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Rep. Adam Smith, Sen. Jim Risch question Biden administration as Congress begins examination of Afghanistan withdrawal

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 20, 2021

In this image provided by the U.S. Marines, U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command, provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.   (Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/U.S. Marines via Associated Press)
In this image provided by the U.S. Marines, U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command, provide assistance during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.  (Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/U.S. Marines via Associated Press)

As Congress gears up to investigate how the Taliban swiftly took control of Afghanistan and caught the Biden administration off guard, Northwest lawmakers are set to play key oversight roles.

Rep. Adam Smith, a Bellevue Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview his panel will hold a classified briefing with Pentagon officials on Tuesday, when the House returns early from its summer recess to deal with pending legislation.

Smith said he fundamentally agreed with President Joe Biden’s statement on Wednesday that there was no way for the United States to end its two-decade military presence in Afghanistan “without chaos ensuing,” but he said his committee will press the Department of Defense on what its intelligence told officials, what they missed and how they plan to move forward.

“At the moment that he became president, there were no good options, and there was no ending to the story that wasn’t tragic and somewhat chaotic,” Smith said. “That said, I think there were things that could have been done in the last seven months that could have made it less chaotic, and I hope that President Biden and his team take an honest look at that.”

In visits to Afghanistan over the past 15 years, Smith said, he was repeatedly briefed by military officials who shared a “cautiously optimistic” outlook on the fight against the Taliban, while CIA officials had far more pessimistic views. The gap between those assessments, he said, will be a central focus of the committee’s oversight.

In the Senate, the Democratic chairmen of three committees – Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Armed Services – have said they plan to hold hearings on Afghanistan, where a Taliban offensive swept across the country in little more than a week to retake control of the capital the group held from 1996 until 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Intelligence Committee, will play a key role in the Senate’s oversight work.

“I think that almost everyone in America, including myself, wanted to see us out of Afghanistan,” Risch said in an interview. “But there isn’t anybody that wanted to see this happen, to see it done this way, and this did not have to happen. This is a result simply of naivety and bad planning.”

Risch and the panel’s other GOP members sent a letter to Chairman Bob Menendez on Tuesday, asking the New Jersey Democrat to hold a public hearing as soon as the Senate returns from its recess. While some congressional Democrats have been muted in their criticism of how President Joe Biden chose to pull out of Afghanistan, Menendez didn’t pull punches in a Tuesday statement announcing he would call a hearing.

“I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal,” Menendez said. “We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures.”

When Biden announced in April that he would withdraw U.S. troops before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he said, “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately and safely.”

Speaking at the White House on Monday, Biden admitted the Taliban’s swift takeover “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” But on Wednesday, he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos the outcome – including a chaotic scene at the Kabul airport where thousands of Afghans are trying to escape the country – was unavoidable.

“The idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” Biden said.

Smith called Biden’s inconsistent messaging “irresponsible” and “not a good look,” but he said the administration’s biggest mistake was believing that the Afghan government would hold off the Taliban for months or years and, as a result, withdrawing U.S. troops before evacuating Americans and the Afghans who were promised safety in the United States.

“I think the clear intelligence was that the Afghan government was going to fall fairly quickly,” Smith said. “And if you accepted that premise, then absolutely you use the military to get the civilians out, then you take the military out.”

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told CNN on Friday the administration didn’t have “a precise number” of U.S. citizens still in Afghanistan, but the Washington Post reported administration officials told Senate aides Tuesday that as many as 15,000 Americans remained in the country. Tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and have applied for Special Immigrant Visas have also been unable to leave.

Pentagon officials said Thursday the U.S. had evacuated about 7,000 people since Aug. 14, but Americans and Afghans seeking to leave have been blocked from the airport by Taliban checkpoints. While French and British forces have reportedly crossed the Taliban perimeter to help their citizens and some Afghans catch evacuation flights, as of Friday U.S. troops were operating only at the airport.

Speaking from the White House on Friday, Biden pledged to get all Americans who wanted to leave Afghanistan out of the country, even if that requires keeping U.S. troops in the country beyond the self-imposed withdrawal deadline of Aug. 31. He also said the United States would evacuate all Afghans who aided in the war effort, a potentially huge expansion of the administration’s airlift commitment.

