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House committee demands answers on Afghanistan

A military transport plane launches off while Afghans watch while stranded outside, in Kabul. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
September 13, 2021

The House Armed Services Committee is worried about “catastrophic” consequences if the Taliban has obtained biometric information about Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort.

The Taliban may have seized in recent weeks a number of devices storing information about America’s Afghan allies, such as fingerprints, iris scans and biographical information, according to media reports. As a result, Afghans whose information was seized and who remain in the country may now be at greater risk of reprisal by the Taliban.

The committee report accompanying the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act states that the Defense Department’s Automated Biometric Identification System contains about 1 million entries.

In the report, made public Friday, the panel expresses grave concern about “the possibility of this data trove falling into the hands of the Taliban or another enemy of the United States.”

If U.S. adversaries have gotten a hold of this information, the committee said, it would be “a catastrophic loss that permanently undermines the safety of Afghan citizens who helped the U.S. during twenty years of war and occupation.”

Moreover, the report warned, “It would also fundamentally weaken Department of Defense biometric collection efforts moving forward because of actual or perceived data security concerns.”

The committee directs the Pentagon to provide a detailed assessment of what happened last month in Kabul on this score, including addressing the “current integrity” of the entire biometric database.

The committee is also concerned about reports that the Pentagon itself may have shared “personally identifying information” with the Taliban, as members of that group were helping to screen people seeking to fly out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The panel demands that the Pentagon provide a report on what happened in those instances.

The possible loss of information that would identify potentially endangered Afghan allies is just one of many repercussions preoccupying the committee and others in Congress as they assess last month’s rapid Taliban takeover and the shambolic departure from the country of desperate Afghans and the last of America’s military forces there.

The committee’s report and bill demand that the Pentagon generate a plethora of reports and briefings to address lingering questions about Afghanistan in the minds of members of both parties.

Members want to understand what went wrong, how to minimize the security effect now and how to prevent similar setbacks in the future.

The committee approved its bill on Sept. 2, and the House plans to debate it during the week of Sept. 20. The measure would create a 12-member bipartisan commission to provide a detailed assessment of the conduct of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, America’s longest war.

Washington Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, the committee’s chairman, was supportive of most of the Afghanistan amendments, including creation of the special commission.

“This is exactly what we need to do,” Smith said of the commission on Sept. 2 during the final hours of the marathon markup.

In keeping with that appetite for answers, the committee report directs the Pentagon to produce a bevy of documents about Afghanistan. Although report language is not binding, the department’s leaders generally heed such requests.

For example, the committee wants an official assessment of how the Defense Department’s “production and communication” of intelligence about Afghanistan could have worked better, particularly this year, and how to improve it in the future.

U.S. intelligence services, by all accounts so far, failed to ascertain the fragility of the Afghan forces and the likelihood the Taliban would finish its long-gathering takeover of the country in days, not weeks or months, as had been the worst-case prediction of U.S. spy agencies.

Members are interested, too, in “understanding the strategic decision” of Defense Department leaders to shut down the Bagram air base outside of Kabul in July, leaving the Hamid Karzai airport, located closer to the densely populated city center, as the only major airfield available.

The committee report asserts that, after most U.S. forces and contractors had departed Afghanistan earlier this year, a lack of private sector logistics support for the Afghan air force was largely why those units failed to fend off the Taliban.

The committee notes that it asked the Pentagon in May to explain how the Afghan air force could operate without contractor support and never got an answer. It wants an explanation now, according to one section of the report.

The committee also is concerned that the Afghanistan experience raises troubling questions about the efficacy of all its costly train-and-equip programs for foreign militaries. The panel wants the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees such programs, to report on lessons it has learned about this in the aftermath of the Afghanistan experience.

The committee is also dismayed about “the lack of information that was provided” by the Pentagon to lawmakers in the months leading up to the withdrawal, and the panel wants a report on how to improve communications with Congress in such situations in the future.

Members also want a Pentagon report on plans for evacuating from Afghanistan any U.S. citizens who are still seeking to leave the country, and they want that review to also disclose how the department plans to gather intelligence on — and strike, if necessary — terrorists in Afghanistan as U.S. forces are now located outside that country.

Other reports are required on the security effect of the Taliban’s recent release of hundreds of detainees, including some accused terrorists.

Another requirement is for an evaluation of the consequences of any U.S. military aircraft that may have fallen into the Taliban’s hands, even though the Pentagon has said it destroyed or disabled its major equipment before U.S. troops withdrew.

The committee tasks the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction with examining the status of leftover U.S. equipment.

And the panel asks that same auditor to also review how the Afghan security forces proved so incapable or unwilling to fight for the government despite having received billions of dollars in U.S. equipment, supplies, salaries and training. The panel wants to know, too, the degree of Taliban support for terrorist organizations and the extent of the Taliban’s wealth.

Besides these requirements in the committee’s report, its bill also contains Afghanistan-related provisions. One would bar providing assistance to the Taliban, and another would prohibit transporting currency or other items of value to the group.

The bill also would mandate quarterly Pentagon briefings on the security environment in Afghanistan and a quarterly report on terrorism in the country.


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