If Republicans win control of the House or Senate in November’s midterm elections, next year’s congressional defense hearings could be dominated by questions about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
That’s because GOP leaders insist that one year after the last American troops left the country, White House officials still haven’t fully justified the messy withdrawal from that country and addressed whether military safeguards were overrun by political motivations to end the long-term U.S. presence there.
“This withdrawal was rushed to meet an arbitrary deadline, against the advice of our military leaders, and cost the lives of 13 U.S. service members and over 100 innocent Afghans,” said House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. “Those responsible for this tragedy must be held accountable for their actions.”
Congress has held a series of public hearings in recent months to examine not only the last few months of American troops in Afghanistan but the long-term decisions that led the war to drag on for nearly 20 years.
Democrats have insisted the approach has provided a more holistic look at what went wrong in Afghanistan, looking at years of poor decisions instead of just mistakes made in the last few weeks.
“If you focus at one point in time, and you try to make a political point, I don’t think that’s going to help us in the future,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I.
But Republican lawmakers said those efforts undercut a real and critically needed analysis of the final months of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which led to the tumultuous evacuation of thousands of allies in August 2021 and the terrorist bombing late that month which killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and dozens of civilians.
“There are all kinds of issues we never got an answer on,” said Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., an Army veteran and one of the most vocal congressional critics of the withdrawal.
“Why did our intelligence get the threat wrong?” he said. “Why didn’t the Biden administration provide more air support? What happened to all the military equipment left behind? There needs to be public hearings on those questions, because the American public needs to know.”
GOP leaders have publicly criticized Biden for the chaotic withdrawal, saying he was more focused on ending the war quickly than safely for U.S. troops and allies.
A scathing report
On Aug. 15, Republican House leaders released a 115-page report on the failures of the withdrawal, blasting President Joe Biden for failing to adequately prepare for the evacuation of Afghan allies in the months leading up to the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
The report provides a blueprint for the kinds of questions likely to dominate the congressional armed services committees under GOP control next year, including how many Afghan military forces were forced to flee to Iran to find sanctuary, how much U.S. military equipment fell into Taliban hands, and why insufficient numbers of State Department workers were tasked with sorting through tens of thousands of asylum requests from friendly allies.
White House officials have dismissed the report and many of the included accusations, countering that the difficult final months were inevitable because Afghan security forces lacked the discipline and internal support for a smooth transition.
Rogers, who is in line to take over as House Armed Services Committee chairman if Republicans win control of the chamber, said he would focus on “accountability” for leadership decisions made about Afghanistan if he becomes chairman.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. — who is likely to become chairman if Republicans win the Senate — echoed a similar focus for his panel.
“There are still important lessons to be learned here,” he said. “There were Democratic and Republican voices predicting this would be a total debacle. So, this deserves further oversight.”
That oversight would lead right into Biden’s 2024 re-election campaign, potentially making Afghanistan a key talking point in another presidential election campaign cycle, even if it’s the first in 20 years without any U.S. troops on the ground there.
A party switch in either chamber could also put in doubt plans for a new nonpartisan commission to “conduct a thorough study of all matters relating to combat operations, reconstruction and security force assistance activities, intelligence operations, and diplomatic activities” related to the American military presence there.
Democrats have defended that plan since Congress adopted it last year, saying it would more clearly illustrate the missteps not just of Biden administration officials, but also staff who worked for former President Donald Trump (who struck a deal with Taliban leaders to withdraw from Afghanistan), former President Barack Obama (who declared an end to the combat mission there in 2014, and former President George W. Bush (who ordered the initial invasion in 2001).
But the work of that commission could be overshadowed by Republican-run investigative work in the armed services committees.
Rep. Mike McCaul, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the lead authors of the GOP’s August Afghanistan report, earlier this month called the document an “interim report” because of all the unanswered issues contained in it.
“The State Department’s refusal to provide this committee with any of the requested information related to the withdrawal and the resulting evacuation will not stop me or any other committee Republicans from continuing this investigation,” he said in a statement. “We owe this to the American people.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.