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Republicans continue to hammer Biden for Afghan exit

The top two generals who oversaw the deadly evacuation of Afghanistan faced renewed scrutiny Tuesday as House Republicans escalated their campaign to hold President Biden accountable for the fiasco and Democrats accused Donald Trump of setting the conditions for the Kabul government’s collapse.

Retired Gens. Mark A. Milley and Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, career military officers who served in senior roles under both presidents, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee as part of its oversight investigation of the United States’ calamitous exit, in August 2021, from a 20-year war.

McKenzie said that although the Pentagon had developed a plan to withdraw all U.S. troops, diplomats, citizens and at-risk Afghan partners months before the Taliban’s return to power, Biden instead decided to leave open the U.S. Embassy and withdraw all but a few hundred military personnel — ultimately leaving tens of thousands in harm’s way.

“I think the fundamental mistake — the fundamental flaw — was the timing of the State Department call” for evacuation, Milley said. “I think that was too slow and too late, and that then caused the series of events that result in the very last couple of days.”

The recurring political spotlight on the conflict’s closing days, marked by scenes of gruesome violence and desperation, has forced Democrats to confront a dark moment during Biden’s tenure as president while he campaigns against his predecessor for a second term as commander in chief.

Many Democratic lawmakers have joined their Republican colleagues in criticizing the administration’s handling of the withdrawal. But with the anticipated election rematch between Trump and Biden months away, they face pressure to defend his position that it was Trump in 2020 who boxed in Biden by accepting a deal with the Taliban that put few conditions on a U.S. departure the following year.

Throughout the hearing, both sides took turns trying to demonstrate their respect for the generals while prodding them to acknowledge the other party’s president as the person ultimately responsible for the evacuation fiasco.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the committee chairman, said the White House “refused” to listen to warnings about what was happening in Afghanistan as the Taliban made recaptured cities and districts on their march to Kabul. The State Department, he said, never called for a full evacuation until Aug. 14, 2021, one day before the Afghan government fled the country and thousands of civilians overran the city’s airport in a frantic bid to do so themselves.

“As the saying goes, ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,’” McCaul said of the Biden administration. “And fail they did.”

He produced an interim report around the second anniversary of the evacuation last August and is expected to release a final version this summer.

A State Department investigation released last June found that the agency gave “insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios” and how quickly those could occur after Biden decided to follow through with Trump’s decision to withdraw. The agency also did not have anyone clearly in the lead on preparation for a full evacuation, that investigation found.

A State Department official, asked about Tuesday’s hearing, said the agency is “immensely proud of the work done, under incredibly difficult circumstances, to ensure the relocation of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Afghans throughout the withdrawal and the period that followed.”

Both retired generals said their remarks were consistent with hours of testimony they provided while still on active duty — a point that Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (N.Y.), the committee’s top Democrat, sought to emphasize.

“There’s nothing groundbreaking here!” Meeks said, urging lawmakers to look instead at the war’s totality, not just how it ended. The bipartisan Afghanistan War Commission that was convened last year to scrutinize the entire 20-year war is expected to issue findings within four years.

Among those present at the hearing were the families of several U.S. troops killed in a bombing on the outskirts of the Kabul airport as the 17-day evacuation raced to a close. The explosion followed days of public warnings from the Biden administration that the Islamic State, which operates a branch in Afghanistan, was poised to attack. An estimated 170 Afghans died in the suicide strike alongside 13 American service members. Dozens more were wounded.

Reps. Cory Mills (R-Fla.) and Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.) assailed McKenzie and Milley for not seeking out the testimony of a Marine sniper, Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who has said that shortly before the attack, he spotted a man in the crowd who met the description of the suicide bomber but was denied permission to shoot him. Vargas-Andrews, who was severely wounded in the explosion and was present at the hearing Tuesday, provided lawmakers last year with an emotional account of the bombing and its aftermath, compelling the Pentagon to review the findings of its investigation of the incident. The results of that review are expected to be made public soon.

McKenzie and Pentagon leaders told the public in 2022 that the airport bombing was “not preventable.”

Rep. Michael Waltz (R.-Fla.), a retired Special Forces officer, said he was infuriated recalling how Biden, in the weeks before the crisis, downplayed the prospect of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban. In one instance, Waltz noted, Biden said in July 2021 that it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would overrun the country — even though the generals had privately warned that such an outcome could happen swiftly.

“My assessment at the time was if we went to zero on U.S. military forces, then there was a high likelihood of a collapse of the government of Afghanistan, and the [Afghan forces], with the Taliban taking over,” Milley told lawmakers Tuesday. “But I personally thought it was going to be in the fall, somewhere around Thanksgiving. Assessments varied widely.”

The White House, asked about Milley’s testimony, cited a document the White House released last spring saying that when Biden assumed office, he undertook a “deliberate, intensive, rigorous, and inclusive decision-making process” about how to handle the war. “Ultimately, President Biden refused to send another generation of Americans to fight a war that should have ended for the United States long ago,” it states.

Several Democrats on the panel sought to highlight what they said were Republican inconsistencies on Afghanistan policy. They noted that GOP outrage over the abandonment of U.S. allies stranded amid the military airlift that carried 124,000 people to safety should translate into meaningful help for Afghans left behind and those who were resettled in the United States.

Afghan advocates, included leading U.S. military veterans groups, have warned that thousands of Afghans who served the U.S. mission remain in Afghanistan and that the State Department will soon run out of Special Immigrant Visas for them unless Congress acts.

There are approximately 20,000 Afghans — not counting their family members — who have received preliminary approval and “will soon require visas,” a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) wrote last week in a letter to Senate leaders. As of March 1, “there were approximately 7,000 visas remaining,” they said.

Rep. Jason Crow (D-Col0.), an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, urged his colleagues to sign on to the Afghan Allies Protection Act, a bipartisan bill consistently thwarted by Republicans. Congress can still “save lives by passing this bill and providing a pathway for our friends to get out,” Crow said.

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), wondered what it will take for Americans to be able to visit Afghanistan in a similar fashion to how he visited Vietnam to see where his father was killed.

“It will take years upon years upon years,” Milley responded. “ … I believe the Taliban are still a terrorist organization. I still believe that they conduct incredible, horrific retribution inside their own country, and I would not recommend to any family member at this time to return.”

Milley added that he will have a difficult time ever reconciling with the Taliban. “I’ll probably go to the grave with it,” he said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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