Dec 6, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: GOP launches probe into handling of Afghanistan withdrawal

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Saul Loeb/AFP, Farshad Usyan/AFP, and Javeed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images

House Republicans are planting targets for their first Biden administration investigations in the majority next year, starting with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Why it matters: It's the start of an investigation into an evacuation of unprecedented scale that saw more than 120,000 people airlifted out of the country after the Taliban swept into Kabul.

  • The operation was clouded by a suicide attack that left 13 Americans and roughly 200 Afghans dead.

Between the lines: This investigation is likely to be taken more seriously by the White House compared to GOP probes into Hunter Biden and calls for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to resign.

Driving the news: In a series of letters obtained by Axios, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, is requesting documentation and declassification of materials from several agencies involved.

  • He also crafted an internal memo alleging "illegal" obstruction by the Biden administration, after receiving new material from the official watchdog overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction.

The GOP memo describes "a pattern of obstruction by the Biden Administration" using emails John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), provided to the committee.

  • "We have been asked (directed) that we should not participate in any SIGAR interviews until after the Department leadership... completes their own further evaluation," a State department employee wrote in a Feb. 22 email included as an exhibit.
  • "Giving such a direction regarding SIGAR’s oversight is illegal," Comer wrote, alleging "over 70 instances in which State, USAID, or Treasury declined, stalled, or refused to provide information, assistance, or interviews."
  • Other emails from USAID and Treasury Department employees suggest they were "deferring cooperation" due to a "lack of jurisdiction."

What we're watching: Sopko and the Biden administration fundamentally disagree about his oversight jurisdiction.

The big picture: In letters reviewed by Axios, Comer wrote to the State Department, the National Security Council, DHS, Pentagon, and USAID about SIGAR and requested documents across all aspects of the U.S. drawdown.

  • From NSC and the State Department, Republicans are seeking information about planning and communication about the withdrawal and any contingency plans.
  • From the Pentagon, Republicans ask about troop withdrawal, including the rationale for removing air support before the evacuation of U.S. citizens.
  • From DHS, Republicans are requesting information about Operation Allies Welcome, and the vetting and relocation process for refugees.
  • From USAID, Republicans are looking into program closures and any USAID programs currently operating in the country.

A Republican oversight aide told Axios that they are chiefly focused on the decision to conduct the airlift out of the commercial Hamid Karzai International Airport and allow the Taliban to be in charge of airport perimeter security.

  • They are also investigating the lack of planning around relocating refugees.

The other side: "Our position is that except for certain specific funds, SIGAR’s statutory mandate is limited to funds available 'for the reconstruction of Afghanistan,'" a State Department spokesperson told Axios.

  • "Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the United States has stopped providing assistance for the purpose of the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and now focuses on alleviating the immediate humanitarian situation in the country."
  • The State Department and USAID continue to cooperate with oversight bodies—including Congressional committees and both agencies’ Inspectors General, in addition to SIGAR, the spokesperson said.
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