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Biden faces bipartisan criticism over U.S. evacuation in Afghanistan

Members of Congress, including veterans who served in Afghanistan, are calling the evacuation a disaster, even as Biden said he stands “squarely behind” the decision to exit America’s longest war

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Afghan citizens pack inside a U.S. Air Force plane as they are transported from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan.

Afghan citizens pack inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III as they are transported from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. The Taliban on Sunday swept into Kabul, the Afghan capital, after capturing most of Afghanistan.

Capt. Chris Herbert, U.S. Air Force via Associated Press

The fallout from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has become President Joe Biden’s biggest foreign policy test so far in office as Washington erupts in bipartisan anger at what lawmakers from both parties have called a disaster. Some have called for the U.S. to welcome Afghan refugees, while candidates see the situation as a political issue.

Veterans serving in Congress were outspoken about their views following the fall of Kabul to Taliban forces over the weekend. Biden is either “clueless or heartless or both,” wrote Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, in an editorial.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an Air Force veteran who flew missions in Afghanistan, said in a statement Biden was trying to “fulfill a campaign promise without any semblance of a plan or forethought into how this would play out.” Kinzinger also called former President Donald Trump “naïve” for “openly negotiating with terrorists.”

“I am heartbroken and angry by what’s happening in Afghanistan, largely because this was entirely avoidable,” Kinzinger said.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve and was deployed to Afghanistan from 2014 to 2015, tweeted that Biden “lived up to the worst perceptions about his ability to lead,” while Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a U.S. Navy veteran who was injured while serving in Afghanistan in 2012, told Fox News people in the administration need to be fired or resign.

Biden also faced criticism from Democratic veterans in Congress.

“To say that today is anything short of a disaster would be dishonest,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a U.S. Marine veteran, in a statement. “Worse, it was avoidable.”

Moulton said Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set the tragedy “in motion” and that the time to debate whether or not to leave Afghanistan had passed “but there is still time to debate how we manage our retreat.”

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., who served two tours in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, said in a news conference, “We should have started this evacuation months ago.”

“We didn’t need to be in this position; we didn’t need to be seeing these scenes at Kabul airport with our Afghan friends climbing a C-17,” Crow said of images of people surrounding a military cargo aircraft.

Poor execution

Some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have emphasized the need to protect U.S. allies in the country. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, asked Biden to fully commit to evacuating U.S. partners in Afghanistan, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the U.S. must prepare for “a coming refugee crisis as well as a renewed threat of international terrorism.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the Biden administration “completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban” and said he believed the U.S. might have to return to Afghanistan one day.

“I hope we don’t have to go back there, but it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time,” McCaul said.

Republicans who previously backed Trump’s decision to leave Afghanistan, like Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., are criticizing Biden not for his exit of the country, but the execution.

“Biden abandoned Trump’s peace plan & exit strategy & haphazardly created his own,” Biggs tweeted. “Biden is FULLY responsible for this absolute wreck.”

In a Fox News interview, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said “reasonable people disagree” over whether or not leaving Afghanistan was a good idea, but that Biden’s handling of the evacuation was “incompetent.” Cotton is a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who served in the U.S. Air Force, said withdrawing was “the right policy,” but he called for the resignations of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley for how it was handled.

Accepting refugees

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a U.S. Army veteran, said the images coming out of Afghanistan were “tragic and incredibly difficult to watch,” and that she was focused on the evacuation.

“For two decades, thousands of brave Afghans have chosen to put themselves and their families in great danger in order to support our troops’ mission in their country, and in return our nation made a promise that we would keep our partners safe,” Duckworth said in a statement. “We should not break our word to them in this desperate moment of need.”

The 16 Republicans who voted against the bipartisan ALLIES Act to expedite immigrant visa program for Afghan partners last month are facing fresh criticism for their votes. Among those who voted against the bill were Biggs and far-right Republicans like Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia, and Paul Gosar of Arizona. Kinzinger tweeted a graphic of the 16 Republicans and wrote “Outrageous. Hold them to account.”

A number of Republican governors signaled their states are open to accept refugees from Afghanistan, including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said his state was already planning to receive 180 refugees.

“Many of these Afghan citizens, our allies, bravely risked their lives to provide invaluable support for many years to our efforts as interpreters and support staff, and we have a moral obligation to support them,” Hogan said in a video message.

A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.

A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. Helicopters are landing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound amid the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital.

Rahmat Gul, Associated Press

Biden on the defensive

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged in a statement that while strategic missteps had been made by many people throughout the war, Biden was responsible for the “monumental collapse” in Kabul. McConnell previously called Trump’s decision to reduce troops in Afghanistan and Iraq a mistake.

“Terrorists and major competitors like China are watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low,” the Kentucky Republican said. “The strategic, humanitarian, and moral consequences of this self-inflicted wound will hurt our country and distract from other challenges for years to come.”

Biden said during a news conference Monday that he stood “squarely behind” his decision and that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.

The Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban last year to withdraw from Afghanistan, and public opinion on the war has been split. A Gallup poll released in July found 47% of Americans believe the war was a mistake and 46% believe it was not.

In statements posted to his website, Trump said the Taliban takeover had “destroyed confidence in American power and influence.”

“It’s not that we left Afghanistan,” Trump said. “It’s the grossly incompetent way we left!”

The nearly 20-year-long war in Afghanistan spanned four presidential administrations beginning with former President George W. Bush, and it is estimated to have cost $2.261 trillion. As of April 2021, more than 170,000 people are estimated to have died in the war, including 2,442 U.S. service members and 3,846 U.S. contractors, according to the Brown University Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Costs of War Project.