At a hearing Wednesday, Republican House lawmakers focused on the final months of the War in Afghanistan that lead to a tumultuous and deadly evacuation in the summer of 2021, while Democrats aimed to blame former President Donald Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban for the collapse of the country’s U.S.-backed government after 20 years of fighting.
“Today, the Taliban flag flies over Kabul,” House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., said. “This is Joe Biden’s legacy.”
What You Need To Know
- At a hearing Wednesday, Republican House lawmakers focused on the final months of the War in Afghanistan that lead to a tumultuous and deadly evacuation in the summer of 2021
- Democrats aimed to blame former President Donald Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban for the collapse of the country’s U.S.-backed government after 20 years of fighting
- Another central focus of the hearing was the flow of international aid into the country that is ending up in the pockets of the Taliban instead of being distributed to the Afghan people
- Regardless of role and party affiliation, all those who participated in the hearing were in agreement on one thing: the war that began when most of the last 13 U.S. service members to die in Afghanistan were toddlers or infants ended in disaster
Comer conceded “no single hearing can tell two decades worth of decisions that could have been made differently” across four presidencies, but laid the blame at Biden’s feet for an chaotic evacuation that saw 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members killed by an ISIS suicide bomber.
Democrats took a more expansive view, criticizing the successive administrations who oversaw the United States’ longest war, but also zeroing in on Trump’s withdrawal negotiations and arguing they handcuffed the Afghan government and Biden into a no-win situation.
“Joe Biden was president during seven of the 238 months of the war,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the ranking member on the Oversight Committee. “Understanding what led to the collapse of Afghan government and security forces is vitally important, but it requires looking comprehensively at the dynamics of the massive decades-long military and nation building failure, not just the last few months of the war.”
Raskin called Trump’s decision to exclude the Afghan government from his negotiations with Taliban “disastrous” and his winding down of U.S. troop presence to just 2,500 military personnel by the end of his term a calculated move “to force Biden’s hand.”
At the Wednesday hearing, inspectors general from the Defense Department, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction testified and took questions for over two hours.
Robert Storch, the Defense Department’s inspector general, called the war “a strategic failure.” Diana Shaw, the State Department’s acting inspector general, testified the department “simply was not fully prepared” for the evacuation.” SIGAR’s inspector general John Sopko that the effort to stabilize Afghanistan after two decades of war “was the result of many decisions made over the course of four presidential administrations, from ignoring rapid corruption and the lack of a consistent U.S. strategy to the inability to develop self-sustaining Afghan military forces and institutions.”
“The seeds of August 2021’s drama were sewn many years before,” Sopko continued, noting the 2020 negotiations with the Taliban dubbed the Doha Agreement “and the subsequent decision to go through with the withdrawal in 2021, merely exacerbated long-existing problems.”
Sopko said both the negotiated withdrawal and Biden’s decision to follow through “dramatically degraded the morale of the Afghan security forces,” who relied heavily on U.S. support to keep the Taliban at bay.
In their own after-action report released earlier this month, the Biden administration blamed former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan military for the collapse of the western-backed government during and after the U.S. evacuation.
“No agency predicted a Taliban takeover in nine days,” Kirby said when the report was sent to Congress. “No agency predicted the rapid fleeing of President Ghani, who had indicated to us his intent to remain in Afghanistan up until he departed on the 15th of August. And no agency predicted that the more than 300,000 trained and equipped Afghan national security and defense forces would fail to fight for the country. Especially after 20 years of American support.”
But SIGAR reported in February that the Afghan military felt abandoned and noted a decrease in U.S. airstrikes left them “without a key advantage” in their fight against the Taliban, who began capturing provincial capitals in early August 2021 in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal.
Raskin asked Sopko Wednesday if the Doha Agreement emboldened the Taliban to increase their attacks on the Afghan military.
“Yes, it did. It did. And if you talk to the Afghan generals and the people who are on the ground, which we did, they’ll tell you that is exactly what happened,” Sopko said.
Sopko also said then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to cut funding to the Afghan government if they didn’t agree to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a move Kabul initially opposed.
Another central focus of the hearing was the flow of international aid into the country that is ending up in the pockets of the Taliban instead of being distributed to the Afghan people.
“The United States has appropriated $2 billion for Afghanistan assistance since the withdrawal, and a further $3.5 billion may be available through this newly created Switzerland-based Afghan fund,” Sopko said. “Unfortunately, as I sit here today, I cannot assure this committee or the American taxpayer we are not currently funding the Taliban.”
“Nor can I assure you that the Taliban are not diverting the money we are sending from the intended recipients, which are the poor Afghan people,” Sopko added.
Sopko also said the State Department and USAID are not cooperating with SIGAR as they seek to assess the flow of U.S. and international aid into the country, though he made clear to differentiate between the inspectors general and the agencies they watchdog over.
“I haven’t seen a starving Taliban fighter on TV. They all seem to be fat, dumb and happy,” Sopko said. “I see a lot of starving Afghan children on TV. So, I’m wondering, where is all this funding going?”
As the hearing unfolded, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre contradicted Sopko and said the administration was supplying thousands of pages of documents and consistent updates to inspectors general.
Nicole Angarella, the acting deputy inspector general for USAID, which currently does not have an inspector general, laid out three actions she believes the agency should take to prevent fraud and corruption: stricter oversight, clearly defined performance objectives, and strengthening existing policies to combat graft and funds ending up in the hands of groups like the Taliban.
Regardless of role and party affiliation, all those who participated in the hearing were in agreement on one thing: the war that began when most of the last 13 U.S. service members to die in Afghanistan were toddlers or infants ended in disaster.
“The Afghan war cost the lives of more than 2,400 American service members, 3846 private contractors, more than 1100 allied service members, more than 66,000 National Afghan military and police and 47,245 Afghan civilians, without even getting into the Taliban side,” Raskin said.
The Democrat’s summary of casualties may be an undercount. A 2021 analysis by Brown University found the U.S. spent $2.3 trillion on a war directly resulting in 243,000 deaths across Afghanistan and Pakistan, including over 70,000 civilians.
But the researchers wrote, “deaths caused by disease, loss of access to food, water, infrastructure, and/or other indirect consequences of the war” did not count towards the nearly quarter million dead.