We’ve heard a lot about the investigations and public hearings that House Republicans are readying as they prepare to assume majority powers in January. The GOP is ready to use its new authority to put the screws to the Biden administration with inquiries into everything, from its Covid response to the conduct of its Justice Department to the Hunter Biden scandal. According to the Washington Post, however, one investigation has the White House more “worried” than others: the GOP’s probe into America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Biden administration should be worried.
The administration sources who spoke with Post reporters are anxious about a GOP-led exhumation of this ugly chapter in American history mostly because it cannot be dismissed as tawdry politics. Indeed, it’s the Biden White House that seems most invested in the politics of the issue. The investigation is likely to ramp up “just as President Biden launches his reelection campaign” in early 2023, the Post reported. One unnamed administration official fretted that “the point at which the president’s approval rating dropped was around Afghanistan, so it brings back the worst moment.”
While those sources also insist the administration is prepared to defend its record, Democrats in Congress are not. “I would hope we push back on this completely false, made-up narrative that there was a way to leave Afghanistan amidst the unanticipated overnight collapse of the Afghan government in a way that was neat and tidy,” Sen. Chris Murphy told reporters. If the administration manages to convince the public that America’s only two choices were an immaculate withdrawal or a debacle in which scores of Americans and their allies died, it would be a victory for the White House. Biden and his allies are likely to emphasize their intentions over their actions. That will be wholly insufficient if Republicans ask the right questions.
The Biden administration initially established the auspicious date of September 11, 2021, as the deadline for full withdrawal. Eventually, the administration moved withdrawal up to August 31 before blaming the whole affair on Donald Trump, who initially negotiated a mid-May withdrawal window with the Taliban. It was this rush—a rush that they inherited, Biden’s allies claim—that contributed to the administration’s failure to exfiltrate all American civilians, green card holders, and U.S. allies from the country in time. But that doesn’t make much sense. It’s rendered even more nonsensical by the administration’s decision to prioritize the military’s pullout over the extraction of civilians. So, who made the call to move the military out first, and why?
On July 4, 2021, the U.S. State Department-run embassy in Kabul claimed it was “open & will remain open.” In addition, there were “no plans to close the Embassy,” and there were “well-developed security plans to safely protect our personnel & facilities.” Joe Biden exuded similar confidence on July 8 when he said that the “likelihood that there’s going to be a Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” But in testimony before Congress, the head of the State Department, Antony Blinken, claimed the drawdown of embassy personnel began in April, and “19 specific messages” were sent to U.S. citizens and permanent residents warning them to get out between March and the fall of Kabul in August. Who was the author of these contradictory messages? And what role did they play in convincing Americans to remain behind what would fast become enemy lines?
For that matter, just how many Americans were left behind in the first place? For weeks following the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan, administration officials would admit to only about 100 – 200 or so stragglers, most of whom only had themselves to blame for their predicament. But in the same period, the administration kept reporters abreast of the efforts by government entities and private enterprises alike to get Americans and their allies out of the country, and some reports indicate that as many as 9,000 were left behind. So, what is the number, and why was that deemed an acceptable cost of this policy?
What options were President Biden presented with that might have allowed the United States to retain control of Bagram Airbase, from which the extraction of all Americans and their Afghan allies might have been achievable? What led the White House to conclude that it could negotiate an agreement in our “mutual self-interest” with the Taliban to provide for security around Kabul’s civilian airport? What military footprint would have been necessary to prevent the deaths of 13 U.S. Marines, and why was that unacceptable to the White House?
“We have seen, including most recently, the Taliban fall back on its commitment that it had made to ensure that girls can go to school above the six grade,” a disappointed Sec. Blinken told Senators in April. In the interim, the Taliban has backtracked on not just its promise to allow women access to secondary and continuing education but any education at all. Who made these assurances? Why did this administration lend them any credence? Or was the White House operating under no illusion that the Taliban was liberalizing and merely repeated the dubious claim to avoid any scrutiny of their human-rights record?
And what about the terror threat? Upon America’s withdrawal, Barack Obama’s CIA director Leon Panetta warned that there was “no question that” the Taliban “will provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda,” adding that “they will plan additional attacks on our country, as well as elsewhere.” His successor at the Agency, Mike Morell, agreed. “The reconstruction of Al Qaeda’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it,” he said. What is the Taliban’s stance toward al-Qaeda and the ISIS-linked elements inside Afghanistan? What progress has the terrorist outfit made in its effort to reconstitute itself and export its capabilities abroad? And have America’s vaunted “over-the-horizon” capabilities matured sufficiently in the interim to disrupt the organization in perpetuity?
Maybe the administration can satisfy Republican investigators. Maybe not. But the American people deserve to know the answers to these and other questions about the national humiliation they were forced to witness. We’re fortunate that American voters saw fit to elect politicians who are even willing to ask them.