G.O.P. Inquiry on Afghan Withdrawal Opens With Searing Witness Accounts
WASHINGTON — A Marine sergeant who survived a suicide blast in Kabul and an Army medic who tended to those on the scene tearfully told Congress on Wednesday that they sustained physical and mental scars during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, putting a human dimension on a grim chapter for the Biden administration as Republicans opened an inquiry into what went wrong.
During a six-hour hearing on Capitol Hill, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee heard the searing accounts and engaged in a bitterly partisan debate about who was to blame for the botched withdrawal — branded a “moral injury” and “moral failure” by Republicans, Democrats and the witnesses who testified — which left 13 American service members and scores of Afghans dead.
“Every inch of my exposed body, except for my face, took a ball bearing,” Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews told lawmakers, crying as he talked about how his body was ripped open by the Aug. 26, 2021 blast at the international airport in Kabul. “The 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier that were murdered that day have not been answered for.”
Aidan Gunderson, a former Army specialist, described how he tended to injured service members and the bodies of Afghans who had fallen while trying to cling to the landing gear of planes taking off from the airport, and tried to help stranded civilians enter the airport.
“I tried to save the lives of countless Marines. We all tried our best. It was a nightmare,” said Mr. Gunderson, his voice breaking.
More on U.S. Armed Forces
- Preparing for a Pacific Island Fight: A 10-day mock battle across Southern California gave a new Marine regiment the chance to test war-fighting concepts the Pentagon may one day need in a battle with China.
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: President Biden’s list of candidates to replace Gen. Mark A. Milley in the role appears tо be down to two names: Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who is the Air Force chief of staff, and the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger.
- Military Advisers: American troops are assisting Somali soldiers fighting Al Shabab, a branch of Al Qaeda, in what is the most active front in the “forever wars” that the United States has waged since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I still carry these horrific scenes of Abbey Gate, even the smell. Mothers carrying dead babies, the Taliban mercilessly beating people and civilians begging for their lives,” Mr. Gunderson said. “I see the faces of the people we could not save, all those that we left behind.”
Their accounts made for a somber backdrop to start the House G.O.P. inquiry on Afghanistan, which Republicans have promised would take President Biden to task over the failures of the mass airlift out of Kabul’s airport.
The panel’s first Afghanistan hearing was the culmination of an 18-month effort by its chairman, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, who pursued an investigation of the State Department’s role in the evacuation while in the minority. Though it yielded few revelations, the testimony seemed to back up Mr. McCaul’s assertions that the withdrawal was more chaotic and deadly than necessary.
“This was an abdication of the most basic duties of the United States government: to protect Americans and leave no one behind,” said Mr. McCaul, who added that “the nation sustained moral injury from what happened.”
Of particular interest to the chairman was testimony by Mr. Vargas-Andrews, who said he was in a sniper tower at the airport on the day of the blast and had spotted a person in the crowd matching the description of a suspected suicide bomber just hours before the attack. He had warned superiors, he said, but they did not listen or seek his account afterward.
“Plain and simple, we were ignored. Our expertise was disregarded. No one was held accountable for our safety,” Mr. Vargas-Andrews said. “It makes me feel like my service is not valued by this country, by the government.”
Mr. McCaul was also intrigued by Mr. Vargas-Andrews’s account of how State Department officials at the airport shut down operations every night, slowing down the processing of potential evacuees and potentially endangering service members trying to maintain order amid the fracas. He promised to make those allegations a line of inquiry in his panel’s investigation.
The on-the-ground testimony at times put Democrats in a difficult position, as they sought to defer to the experience of witnesses while also defending the Biden administration from Republican attacks.
“It wasn’t President Biden who set an absolute withdrawal date; it was President Trump, and everything unraveled from that,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia.
At one point, Representative Dina Titus, a Democrat from Nevada, asked why the witnesses had never publicly raised concerns about Afghanistan under the Trump administration.
“Hindsight’s 20/20, and if we’d gotten involved earlier, we might not have too much to criticize later,” she said.
The comment drew a sharp response from one of the witnesses.
“The reality is, we were living our lives,” said retired Lt. Col. David Scott Mann, who formed a group calling itself Task Force Pineapple to help evacuate Americans and Afghans. “We were drawn back into this not of our own volition, but by a set of circumstances that we could not stand for.”
Almost all the witnesses also called on Congress to expand access to the special immigrant visa program to give more Afghans permanent residency. Republicans generally have resisted any move to expand immigration, and advocates have blamed G.O.P. leaders for blocking the effort to help additional Afghan refugees.
Camille Mackler, a lawyer and the executive director of Immigrant ARC, who also testified, implored Mr. McCaul, a backer of expanding the special visa program for Afghans, to work to persuade his colleagues to back the move.
“Help us change immigration laws so that we can get them out,” she said.