US legislators vow bipartisan probe into Afghanistan withdrawal

Many have questioned why the Taliban’s swift takeover appeared to catch US officials by surprise.

Hundreds of people gather near a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan [File: Shekib Rahmani/The Associated Press]

Democratic-led congressional committees are promising to press President Joe Biden’s administration on what went wrong as the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan, as the United States continues to scramble to evacuate its citizens and thousands of Afghans who helped the US during the 20-year long war.

Members of both parties have expressed anger over how the withdrawal played out and several upcoming hearings are likely to plunge Biden’s national security team into a bipartisan cross-examination, unlike anything they have faced since taking office.

Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said legislators will investigate what he described as the “Biden administration’s flawed execution of the US withdrawal”.

He said President Donald Trump’s actions will also be part of the review, citing the former administration’s “flawed negotiations” with the Taliban, which led to the US and the Taliban signing a peace agreement in February 2020 to withdraw US troops.

“The Committee will seek a full accounting for these shortcomings as well as assess why the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces collapsed so quickly,” Menendez said in a statement, while noting that Congress was told repeatedly the Afghan forces were up to the task of securing the country.

Meanwhile, Representative Gregory Meeks, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has said he has invited Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify about the situation. A hearing could take place as soon as next week.

“The situation in Afghanistan is rapidly changing and it is imperative that the administration provide the American people and Congress transparency about its Afghanistan strategy,” Meeks said.

Senator Mark Warner, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has also said he will work with other committees to ask tough questions about “why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario”.

“We owe those answers to the American people and to all those who served and sacrificed so much,” Warner said.

‘Moral obligation’

Many legislators had warned that a hasty US withdrawal could see US citizens and Afghans who worked for the US stranded in the country and subjected to persecution.

Critics have accused the Biden administration of not doing enough to fast-track those applying for special visas to relocate to the US.

Images of panicked Afghans clinging to a departing US military jet at the Kabul airport as the city fell to the Taliban have prompted further condemnation.

One congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly, told the Associated Press news agency they have forwarded nearly 50 names to the State Department for transport out of the country – mostly interpreters, but also their family members and 10 journalists.

Meanwhile, a group of 47 legislators wrote to the administration on Wednesday seeking more guidance on evacuation plans.

They said their offices were working constantly to help those trying to get out, “but our staff cannot adequately do this without a clear understanding of the process and plan currently underway”.

The group, led by Democratic Representative Sara Jacobs, called for a classified briefing if necessary.

“It is this Administration’s moral obligation to leverage all available resources to help as many people as possible to safety in the United States. There is no time to waste,” the legislators wrote.

Republicans call for briefing

For their part, top congressional Republicans, Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell, asked Biden on Wednesday for a classified briefing with the “gang of eight” – the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate intelligence committees as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, McCarthy and McConnell.

McCarthy and McConnell said they want a briefing on the number of Americans still in Afghanistan and the plans to evacuate those outside Kabul.

Their letter prompted Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill to tweet that she had already requested such a meeting. He also said House members will receive an unclassified telephone briefing on Friday and an in-person briefing on Tuesday.

The Trump administration agreement had set an even earlier deadline for US troop withdrawal of May 2021. The date was later moved to August 31 by Biden.

But Republicans have sought to underscore to US citizens that it was Biden, not Trump, who was in charge when the Taliban took control.

“The world is watching as one of the greatest foreign policy failures in American history plays out,” the lead Republicans on three committees with jurisdiction over Afghanistan-related issues said in a letter to Biden.

“Due to your failure to adequately plan, there are now more than twice the number of US forces in Afghanistan than when you took office,” they wrote.

Source: News Agencies