President Biden’s top national security and foreign policy advisers will be put under the Capitol Hill spotlight over the coming days and weeks, as lawmakers open a series of hearings examining the fatal failures of the administration’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is first on the docket, scheduled to appear Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee amid rising concern over the prospect that Afghanistan is devolving into an international hotbed of jihadist terrorism under the hardline Islamist Taliban government now controlling Kabul.
Mr. Blinken also will appear Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While Democrats holding majorities in both chambers are expected to give the administration room to defend itself, Republicans are poised to grill the secretary of state on why the Afghanistan pullout turned out as it did.
At the height of the chaos in late August, video of Afghans falling from the wheel well of a U.S. military transport plane appeared on screens around the world, as did images of the aftermath of an Aug. 26 suicide bombing that killed at least 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops at Kabul’s airport.
Those horrors, as well as the swift Taliban takeover, occurred despite Mr. Biden’s repeated assurances during the months leading up to the withdrawal that neither a chaotic, Vietnam-style evacuation, nor a full and rapid Taliban seizure of Kabul would occur in Afghanistan.
Mr. Biden offered such assurances at a July 8 press conference. Newsweek has noted how he swatted back concerns about a Taliban takeover and explicitly said there would be no images like those from 1975 that so famously showed helicopters pulling desperate people from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
House Republicans appear eager to explore how and why the president was so wrong.
In a letter to the White House last month, Reps. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, Devin Nunes of California and Mike Rogers of Alabama — the top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Armed Services committees — asserted that the “disaster” unfolding in Afghanistan was avoidable.
Some Democrats have indicated that they also won’t pull punches, including hearings slated to feature testimony from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley on Sept. 28.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, has said he has concerns and questions regarding the rapid U.S. troop pullout and its aftermath.
“Although we have completed the withdrawal of American military personnel and over 100,000 civilians from Afghanistan, I remain deeply concerned about the events that accompanied our withdrawal,” Mr. Reed said in a statement last week, adding that it is Congress’ duty to “ensure accountability at the highest levels.”
His comments coincide with unease over the extent to which the Taliban already is providing safe haven to terrorists, despite promises from the group’s leaders to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and the Islamic State or ISIS-K, as the latter’s Afghanistan branch is known.
The Biden administration exuded cautious hope the Taliban might be a partner against such groups.
But concern has escalated since it became clear last week that the militants had appointed several members of the Haqqani network — an outfit U.S. officials listed as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” back in 2012 and have long accused of al Qaeda links — to senior positions in the interim Afghan government.
When pressed about the appointments, Mr. Austin has appeared less than eager to discuss the situation, telling reporters last week that “it’s the Taliban‘s government” and that U.S. officials “don’t get a vote in [it].”
“Certainly, these are people, that I don’t look favorably upon personally,” the defense secretary said.
The Taliban raised their flag over the Afghan presidential palace Saturday, as America marked the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that al Qaeda carried out while operating from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan two decades ago.
Former Acting and Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell predicted Sunday that Afghanistan is likely to again turn into a haven of global terrorism. “The Taliban winning the war in Afghanistan and then the way our exit happened has absolutely inspired jihadists all over the world,” he told CBS.
“The Taliban is saying, ‘we just didn’t defeat the United States. We defeated NATO. We defeated the world’s greatest military power ever.’ So there’s a celebration going on,” Mr. Morell said. “I think not only will jihadists be inspired, but a lot of them are going to come to Afghanistan to be part of the celebration, to be part of jihadist central.”