House committee hears Afghanistan withdrawal was ‘mistake of epic proportions’

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul spoke before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability hearing on Thursday on the lack of planning for the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan in 2021 that US President Joe Biden and his administration had failed to have a contingency plan in place and that the withdrawal had been a “mistake of epic proportions.”

“This unconditional withdrawal – I call it the unconditional surrender to the Taliban, who have now taken over Afghanistan,” he said.

The hearing examined the Biden administration’s planning, or lack thereof, of the unconditional US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the administration’s decision to close Bagram Airfield and to run the evacuation solely through Kabul airport, its planning for worst case scenarios, and its responses to indications of a rapid Taliban takeover.

He pointed out that intelligence assessments at the time predicted the Taliban could take Kabul by September 1 if all troops were pulled out, “yet even with that warning, President Biden and Secretary Blinken failed to change course, to the very end.

“Rather than prioritizing US national security and the safety of thousands of Americans, they forced this rapid withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan on an artificial timeline.”

McCaul stated that everyone knew the Taliban stopped fighting in winter and asked why the withdrawal was not planned to coincide with this. He also slammed the move to close Bagram Air Base.

“We made zero, seems to me very little attempts to get the men and women who fought alongside US servicemen out of that country to safety. And our partners, our interpreters are now left behind to be hunted down by the Taliban, with the very biometrics that we created. And now they can go door to door to get a fingerprint to confirm if they worked with the United States. And then they’re executed,” he said.

Brian Mast, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Accountability and Oversight, said in his speech the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 was the product of chaos and a failure to plan.

He said it was not the fault of the US State Department, but the fault of President Joe Biden and “his mouthpieces” who had been “lying to the American people” in the months ahead of the withdrawal.

Mast said the withdrawal resulted in the loss of all diplomatic options . “The literal failure to plan completely erased the potential for on the ground diplomacy and created a black eye for the United States’ standing abroad.”

He also stated that the failure to plan the withdrawal resulted in the evacuation of all embassy personnel from Kabul and the absence of a diplomatic presence in the country today.

Mast accused Biden of not listening to his intelligence personnel who had provided him with a clear assessment of the best way forward. “It was the ultimate decision maker (Biden) that was refusing to listen to the intelligence being given.”

He said Biden’s insistence that an over the horizon presence would be in place to counter the potential reemergence of a terrorist threat was “garbage,” adding that any over the horizon capabilities the US had, to deal with terrorism threats, were “wiped out almost immediately ” and have only gotten worse since the withdrawal and the decision to abandon Bagram Airfield.

In the two years since the Daesh bombing at the Kabul airport during the withdrawal, “Afghanistan has essentially become a club for terrorists.” He said ISIS (Daesh) is using the country as a training ground, “fighting with the Taliban”.

Mast also stated that Washington’s adversaries are “gaining a foothold there.” This includes Russia, Iran and China.

A key issue discussed was the lack of leadership during the final days of the withdrawal from Kabul airport. This was in light of the suicide bomber being identified outside the gate of the airport but “not taken out”. The argument at the time was that the commanding officer said he did not have the authority to shoot.

Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul asked “who does have the authority?” He pointed out that the suicide bomber went on to detonate his explosives and killed over 150 Afghanistan nationals along with 13 US servicemembers. He said this happened because one US commander said he did not have permission “to engage”.

This he attributed to “confusion on the ground” as no one knew what the plan was.

In answer to McCaul, retired colonel Christopher Kolenda, former commander of SABER Task Force in Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan, said there was no one in charge on the ground of US wars.

“Had there been somebody in charge of this group on the ground, you would have seen a plan that would have not only synchronized the military withdrawal but also the evacuation,” he said.

Kolenda noted that in his opinion the three key causes of the collapse of Afghanistan in August 2021 were firstly, “the Afghan government never bothered to gain the buy-in of the Afghan people. They became a predatory kleptocracy, a government of thieves, where positions were for sale for exorbitant amounts of money. A police chief in a big province might go for as much as three million US dollars; and in exchange for buying their position, they were then able to use the position to make the money back; land theft, kidnapping for ransom, extorting our (US) aid and development dollars.” He went on to say it was these actions that pushed “ordinary Afghans” into the arms of the Taliban who “were killing our soldiers.”

Another major reason for the collapse of the former government was that the Taliban was a lot more innovative and that the US “got very complacent over 20 years. We and the Afghan government – believing we could do the same thing over and over again.”

He went on to say that by continuing to be innovative, eventually by 2021, the Taliban “had the upper hand.”

“Sadly, many Afghans saw the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.”

Thirdly, he said the US has to devise a plan to build developing world militaries more effectively – and not in the US’ likeness. He said there are other models that could have been used which would have made Afghanistan’s military more sustainable and able to stand on its own “and not simply collapse like a house of cards”.

Retired former chief of staff Special Operations Command Central Colonel Seth Krummrich also testified. Asked whether he had been aware of any contingency plan to deal with special visas of key allies including ministry officials, journalists, women, activists and others being targeted by the Taliban at the time, Krummrick said: “No, and it became very painfully obvious under extreme duress how big of a gap that was.”

Thursday’s hearing was part of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ongoing investigation into the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.