The Biden administration raced to evacuate remaining personnel in Afghanistan as the Taliban entered Kabul, marking a symbolic end to America’s longest-running war and raising alarm in Congress that the country would reemerge as a threat to U.S. national security.
In briefings with members of the U.S. House and Senate on Sunday, President Joe Biden’s top diplomatic and military officials faced criticism and questions about the effects of his decision to continue withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, a process set in motion by former President Donald Trump.
The Taliban’s march across the country — after the U.S. military removed it two decades ago — poses one of the most urgent foreign policy problems for Biden since he took office in January.
Some lawmakers said the U.S. shouldn’t have pulled out, despite a lack of public support for the war, while others lamented that 20 years of U.S. involvement and bloodshed is ending with the Taliban’s re-emergence.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, asked the administration officials what it would have taken to remain in Afghanistan, according to two people familiar with the call.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin responded that the Taliban would have launched attacks on U.S. troops, requiring a substantial increase in American forces. He told lawmakers that the security situation deteriorated quickly with “extremely rapid gains” by the Taliban as they met little resistance from Afghan forces, according to the people.
“Given the number of American lives lost and the number of soldiers who came back with life-changing injuries, it’s devastating to watch 20 years of U.S. support for the Afghanistan army amount to almost nothing,” Murphy said in an interview after the call.
Many analysts agreed that a Taliban takeover was predictable once the U.S. left, Murphy said. “And that’s been true for a decade,” he said. “Unfortunately, it likely means we will need to have a dialogue with the Taliban.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose administration began the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, said both Biden and Trump bear responsibility.
“As we get to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are surrendering Afghanistan to the terrorist organization that housed al-Qaida when they plotted and planned the attacks against us,” said Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, on ABC’s “This Week.”
She added: “What we’re seeing now is actually the opposite of ending the war. What we’re seeing now is a policy that will ensure, ensure that we will, in fact, have to have our children and grandchildren continuing to fight this war at a much higher cost.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on a call with House members that the U.S. is prioritizing evacuation of groups including U.S. citizens, local staffers and Afghan special-visa holders.
Women’s advocates also are a priority group, Blinken told the lawmakers, according to a briefing participant. He said the Biden administration, which has set an Aug. 31 deadline for completing the withdrawal, is still discussing ways to streamline the visa process for people who helped the U.S. and are now potential targets of the Taliban.
The Pentagon is deploying aircraft to Kabul that will bring departing personnel directly to military bases in the U.S., Blinken said. The U.S. is deploying another 1,000 troops, bringing the total involved in the withdrawal to 6,000, the Washington Post reported Sunday.
Some GOP lawmakers used the Taliban’s advance to hammer Biden.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused the administration of mishandling the U.S. exit strategy in a briefing that included Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“You say you had this plan,” McCarthy told the briefers. “No one would plan out this outcome, what we’re watching right now. The ramifications of this for America will go on for decades and it won’t just be in Afghanistan.”
Mark Bednar, a spokesman for McCarthy, declined to comment on the minority leader’s remarks during the briefing. He cited a written statement by McCarthy after the call in which the lawmaker called the situation in Afghanistan “dire,” blamed Biden for the “current failure” and complained he heard only “excuses” in the briefing.
In his statement, McCarthy also called on Biden to address the nation.
The president, vacationing at the presidential retreat of Camp David, met by video conference with his national security team to discuss the drawdown in civilian personnel in Afghanistan, the White House said.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas told CNN that foreign adversaries will be emboldened.
“This is going to be a stain on this president and his presidency,” McCaul said. “It’s going to be worse than Saigon,” he said, referring to the hasty evacuation of the U.S. Embassy that marked America’s defeat in Vietnam.
Murphy said the U.S. presence prevented Afghanistan from being a terrorist haven for two decades, which “is not insignificant.”
“It’s just that our plan, which was to leave behind a capable Afghan government and Afghan military was likely a plan with a design flaw,” he said in the interview.
Biden said in a statement on Saturday that continued U.S. military presence “would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.” He said the U.S. had spent nearly $1 trillion in Afghanistan, trained over 30,000 Afghan soldiers and police and provided military equipment. He said an “endless American presence” in the civil war was “not acceptable to me.”
Speaking to lawmakers on Sunday, administration officials said they couldn’t discuss the whereabouts of American-backed President Ashraf Ghani.
Ghani fled the country, according to Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation. Local media reported Ghani was bound for neighboring Tajikistan along with some close aides.
Blinken said earlier in U.S. television interviews that Kabul embassy staffers are being moved to the capital’s airport, though the U.S. will maintain a “core diplomatic presence” in Afghanistan.
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