U.S. troops at the Kabul airport on Aug. 26, 2021, thought they had identified the Islamic State suicide bomber who killed 13 Americans and nearly 200 Afghans at the height of America’s frantic military exit. But confusion over the rules of engagement and exactly who could give the order to fire allowed the bomber to escape and carry out the attack, one service member recalled.
Other personnel at the scene told lawmakers at a Wednesday hearing that the Biden administration at sundown stopped processing the U.S. citizens and Afghan allies frantically trying to board planes and flee the country. That decision, they said, helped create a massive bottleneck and turned the airport into a scene of chaos, confusion and human suffering.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, witnesses to the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan said they watched as some desperate Afghans purposefully killed themselves on the razor-wire fences that surrounded the Kabul airfield, choosing a painful, public suicide over the treatment they feared from the extremist Taliban government that retook control of the nation with stunning speed as the American and allied forces departed.
Those are just a few of the firsthand accounts recounted during a widely anticipated House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. It marked the end of the longest war in U.S. history but has become widely regarded as an unmitigated foreign policy disaster that cast a dark cloud over the first year of the Biden administration.
The hearing was the first on Afghanistan since Republicans took control of the House in January. Republican leaders promised a string of further hearings to hold the administration accountable for what they say was an unforgivable mishandling of the withdrawal and its aftermath — an accounting they say the previous Democratic-controlled House failed to pursue.
Indeed, witnesses said there has been little accountability for a series of disastrous decisions at the highest levels of government. No notable administration officials or senior military officials have been fired as a result.
“I want America to know the truth: The Afghanistan withdrawal was an organizational failure at multiple levels,” said Aidan Gunderson, an Army specialist who was at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate on Aug. 26, 2021, and watched the carnage that unfolded.
He also saw the longer-term fallout of America’s decision to leave.
“I was born one year before 9/11,” he said. “For 20 years of my life, we were at war. And there I was, watching the enemy take over the capital.”
Marine Corps Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who lost an arm and a leg as a result of injuries he sustained during the Abbey Gate attack, told lawmakers that the withdrawal “was a catastrophe, in my opinion. And there was an inexcusable lack of accountability.”
“No one was held accountable,” he said. “No one was, and no one is to this day.”
Top Republicans on the panel took direct aim at President Biden and top administration officials for what they said was a lack of planning for the withdrawal itself and the inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to do what was necessary to get all U.S. citizens and Afghan allies out of the country before Kabul fell to the Taliban.
“Multiple people in the Biden administration said they planned for every contingency. They did not,” said committee Chairman Michael McCaul, Texas Republican.
“What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level, and a stunning, stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration,” Mr. McCaul said. “This was an abdication of the most basic duties of the United States government: to protect Americans and leave no one behind.”
Exactly who bears the blame, and how much of it, depends largely on one’s political point of view. Democrats at Wednesday’s hearing were quick to point out that it was President Trump, not Mr. Biden, who negotiated directly with the Taliban and froze the U.S.-backed Afghan government out of those talks.
Critics say Mr. Trump’s deal was a major contributing factor to the quick collapse of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government in August 2021 and the Afghan military’s rapid defeat at the hands of a highly motivated Taliban insurgent force. Mr. Biden, they say, was forced to make the best of a timetable that was predetermined when he took office.
“Imagine what that did to the Afghan morale in the military and their government,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, Virginia Democrat.
The deal negotiated by the Trump administration laid out an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in exchange for numerous commitments by the Taliban, including a pledge to never again allow Afghanistan to be used as a home base by extremist groups such as al Qaeda.
U.S. and international assessments made clear in early 2021 that the Taliban was not living up to its promises and that numerous terrorist groups — including al Qaeda and the Islamic State — had a presence in the country.
Despite that, the Biden administration proceeded with the withdrawal.
Scenes of horror
Mr. Biden and his allies have argued that it was long past time for U.S. combat forces to get out of Afghanistan. In that sense, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump agreed. Both men cast the conflict as a “forever war” that needed to end.
After 20 years of engagement, Mr. Biden said there was simply no way to exit gracefully.
“The bottom line is: There is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges and threats we faced. None,” Mr. Biden said in late August 2021, after the U.S. withdrawal was completed.
Some witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing didn’t disagree with the broad policy objective of ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, but they said the specifics of how the withdrawal was executed deserve scrutiny.
Military members at the scene said U.S. diplomatic personnel were not processing would-be evacuees throughout the night, wasting valuable time and allowing larger and larger crowds to gather at a Kabul airport that lacked the capacity to handle so many people.
“There was no plan in place throughout the evening. The State Department would not take Afghans we processed or searched, so eventually, we just stopped throughout the evening,” Sgt. Vargas-Andrews said.
The State Department has vehemently defended the process and said the U.S. did the best it could given the circumstances. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has said the Trump administration deserves much of the blame for setting up a timeline for America’s withdrawal.
“We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” Mr. Blinken told lawmakers in September 2021.
Sgt. Vargas-Andrews also said that on Aug. 26, he and other military personnel identified the person they believed to be the Islamic State member who soon afterward detonated a suicide bomb. He said he sought permission from his commanders to take out the person but was denied because of apparent confusion over who could give the order to fire in such a chaotic environment.
“Eventually, the individual disappeared,” Sgt. Vargas-Andrews said.
Democrats acknowledged that the withdrawal did not play out as anyone intended, but they defended the Biden administration and ascribed little blame to officials in the State Department, Pentagon or elsewhere across the government.
“Withdrawals are difficult. They’re never pristine. They’re never organized. They never go to plan,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat. “America decided we didn’t want a ‘forever war’ and there’s no pristine way to withdraw.”