to The Associated Press.

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 Associated Press 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 The Associated Press, 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.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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