Congressional Democrats are preparing a series of hearings on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan amid rising anger about the Biden administration’s handling of the end of the war, with the Taliban rapidly taking control and the US chaotically scrambling to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghan allies.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there would be a hearing in the Foreign Affairs Committee early next week, and the panel’s chairman, Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, said Tuesday he’s invited Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify. In the Senate, three Democratic committee chairmen have said they’re going to ask tough questions about what happened with the US withdrawal and are also expecting to hold hearings when they return from August recess.
The swift congressional pivot to oversight of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan reflects the frustration and anger Democrats are feeling about the rapidly unfolding developments that have exposed the administration’s failure to prepare for worst-case scenarios. While most Democrats have defended President Joe Biden’s decision to end the US war – arguing that former President Donald Trump shares in the blame for his deal with the Taliban last year setting a withdrawal deadline – many have shifted from tiptoeing around criticism of the Biden administration to full-on criticism over its failing to act swiftly to get Afghan interpreters and others who helped the US military out of the country before the government fell.
“In implementing this flawed plan, I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid US withdrawal. We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in a statement on Tuesday, saying he would soon hold a hearing examining “the Trump administration’s flawed negotiations with Taliban, and the Biden administration’s flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said his committee would hold hearings on “what went wrong in Afghanistan,” while Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said he would work with other panels to “ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces.”
Some of the Democratic criticism of the Biden administration has been particularly pointed. Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, a longtime Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote an op-ed titled “I’m a Democrat Who Opposed the Withdrawal. This Catastrophe Is Why.”
Republicans have charged that the Biden administration’s bungling of the withdrawal will be a stain on his presidency, arguing that the administration’s failed execution of its military withdrawal was not what the Trump administration had planned when it negotiated an agreement with the Taliban last year.
“This is an administration job to organize a rescue of people behind enemy lines now as a result of this ill-advised, catastrophic decision to withdraw,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said at a news conference in Richmond, Kentucky, on Wednesday.
“We are going to be investigating what happened. I think it’s noteworthy that three of the Democratic chairmen – Democratic chairmen – in the Senate, they want to start holding hearings about what happened, what went wrong. We need to get to the bottom of that,” McConnell added.
McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, are asking Biden for a classified briefing on the situation for the so-called gang of eight congressional leaders to hear what is happening to American citizens in Afghanistan, more on the administration’s plan to evacuate Americans outside of Kabul and whether they have been in communication with those in outlying areas.
They also ask for details on what assurances the administration has received from the Taliban for safe passage to the airport in Kabul.
An aide to Pelosi said she has requested briefings from the White House as well.
Criticism from both parties
Many Democrats have walked a finer line, saying the focus right now has to be on how the US will evacuate Afghans who worked with the US and are trying to escape through the Special Immigrant Visa program, many of whom are outside of Kabul and have no clear way to get access to flights with the Taliban controlling passage to the capital.
Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, told CNN that his office has processed over 400 requests for evacuation in the last 48 hours.
“My phone continues to blow up with texts and calls and emails and people sending me passport photos and direct pleas for help,” said Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan.
Crow said that he still believed Biden’s decision to withdraw combat troops in Afghanistan was the “right move,” but was critical of the administration’s evacuation efforts.
“I’ve been really clear since the day of the administration’s announcement of withdrawal that that evacuation should have started immediately, and concurrently with the withdrawal of our combat forces,” Crow said, adding that he believed Biden should extend the August 31 deadline to withdraw forces until the evacuations are complete. “I think it’ll be very hard to get the close to 100,000 people that we need to get out of that country out in less than two weeks.”
Some Democrats, meanwhile, have come to Biden’s defense amid the criticism.
“President Biden understands history when it comes to Afghanistan. He made the difficult decision to not hand over this longest of American wars to a fifth president,” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said this week. “And had he walked away from the withdraw agreement originally negotiated by President Trump, Taliban attacks on US forces would have restarted and required yet another surge in US troops. How long were Americans willing to continue this cycle, particularly if the Afghan government wasn’t willing to fight for its own future?”
Pelosi also defended Biden’s decision. “I commend the President for the action that he took. It was strong, it was decisive and it was the right thing to do,” she told San Francisco television station KPIX on Tuesday. “Now we are unfortunately, one of the possibilities was it would be in disarray, as it is. But that has to be corrected. It’s my understanding form the assurances we have received that the military will be there negotiating with the Taliban for the safe exit of American citizens and friends, people who have helped us, our allies there.”
‘A moral obligation’
But the desire for more answers from the Biden administration is apparent. Democratic Freshman Rep. Sara Jacobs of California led a bipartisan letter of more than 40 House lawmakers pressing the Biden administration for answers on how they are handling the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The group sent a wide ranging list of questions, and made clear that they will continue to keep the pressure up until their questions are answered.
“We urge the Administration’s foresight and close coordination with our staff in the process, as well as a swift response to these questions so we can be helpful and responsive to the needs of those in harm’s way,” the letter reads. “If necessary, we would welcome a classified briefing to discuss the requested information.”
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and Marine veteran who has criticized the Biden administration for not moving more quickly to evacuate Afghan interpreters who worked with the US military, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow Wednesday that US military should not leave Afghanistan on its planned date of August 31 if vulnerable Afghans still need to be evacuated.
“We have a moral obligation to get them out, and I still don’t see how we’re going to do that,” Moulton said. “I don’t care who gets to the president and tells him how important it is to see through this mission. I just want to make sure he does it because thousands of people, men, women, young children are counting on him.”
Menendez and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire led a letter with 44 senators urging the Biden administration to take quick action to help protect and support female leaders in Afghanistan now under threat by Taliban rule.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.