The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan received a somber and serious review on Wednesday as the House Foreign Affairs Committee opened its public probe of the 2021 military evacuation from the country.
Lawmakers heard powerful stories from those on the ground during the chaotic two-week evacuation, those based in the U.S. who did everything in their power to help Afghan allies seeking to flee, and those still working to get those left behind safely out of the country.
“It was often referred to like Schindler’s List. If you’re on the list, you made it out alive. If you weren’t, you didn’t,” said Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas), nodding to the tens of thousands of allies and families still left in Afghanistan.
“What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level, and a stunning, stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration.”
The committee’s first look at the withdrawal was told almost entirely from the veteran perspective – a move that left Afghan communities feeling unrepresented but that focused heavily on concern over the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and continuing the work to aid those citizens.
Scott Mann with Task Force Pineapple and France Hoang with Allied Airlift 21 spoke of tireless efforts to provide intel to alloys seeking to get to the gates and organized charter flights out of the country.
Hoang, who himself evacuated as a child during the U.S. exit from Vietnam, said citizens stepped up to address a “gulf” turning to “every digital tool at our disposal.”
“It was unreal at times to get requests – and I’m not the only person on this panel that has received these requests – from congressional offices, from executive-level agencies, from high ranking officials asking for help evacuating their allies. Me, us, private citizens received requests from our own government to assist what is essentially a governmental function. So it was humbling. It was terrifying. It was at times stupefying,” he said.
Mann said the government backed away from a military promise.
“The U.S. government may not have had the backs of our Afghan allies, but our veterans did,” Mann said.
“This whole thing has been a gutting experience. I never imagined I would witness the kind of gross abandonment followed by career preserving silence of senior leaders – military and civilian.”
Peter Lucier with Team America Relief, which sought to help Afghans leave during the evacuation, said the organization is now working with a list of 70,000 still in the country who still wish to exit.
“It’s not too late. We’re going to talk a lot today about all of the mistakes that were made leading up to that, but urgent action right now will save so many lives. There’s so many people that so many organizations work with today, and it’s not too late to take swift action to assist those,” he said.
The panel was also urged to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide a pathway for Afghan evacuees to remain in America after their temporary two-year status ends this August, and would help those still seeking to come to the U.S. as well.
“We just do not have immigration pathways that are available to Afghans. I get asked every single day for somebody’s help for an immigration option, and they do not exist. The Afghan Adjustment Act would at least serve this population to allow them to be here and to live in American safely, freely and with all that comes with that,” said Camille Mackley, executive director of Immigrant Arc.
The panel also heard the emotional account from Tyler Justin Vargas Andrews, a Marine sniper who identified who he believes was the suicide bomber that killed 13 U.S. military members and countless Afghans in setting off a blast near the gates of the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“We asked if we could shoot. Our battalion commander said, ‘I don’t know.’ Myself and my team leader asked very harshly, ‘Well, who does?’” he said.
Vargas was hit in the blast, losing multiple organs and two of his limbs, ultimately needing some 44 surgeries to recover from the injuries.
He described looking down to realize his arm was shredded and abdomen had been torn open, remaining awake as he was later dragged to safety.
He broke down crying in recounting how his life was saved by a colleague, expressing frustration at never being contacted by the military to give his account of the breakdown that day.
“The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence. The eleven Marines, one Sailor, and one Soldier that were murdered that day have not been answered for,” he said.
Some lawmakers spoke directly to that sacrifice.
“Thank you for your bravery. We were briefed on the dangers that would occur in our classified briefings. The most dangerous part of the war, they say. And you were there. And some of your lives will never be the same,” Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.)
“But you’ve saved, you’ve helped 120,000 people during that very difficult situation. It could have been better, but you did it….And that shouldn’t be lost as we look at everything else.”
Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) spoke of how he still finds himself reevaluating numerous decisions he made while serving.
“Whether somebody believes we should or should not have withdrawn, it is evident to everybody that it should not have been done in the manner in which it was done. But this administration is perfectly comfortable not being haunted by the losses that took place,” he said.
Lawmakers also spent time debating missteps in the 20 year war and the ultimate withdrawal.
Democrats spent the hearing pushing for a broader look at the war.
“We must acknowledge that there were mistakes along the way. And as a result, many Afghans who supported the American War effort over the past 20 years continue to see pathways to emigrate to the United States,” said Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the committee.
“As in most things, context matters. The evacuation did not happen in a vacuum. A culmination of policy decisions informed and influenced the events of August 2021 and continued to shape how we navigate ongoing relocation and diplomatic efforts today.”
But many Republicans laid the blame for the evacuation with President Biden.
“Let’s be clear: if we knew we were leaving at the beginning of the Biden administration based on the Trump administration then where was the plan? Where was the plan to properly evacuate?” said Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.)
“We may well not have had a choice to leave, but how you leave is a choice.”
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), himself an Afghanistan vet, complained that Biden didn’t mention Afghanistan or the evacuation in his State of the Union, saying that for those who have been involved, the war is not over.
“I’ve never been more proud of my fellow Americans and veterans as I am with this group. But I’ve also never been more disgusted with my own government,” he said.
“This was a callous, cold-hearted, incompetent episode on the part of this administration and it is not worthy of…their sacrifice.”
Updated 4:38 p.m.