The U.S. military exit from Afghanistan is beginning to look “just like Vietnam,” a key lawmaker warned Tuesday as questions grow about the Biden administration’s short-term strategy to ensure U.S. civilian personnel and Afghan allies aren’t slaughtered by the Taliban and the long-term prospect that the country’s pro-Western government may collapse without international support.
A heated hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday underscored the mounting chaos surrounding the withdrawal of the remaining 3,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which President Biden has ordered to be completed no later than Sept. 11.
Thousands of more NATO-allied troops are also heading for the exits in the wake of Mr. Biden’s decision.
Pentagon officials say the physical withdrawal is proceeding on schedule with little difficulty, but the broader picture is troubling.
Lawmakers of both parties say the administration has yet to answer consequential questions about how it will protect civilian contractors and diplomatic personnel left behind, along with Afghans who worked with the U.S. military as interpreters and in other roles but now are virtually guaranteed to become top targets of the Taliban Islamist insurgency. They also argue that White House optimism about the Afghan military’s ability to fight the Taliban on its own is baseless.
“This has some eerie resemblances” to Vietnam, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said at the hearing. He recalled the rapid fall of Saigon in 1975 as the U.S. frantically evacuated the last of its personnel from its embassy.
“It seems the American game is to cut its losses and leave and hope for the best — not our problem,” he said. “The problem is because of this engagement, just like Vietnam, we’re leaving behind hundreds of thousands of Afghans who relied on us, trusted us, for security.”
“The Afghan military … seems not up to the task. By the way, just like Vietnam. The same kind of assurances were given, ‘No, no, we’re leaving behind a Vietnamese army that is more than capable,’” Mr. Connolly said. “That proved to be a horrible, feckless fiction.”
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. point man for the crisis under Presidents Trump and Biden who has spent years negotiating directly with the Taliban, told the House panel that he doesn’t believe it’s a foregone conclusion that the Afghan army will collapse without the backing of U.S. and NATO forces.
“It doesn’t have to be like what happened in Iraq,” he said, referring to the rise of the Islamic State group after the U.S. dramatically cut its presence in the country early in the Obama administration. “Our ability to predict — we have to be somewhat humble. Even in the Vietnam context, some of the predictions of dominos falling if Vietnam went did not turn out to be right.”
Preparing for a fight
But early signs indicate that the Taliban are prepping for a military offensive designed to overwhelm the still-struggling Afghan security forces. Over the past week, the insurgent group has captured crucial territory in Afghanistan, including the Nerkh district in Wardak province just outside Kabul, the nation’s capital. On their official website, the Taliban also claim that hundreds of Afghan troops and police officers are switching sides and joining the insurgent army. Many of those accounts have not been independently verified.
Afghan forces on Tuesday launched air raids against Taliban targets in the eastern Logar province, killing at least a dozen militants, the government said.
Many lawmakers and regional analysts fear the Afghan army will prove no match for a highly motivated Taliban over the long term. The insurgents seek to retake complete control of the country they ruled from 1996 to October 2001 before the post-9/11 U.S. invasion toppled their government. As part of the deal they cut with Mr. Trump in February 2020, the Taliban agreed they would never again cooperate with al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
However, Mr. Khalilzad said Tuesday that the administration is not entirely satisfied with their efforts to cut ties with global jihadi groups.
Pentagon and United Nations assessments have found that some low-level Taliban operatives still have relationships with al Qaeda.
Such long-term questions are only one piece of the puzzle. Lawmakers say the Pentagon, the State Department and other stakeholders need to develop an immediate plan to protect thousands of Afghans who worked with the Americans over the past two decades and were promised protection. In many cases, those Afghans may qualify for visas that would allow them to come to the U.S., but lawmakers say the visa process is so backlogged that there is no way to evacuate all of them before the military withdrawal is complete on Sept. 11.
“I believe we need to get them out. We owe a moral responsibility to get them out before the Taliban kills them,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I don’t know how we can do it by September. We may have to consider airlifting [Afghan partners] to a safer country like [the United Arab Emirates], Bahrain and Kuwait, where we can process these [visa] claims. Otherwise, I’m concerned these people will be slaughtered by the Taliban.”
Mr. Khalilzad said the administration views the situation as a “delicate balance” between protecting Afghans and projecting confidence. He said the administration is “looking at options both in Afghanistan and beyond” to protect Afghan partners and civilian contractors.
Pentagon officials have said they are developing “over the horizon” capabilities to monitor any terrorist threat from Afghanistan. Other theaters, including the Middle East and Africa, are now much more problematic sources of global terrorism than Afghanistan, they said.
Defense industry leaders, however, say they have many unanswered questions. Late last week, the heads of the National Defense Industrial Association, Professional Services Council, and International Stability Operations Association — each of which has personnel in Afghanistan — said the administration needs to explain post-withdrawal security, including what role private contractors will play and how they will be kept safe without U.S. troops in theater.
“The planned drawdown of DoD forces will significantly affect security, raise as-yet-unanswered questions about the future of [U.S. government] policy toward Afghanistan, leave undetermined the work that industry partners will be allowed to perform, and create confusion regarding the ways in which contractors can best support the DoD drawdown and remaining U.S. government missions,” they wrote in their letter to the leaders of the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.