At a Congressional hearing on Wednesday, veterans of the Afghan War, some of whom were in tears, implored the government to acknowledge the mistakes made during the retreat and tackle the bureaucratic roadblocks keeping our allies from fleeing the Taliban’s retribution.
At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, the witnesses shared their stories of the evacuation, which began when the militant group took control on August 15, 2021. Some spoke of the experience as active-duty service members who had to rush to Kabul, while others discussed volunteering to assist those in need in Afghanistan from a distance.
“The withdrawal was a catastrophe, in my opinion, and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence.”
So said Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was present at a suicide bombing on the outskirts of the city’s airport that caused the death of nearly 200 people, including 13 American service members, and himself losing two limbs, gave a powerful and emotional testimony.
“Plain and simple, we were ignored,” Sgt Vargas-Andrews said.
He informed legislators that no one had been held accountable for the 13 servicemen who died that day.
“My body was overwhelmed by the trauma of the blast. My abdomen had been ripped open. Every inch of my exposed body took ball bearings and shrapnel,” he said. “I see the faces of all of those we could not save, those we left behind.”
Sniper Sgt Tyler Vargas-Andrews testimony on Cap Hill, detailing his ordeal during Afghanistan withdrawal. He could’ve taken the bomber out, but was told not to. “We informed our Commanding Officers, but they ignored us.” pic.twitter.com/LERjGM2sxJ
— 🇺🇸ProudArmyBrat (@leslibless) March 8, 2023
On Wednesday, House Republicans held a hearing to examine the Biden administration‘s strategies further while evacuating the region. This was due to the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, which caused a rush of Afghans to overrun Hamid Karzai International Airport and try to escape the ruling regime. This regime had been overthrown by U.S.-led forces two decades prior. The airfield was the epicenter of a two-week crisis resulting in over 124,000 people being flown away to safety, yet, thousands remained stranded in hostile territory.
Politicians have predicted further sessions in Congress — with more conflict between parties — regarding determining fault for the disastrous events in the aftermath of the war.
At the hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the committee chairman, described the evacuation effort as “disastrous.” The Defense Department and US intelligence community predicted a grim outcome before Kabul fell. However, McCaul claimed the White House and State Department “painted a much more positive picture, disregarding the situations occurring on the ground.”
McCaul declared that it intends to ask for the testimony of President Biden‘s leading national security advisors, consisting of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On Wednesday, Democrats agreed that errors had been committed, but they attributed the fault to former President Donald Trump. They also mentioned that Trump had authorized the talks with the Taliban and finalized the pact in 2020, necessitating US troops to leave one year later.
Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.) insisted that to assess the withdrawal properly, all of the necessary contexts must be considered, noting that failing to do so would be problematic and could lead to a political divide where none should exist.
When disorder was at its highest during the withdrawal period, throngs of Afghan people filled the streets near the airfield. US military personnel and Taliban members, following a sudden agreement, tried to establish control. However, the two sides displayed extremely distinct approaches. US military personnel reported seeing beatings and even executions while they kept watch, but they were commanded not to take action.
Botched Drone Strike
Three days after the bombing, American military personnel conducted a drone strike at a compound near the airport, claiming to have killed a potential second suicide bomber. However, after a few days of queries, US authorities admitted they had erred and had instead struck an Afghan family, leading to the death of three adults and seven children. This was not brought up in the discussion on Wednesday.
Testimony was also provided by Aidan Gunderson, a former Army specialist who quit in July, and three veterans who were part of a volunteer group trying to trace and find collaborating Afghans. These were Francis Q. Hoang of Allied Airlift 21, Peter Lucier from Team America Relief, and Scott Mann from Task Force Pineapple.
Camille Mackler, the head of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative, came together with them. This organization has been aiding Afghans relocating to the United States.
Gunderson labeled the retreat an “organizational breakdown at multiple levels,” informing legislators that he and his comrades in the 82nd Airborne Division descended on the airport the evening Kabul fell with minimal necessities and security that was in a mess. In addition, they faced disorderly, pressing throngs and the gory evidence of Afghans who had dropped after latching onto exiting US planes in a bid to flee.
“Departing on August 31 on one of the last flights out of the country, I was relieved to be headed home, but I wondered how the horror I just witnessed had just changed me — how it would change us all,” Gunderson said. “I can assure that it has. This war is not over for millions of people in Afghanistan and the US Thoughts of those two weeks have plagued my mind since coming home. I see the faces of all the people we could not save. All the people we left behind.”
In a discussion with the Washington Post from a year ago, Vargas-Andrews told of a story from the day of the Kabul Airport bombing. He and another Marine from a guard tower noticed two people that seemed to fit the description of potential suicide bombers. They requested permission from their commanders to shoot the individuals yet were denied. He said no governmental investigator ever asked him about his experience.
Vargas-Andrews made it clear from the start of his statement that he was speaking for himself rather than for his organization, remarking that his feeling was that his service was not appreciated.
Mann, who was once a Special Forces officer, told the committee that people are starting to perceive the US as a nation that abandons its wartime allies. His voice trembling, he explained that his friend was discovered dead in a hotel room in Mississippi sometime after the fall of Afghanistan, which “awakened all of the psychological pain he had managed to repress.” The veteran also shared that many other veterans still have to grapple with the spiritual harm caused by the war and its disastrous conclusion.
Mann remarked that the situation has been extremely disheartening. He could not have imagined that he would observe such egregious disregard, followed by silence from those in high positions – military and civilian.
Hoang, a refugee to the US in 1975 after Vietnam’s fall, and other witnesses called for lawmakers to enlarge the particular immigrant visa program enabling many Afghans who had aided the American war effort to enter the US.
“I think that there is a tremendous need to enable the executive branch to increase both the throughput and capacity to process those visas and transport the people who have been granted a visa or approval for a visa out of Afghanistan posthaste,” said Hoang, who served in the Army.
He commented that the State Department found themselves in a tricky predicament when conducting the evacuation, with “very little guidance” and “limited by the bureaucracy.”
Lucier, a Marine Corps veteran who saw action in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, wondered what the future holds for the 72,000 Afghans presently in the US on temporary humanitarian parole. These individuals have no legal standing to remain unless Congress enacts a law.
Mackler, a lawyer in the field of immigration, suggested that the only way to prevent these Afghans from being deported is for the Afghan Adjustment Act to be passed, an effort blocked by Senate Republicans last year.
Towards the conclusion of the hearing, Rep. Meeks (NY), leader of the committee’s Democratic Party, expressed that withdrawing from a two-decade-long “quagmire” was always going to be a challenging mission for the United States.
He admitted that both successes and errors occurred during the mission, noting that it would have been unrealistic to assume the operation would be uncomplicated, given the volatile security circumstances and unforeseen developments on the ground.
McCaul labeled the evacuation a “gloomy period” in US history and asked those who knew the mistakes to voice their insights.
At the end of the hearing, McCaul addressed Vargas-Andrews and stated that his account of the potential suicide bomber getting away highlighted the need for responsibilization.
“We simply want to get the truth out,” he said.
“That’s probably one of the saddest things out of this hearing,” McCaul said, “and we pray for you and all the veterans out there.”
We Predicted This
Back in the summer of 2021, SOFREP ran a piece predicting the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. The story ran while US intelligence agencies were telling the President that the Afghan government could hold its own for a long time. We knew that the day would come when we’d have to pull out of Afghanistan for good. I never thought, however, that we would cut and run like scared schoolchildren, abandoning those that had helped us for years to certain death.