House and Senate oversight hearings will aim to find out exactly what went wrong, but plenty of blame is already going around in the nation’s capital, where policy is hard to separate from politics.

In his speech on Monday, Biden defended his decision to pull out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31 and pointed blame at the Afghan government and its security forces for failing to stop the Taliban advance. Despite the United States investing roughly $83 billion since 2001 to train and equip Afghan forces that numbered some 300,000, those troops fell to an estimated 75,000 Taliban fighters in a matter of days, in some cases with few shots fired.

“They got the best training in the world by the best trainers in the world,” Risch said. “They were the best-equipped foot soldiers on the planet, next to ours. We’ve given them everything we could possibly give except one thing, and that is the will power to do what needs to be done and the commitment to sacrifice.”

On that point, the Idaho Republican agreed with Biden, who said Monday, “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

Ryan Crocker, a retired diplomat who reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul weeks after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and returned to serve as ambassador from 2011 to 2012, said he was “deeply disappointed” by Biden’s remarks.

“The president said, ‘The buck stops with me,’ and then proceeded to blame everybody else, starting with the Afghans themselves,” said Crocker, a Spokane Valley native who moved back to his hometown after a four-decade Foreign Service career that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Crocker recalled attending somber ceremonies each week when he was ambassador in which officers from U.S. and NATO forces would read the names of those who had died in combat. But when the Afghan officer stepped forward, Crocker said, he would read only a number, routinely more than 100 each week. Too many Afghans had died to name each of them.

“For the president of the United States to basically say the Afghan security forces didn’t have the will to fight, that’s almost obscene,” Crocker said. “They’ve been fighting and dying for their country for years.”

Smith said that despite the sacrifices of those Afghan troops, the U.S. effort to install an Afghan government that could prevent the Taliban’s return to power was doomed by corruption, tribalism and incompetence in the administration of President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country on Sunday as Taliban forces encircled Kabul.

“The key to all this was having a stable, functioning, secure Afghan government, and Ryan Crocker and a whole lot of other people tried and we never got there,” Smith said. “And so the choice that was presented to Joe Biden was just keep fighting – keep slogging away, more lives lost, more money spent – toward no particular end.”

Smith agreed with Crocker, however, on the responsibility former President Donald Trump bears for the outcome in Afghanistan. Trump chose to negotiate a withdrawal agreement directly with the Taliban, a move Crocker has said undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

“The just fundamental incompetence of Donald Trump’s government created a huge problem,” Smith said. “The decision to negotiate with the Taliban without the Afghan government was just incredibly irresponsible, and it was because of Trump’s fundamental carelessness. He wanted out of Afghanistan just because he wanted out of Afghanistan. He didn’t give a damn about the details.”

Risch, a prominent defender of Trump’s Afghanistan policy even when other GOP senators criticized it, said the Trump administration would have avoided such a chaotic departure.

“I know for a fact, because I had numerous conversations with President Trump, that he wanted us to get out of Afghanistan,” Risch recalled, but he said the Trump administration would only have withdrawn U.S. troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban had met the conditions of the February 2020 agreement, including reducing violence and engaging in substantive talks with the Afghan government. “No such thing happened with the Biden administration.”

But on April 18, days after Biden announced he planned to withdraw troops by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Trump said in a statement the U.S. should pull out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

“Getting out of Afghanistan is a wonderful and positive thing to do,” Trump said. “I planned to withdraw on May 1st, and we should keep as close to that schedule as possible.”

In an interview Tuesday, Crocker said the U.S. government will have plenty of time to figure out what went wrong in Afghanistan but the immediate focus should be on getting Americans and their Afghan allies out of the country.

“At this stage, the blame game’s out there,” he said, “but right now, it’s got to be about saving people.”

The House returns from its recess on Monday and the Senate is set to return Sept. 13, with public oversight hearings on Afghanistan likely to begin soon after.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday the panel would “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.”

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday he planned to call hearings “on what went wrong in Afghanistan and lessons learned to avoid repeating those mistakes.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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