House Republicans ramp up pressure over Afghanistan exit

Lawmakers allege that Biden did not properly prepare for the withdrawal

House Foreign Affairs    Republican leader Michael McCaul of Texas, right, in 2021 talks with a member of the U.S. military who was born Afghanistan and still has family in the country. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Foreign Affairs Republican leader Michael McCaul of Texas, right, in 2021 talks with a member of the U.S. military who was born Afghanistan and still has family in the country. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 15, 2022 at 11:35am, Updated at 6:05pm

One year after the United States’ chaotic exit from Afghanistan last August, Republican lawmakers are putting renewed pressure on the Biden administration to answer questions about the withdrawal.

In a new report from the House Foreign Affairs Committee minority, Republicans allege that President Joe Biden misled the American public about the consequences of a withdrawal, did not properly prepare for the withdrawal and failed to evacuate many Afghans who worked with the U.S. during the 20-year war there, including elite military personnel.

And if the Biden administration continues to drag its feet on providing requested information to the committee, it may consider issuing subpoenas, the report suggests.

The 113-page missive, released Monday, is the latest volley in what has become a partisan fight over who to blame for the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan that left 13 U.S. servicemembers dead and hundreds of people wounded and culminated in a swift takeover of the country by the Taliban.

It is based on open-source records, including news reports, interviews with officials involved in the withdrawal, and “whistleblowers” who asked to remain anonymous.

According to committee Republicans, the Biden administration has ignored requests for official responses to their questions.

“Unfortunately, the Committee Minority’s attempts to gain this critical information from the Biden administration have been met by significant resistance. To date, the State Department has provided none of the requested documents; none of the requested transcribed interviews; and no substantive answers to the requested questions,” the report says.

Biden withdrew forces from Afghanistan despite warnings from top generals, according to the report. It says a withdrawal was not the only option on the table for the Biden administration despite the 2020 Doha agreement brokered by former President Donald Trump, in which the U.S. agreed to exit Afghanistan and end the war.

The Trump administration’s initial agreement would have withdrawn all U.S. forces by May 2021. The Biden administration delayed that until the end of August.

“There is ample evidence, including direct testimony from American military leaders and top NATO allies, that they supported a continued conditions-based deployment in Afghanistan. They believed the best option was to keep an advisory and counterterrorism mission in place that consisted of 2,500 U.S. military personnel along with 6,000 mostly NATO forces,” the report says.

The Biden administration, however, said Monday that maintaining the same number of U.S. forces in the country wasn’t an option, and a continued presence there would have required deploying more troops. 

“Our top intelligence professionals assessed – and recent history had shown – that we’d ultimately need to send more American troops into harm’s way just to keep the stalemate in a 20-year war from degrading. The President rejected the impossible notion that a so-called low-grade effort could have maintained a stalemate. There’s nothing low-grade, low-risk, or low-cost about any war – and there were no signs that even more time, funds, or even more importantly Americans at risk in Afghanistan, would have yielded different results,” said National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson in an email. 

Faulted for lack of preparation

The report also contends that the Biden administration squandered the months between April and August 2021, failing to adequately prepare for the laborious logistical undertaking that the withdrawal presented.

Namely, the White House failed to secure bases for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) or counterterrorism operations in countries bordering Afghanistan, the report says, and that failure has created a setback in the United States’ ability to deal with the resurgence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

But Biden and top military leaders have said the U.S. holds significant “over the horizon” capabilities to conduct counterterrorism operations from a distance. On July 31, CIA operatives used a remote-piloted aircraft to assassinate al-Qaida emir Ayman al-Zawahri, a key planner of the 9/11 terror attacks, in Kabul.

The report also accuses the Biden administration of poorly handling the evacuation of Afghans who aided the U.S. military during the war in Afghanistan, including elite military personnel from the now defunct Afghan military and civilians who served as interpreters and translators for U.S. forces.

“As the Taliban's advance on Kabul progressed, there was no organized effort to prioritize the evacuation of critical Afghan military personnel who possessed unique knowledge of the U.S. military’s tactics, techniques, and procedures and could thereby pose a security risk to America if they could be forced to divulge their knowledge to a U.S. adversary,” the report says.

The minority acknowledges that the U.S. evacuated about 600 Afghan security force personnel but says they represent a “small fraction” of U.S.-trained units who served alongside American troops.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted in a May report that some 3,000 Afghan security forces, including some high-ranking officers, crossed into Iran following the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

“Iran may seek to recruit from the pool of military-trained former Afghan security forces hiding in Iran,” the SIGAR report said.

Seeking information

Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs panel, led by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, are not the only members of Congress pushing the Biden administration for answers on Afghanistan.

Last month, a group of 10 Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee said in letters to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken that the Biden administration has failed to provide declassified information about the country’s collapse.

The members, led by Ohio Rep. Michael R. Turner, the panel's ranking member, said the White House is dragging its feet on providing the information to SIGAR.

According to a news release accompanying the letter, Turner asked the Biden administration to comply with the request for information, which is congressionally mandated, in December. But the White House has not provided SIGAR with any of the requested details.

"We are seeking clarity as to why that is the case," the members said in the letters. "It is unclear why the DoD needs this information to remain classified and withheld from the public. Most of the information contained in these supplemental annexes was classified by the DoD in 2017 at the request of the former Afghan president and in agreement with the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Commanding General. Those organizations no longer exist, and there appears to be no compelling reason for this information to be withheld from public release.”

But according to a State Department spokesperson, the agency has provided 150 briefings to members and staff on Afghanistan since the withdrawal, and Blinken has twice testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the last year.   

“Senior members of the department briefed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Afghanistan issues over multiple hours, covering policy making, contingency planning, and operational details related to the withdrawal, and answered questions relating to the current state of Afghanistan, and stayed until they exhausted questions from both Republicans and Democrats on the committee,” the spokesperson said. 

Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Committee acknowledge in their report that there are ongoing efforts to examine the withdrawal from Afghanistan, including within the State Department and others mandated by the fiscal 2022 Pentagon policy measure.

One of those National Defense Authorization Act-mandated efforts is the creation of the Afghanistan War Commission, an independent panel made up of congressionally appointed experts who will study the entirety of the war in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal, to determine U.S. failures, successes and lessons learned.

The commission is a “noble effort likely to cast light on major missteps across multiple presidential administrations and secure the historical record. But it is not sufficient to get to the bottom of what specifically happened regarding the Biden administration’s unconditional withdrawal from the country,” the HFAC minority report says.

Going forward, GOP members of the House Foreign Affairs panel are calling on the State Department to provide them with the requested information related to the withdrawal, including consultation with allies, agreements with the Taliban, and all written plans related to the evacuation.

Should the State Department refuse, the report says the committee should subpoena that information “to compel compliance.”

Members are also requesting that the State Department make dozens of its top officials available for interview by the panel and recommend that the House Foreign Affairs Committee hold multiple, open hearings on Afghanistan with Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and others.

“Much more investigation is still needed to provide a full accounting of what caused this disaster. And as more information is revealed, more questions will certainly arise,” the report says.