AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
The House Foreign Affairs Committee conducted its first hearing of the 118th Congress on Wednesday, calling witnesses to answer questions on the Biden administration’s disastrous and deadly evacuation from Afghanistan in 2021. After 18 months of denials and obfuscation from the president and his top lieutenants, Americans finally began to get some answers about the leadership failures that led to one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.
Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) kicked things off with a scathing set of remarks directed at President Biden, accusing him and other administration officials of acting “against the advice of his top generals and the intelligence community” and then “[spending] the next four months ignoring the realities” of their failure.
“What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level — and a stunning, stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration,” McCaul said. “Because of the Biden administration’s dereliction of duty, the world watched heartbreaking scenes unfold in and around the Kabul airport for two weeks.”
The ranking member of the Committee, Democrat Gregory Meeks of New York, was defiant in his defense of President Biden during his own opening remarks, calling the withdrawal in which 13 Americans died an “unprecedented and heroic evacuation never seen before.”
In a sharp contrast to McCaul’s statement, Meeks, while acknowledging that there were “mistakes along the way,” implied that it is former President Trump, not President Biden, who is actually responsible for the disaster.
“In the years preceding the 2021 withdrawal, the decision to engage in direct negotiations with the Taliban and the invitation to meet at Camp David conferred international legitimacy to the Taliban,” Meeks said. “The deal that derived from these negotiations required the withdrawal of our forces without forcing the Taliban to fulfill any real commitments or separating from Al Qaeda.”
Meeks’s narrative notably ignored the fact that Trump did, in fact, take decisive action when the Taliban violated the terms of their negotiated deal. When the Taliban exploded a car bomb in Kabul in September of 2019 that killed 10 people, including an American service member, Trump ceased negotiations and ordered a devastating aerial bombardment of Taliban outposts.
In total, the U.S. dropped more than 7,200 pieces of ordinance on Afghanistan in 2019 – more than any other year of the war. Following that incident, the United States did not see a single combat death in Afghanistan for 18 months.
However, despite Meeks’s attempt to deflect blame from the Biden administration, the hearing also featured testimony from several witnesses, including American service members who were on the ground during the fall of Kabul, who called for accountability.
One of them was Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, 25, who witnessed the suicide bombing near the Abbey Gate of the Kabul airport on August 26 that left thirteen American service members dead.
“I opened my eyes to Marines dead or unconscious lying around me… My body was overwhelmed from the trauma of the blast. My abdomen had been ripped open, every inch of my exposed body except for my face took ball bearings and shrapnel,” he said, stopping several times to compose himself.
“Our military members and veterans deserve our best because that is what we give to America. The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion, and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence… The 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier that were murdered that day have not been answered for.”
McCaul took particular interest in part of Vargas-Andrews’s testimony where he described how State Department officials shut down evacuation operations every night, potentially dramatically reducing the number of people that the military was able to evacuate. The Texas Republican promised to make that line of inquiry a priority in the committee’s investigation of State Department failures surrounding the evacuation.
Aiden Gunderson, a former Army combat medic who was deployed twice to Afghanistan and helped with the evacuation, also appeared before the committee. “I want Americans to know the truth: that the Afghanistan withdrawal was an organizational failure at multiple levels,” he said, calling it “disastrous.”
At times Democrat attempts to defend Biden drew sharp rebukes from the witnesses. Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada questioned retired Lt. Col. David Scott Mann, who formed a group called “Task Force Pineapple” to help evacuate Americans and Afghans, on why he never publicly raised concerns about Afghanistan under the Trump administration.
“The reality is, we were living our lives,” Mann replied, clearly irritated. “We were drawn back into this not of our own volition, but by a set of circumstances that we could not stand for.”
The White House was silent on the hearing, although the viral clips of witnesses describing the tragic circumstances they endured and calling out glaring leadership failures could not have gone over well at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Despite clear rebukes from the soldiers and civilians whom he led into harm’s way, Biden has said repeatedly that he stands behind his decisions.
Republican House leadership has promised more hearings on Afghanistan, and plans to call members of the Biden administration to answer questions as well.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Shane_Harris_.