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Lawmakers load defense bill with measures demanding answers for Afghanistan’s fall—and its future

Senate and House Armed Services Committees (DOD Photo by Helene C. Stikkel/Released)
September 03, 2021

Lawmakers on Wednesday made an early attempt to conduct oversight of the withdrawal from Afghanistan the same week the last U.S. troops left the country.

The House Armed Services Committee approved at least half a dozen bipartisan amendments to the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act that ask the administration for more details on both the withdrawal and the future security situation in Afghanistan.

But amid the points of agreement, the discussion was peppered with partisan fighting over who is to blame for the tragic scenes that surrounded the last American troops leaving.

Republicans placed the fault squarely upon President Joe Biden, arguing that the White House’s “weakness” will put American citizens and allies at risk as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates.

“My concerns have now grown into complete dismay towards the abject failure of this administration,” said Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss. “We have been asking for months for greater detail on the so-called ‘over the horizon’ capability…It is now clear this strategy was completely inept from the beginning.”

But Democrats were quick to point out that it took 20 years of policies to reach this point. Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., defended the president’s decision to withdraw, saying that maintaining a small number of American troops was not possible and that Biden faced a difficult choice between withdrawing, and potentially letting the Taliban take control, or surging thousands of troops into harm’s way.

“The idea that the only things that went wrong in Afghanistan is what President Biden has done over the past six or seven months is not correct,” Smith said. “The idea that there was some option where we could have just stayed in a perfectly peaceful environment with no risk, I hope this debate gets a little better than that…and honestly looks at what choices were there.”

Lawmakers unanimously approved a series of amendments to the major policy bill intended to help them understand what went wrong with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, including two from Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., that would require the Defense Department to brief the House Armed Services Committee no later than Nov. 1 on why it left Bagram Air Base and why it ended contract maintenance support to the Afghan Air Force.

Some conservative analysts and lawmakers criticized the Pentagon for closing Bagram before the evacuation of American troops, diplomats and Afghan allies were complete, arguing that the secure airfield could have been used instead of the airport in Kabul. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said at a briefing last month that the Defense Department did not have enough troops in the country to protect both Bagram and the embassy, so the decision was made to close the air base.

The amended bill will direct the Pentagon’s top watchdog on Afghanistan to submit a report to Congress by March 1 on the performance of the Afghan military between February 2020 and August 2021, including why the Afghan security forces were unable to defeat Taliban advances, and how the U.S. withdrawal affected Afghan troops’ capabilities.

The committee also asked the Pentagon to present frequent updates on the security situation in Afghanistan, including quarterly briefings on threats in the country, particularly from Al Qaeda. Lawmakers also added a requirement for the defense secretary to report on Iranian support of the Taliban by March 1.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., spearheaded an amendment demanding the administration to come up with a strategy to preserve the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan and share it with Congress by March 1. Biden has said this is a top priority that can be accomplished with diplomacy, but has offered few specifics.

Lawmakers also asked for a cost breakdown of Operational Allies Refuge, which evacuated Afghan allies from the country after Kabul fell to the Taliban. Under the amendment, the defense secretary will need to provide Congress a breakdown of the cost of caring for Afghan special immigrant visa applicants within 30 days of the department spending $100 million on the operation, plus a new update every 90 days after that.

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