The Center Square | by Casey Harper | April 19, 2023
Lawmakers dig through the rubble of chaotic, deadly Afghanistan withdrawal
(The Center Square) – Lawmakers lamented the poor execution of the deadly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan but disagreed on who was to blame at a Congressional oversight hearing Wednesday.
President Joe Biden pushed through the withdrawal in August 2021 that resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. service members and left billions of dollars of military equipment behind, much of which fell into the hands of the Taliban.
Gallup released survey data in December showing that Afghanis are reporting a spike in suffering since the Taliban took control.
Gallup found that 98% of surveyed Afghanis “rate their life so poorly that they are considered suffering” while one in four say their life right now is “the worst possible.” They also have little optimism about the future. The survey found that 39% say they expect their life in five years will be the worst possible.
Diana Shaw, the deputy inspector general for the State Department, put numbers to that sentiment during the hearing. She said that the number of Afghanis needing humanitarian assistance has nearly doubled, up from 15 million before the withdrawal to 28 million under Taliban rule.
Shaw also said that “the rights of women and girls have been severely curtailed.”
The hearing featured four witnesses, all watchdogs over the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of State, the Department of Defense as well as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
These watchdogs varied in their analysis, but common themes included chaos and preventable loss of life and equipment.
“In August 2021, Joe Biden lost that war,” U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said in his opening statement. “There was no exit with dignity. Today, the Taliban flag flies over Kabul. There is no American military base there. There is no American embassy there. There is no hope there, especially for women and girls who are now terrorized by the Taliban. This is Joe Biden’s legacy.”
Robert Storch, the inspector general for the Department of Defense, in his prepared testimony referred to the withdrawal as a “strategic failure, saying despite the investment of $2 trillion, 2,400 American lives and 20 years of effort, the military collapse upon withdrawal was almost immediate.
“As a recently released report by the National Security Council summarized, this collapse unfolded more quickly than the U.S. Intelligence Community, the Afghan government, or even the Taliban expected,” he said.
After those incidents, Biden’s poll numbers dropped and have not recovered. Biden’s critics argue the failure had a global ripple effect.
“Afghanistan has once again become a safe haven for terrorism, as demonstrated by a rise in attacks by ISIS-K,” Comer said. “China and Russia are emboldened. Allies around the world wonder if the U.S. can still rise to meet the threats that face us today.”
Biden has defended his decision and put the blame on former President Donald Trump. The White House released a lengthy document earlier this month detailing their defense of the withdrawal.
“President Biden’s choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor,” the White House said. “When President Trump took office in 2017, there were more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. Eighteen months later, after introducing more than 3,000 additional troops just to maintain the stalemate, President Trump ordered direct talks with the Taliban without consulting with our allies and partners or allowing the Afghan government at the negotiating table.”
At the hearing, Ranking Member, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., put the blame on Trump as well, saying Trump’s deal with the Taliban and poor handling of the timeline and communication around the withdrawal set the U.S. up for failure.
“Trump moved forward with the withdrawal even as the Taliban increased violent attacks against the Afghan government and refused to suffer ties with terrorist groups…” he said.
A SIGAR Inspector General analysis from last year lays out part of Trump’s role.
From the report:
SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s collapse in August 2021 was the U.S. decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020 under the Trump administration, followed by President Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April 2021. Due to the ANDSF’s dependency on U.S. military forces, these events destroyed ANDSF morale. The ANDSF had long relied on the U.S. military’s presence to protect against large-scale ANDSF losses, and Afghan troops saw the United States as a means of holding their government accountable for paying their salaries. The U.S.-Taliban agreement made it clear that this was no longer the case, resulting in a sense of abandonment within the ANDSF and the Afghan population. The agreement set in motion a series of events crucial to understanding the ANDSF’s collapse.