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Senate Democrats on Monday promised they would investigate how and why the U.S. military departure from Afghanistan was bungled, even as most people in President Biden’s party said they supported his decision to pull American troops out of the country.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vowed to use his perch as chair of a powerful Senate committee to get to the bottom of why Biden has had to send roughly 7,000 U.S. troops back to Afghanistan to stabilize a situation in which desperate Afghans swarmed the airport in Kabul.
“As the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I hope to work with the other committees of jurisdiction to ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces. We owe those answers to the American people and to all those who served and sacrificed so much,” Warner said in a statement.
Before Biden spoke from the White House in a defiant address, American political leaders grappled all day with the horrifying images that emerged Monday morning of people falling to their deaths off U.S. Air Force planes taking off from the airport in Kabul.
Many Republicans who supported a U.S. withdrawal when Donald Trump was in office tried to use the crisis in Afghanistan to score political points. A few Democrats, like Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., voiced blunt criticism of Biden’s leadership. Moulton called the pullout a “moral and operational failure,” even though he agreed that U.S. troops should be leaving.
Other Democrats were more muted. “Clearly, our intelligence information recently has not been accurate in that the fall of Afghanistan’s been a lot faster than we thought it would be,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., told Yahoo Finance in an interview Monday.
Biden admitted as much in his speech from the White House on Monday afternoon. “This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated,” he said.
He also reiterated that he stood “squarely behind my decision” to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, carrying out a commitment made by Trump to the Taliban in February 2020. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” the president said. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president.”
Cardin essentially said the same thing, but indicated — as Warner did — that Congress would be looking into why the U.S. departure had been so chaotic. “President Biden had very few options,” Cardin said. “His mission was basically to try to get those who helped us and Americans out of Afghanistan as safely as possible. We’ll be doing some evaluations as to whether that could have been done more effectively or not.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said after Biden’s speech that the U.S. military had begun planning back in May for different scenarios when troops departed Afghanistan, and conducted another “tabletop exercise” two weeks ago.
“Plans are not always perfectly predictive,” Kirby said. “When you look at the images out of Kabul, that would have been difficult for anyone to predict.”
But Kirby noted that many of the U.S. troops who were flooding back into Afghanistan were able to be deployed quickly because they had been pre-positioned in Kuwait in anticipation of a situation like the one now unfolding.
“We think those exercises did prepare us,” he said.
But in late July, members of Congress were shocked by the lack of planning on how to get thousands of Afghans who have helped the U.S. government in some way — and their families — out of the country through the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.
Politico reported that about 20,000 people at the end of July were seeking to leave Afghanistan under this program. CNN reported on Monday that the Pentagon hoped to help up to 30,000 Afghans escape Taliban rule.
Biden said that 2,000 people have been flown out of Afghanistan so far, and on Monday, Gary Reid, the Pentagon’s lead support official for the SIV program, said that an additional “several hundred” people had been transported. “We anticipate picking up the pace, provided we can stabilize conditions in Kabul,” Reid said.
Foreign correspondents on the ground in Kabul, however, outlined on live television the vast obstacles to getting many thousands of people out of a Taliban-controlled country.
For now, the operational focus was on the international airport in Kabul, where the U.S. military was working to restore order. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. forces were working on reestablishing flights out of Kabul, but cautioned U.S. citizens in the city — and others seeking to leave — not to travel to the airport until the situation is stabilized.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., called on the Biden administration to “make a clear public commitment that we will hold that airport for as long as it takes.”
“The question here is whether this is going to be Saigon or Dunkirk. Are we going to leave people behind as we did in South Vietnam, or are we going to hold the beach until everybody is taken off that beach? I hope that it’s the latter,” Malinowski said.
Perhaps the harshest critiques of the Biden administration came from journalists who have traveled in Afghanistan to cover the two-decade conflict and have relied on Afghan men and women as their translators and guides, often risking their lives.
“The Biden administration failed to heed the warnings on Afghanistan, failed to act with urgency — and its failure has left tens of thousands of Afghans to a terrible fate,” George Packer wrote in the Atlantic, telling the story of an Afghan translator he had worked with who remained trapped in the country.
“This betrayal will live in infamy. The burden of shame falls on President Joe Biden.”
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