Mar 5, 2023 - Politics & Policy

GOP puts spotlight on Biden's Afghanistan exit

Illustration of a line of tanks driving away with a spotlight shining over them.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Two Republican-led House panels are about to sink their teeth into investigations of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — the latest GOP probes of the Biden administration.

Why it matters: The coming months will bring intense congressional scrutiny of the August 2021 evacuation that airlifted 124,000 people out of Afghanistan — and was clouded by a suicide attack that killed 13 Americans and roughly 200 Afghans.

  • The hearings by the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees essentially will put the administration's withdrawal from a 20-year war under a microscope.
  • The first hearing, by the Foreign Affairs panel on March 8, will lean on testimony from volunteers who assisted the evacuation.

Driving the news: The two committees — eager to bring public attention back to the Afghanistan issue — are independently pressuring federal agencies to comply with oversight requests and planning public hearings.

  • The Oversight panel has asked the State Department, White House, Department of Homeland Security, Pentagon and USAID for documents related to the drawdown.

The big picture: Democrats also have vowed to investigate the drawdown — and former President Trump's agreement with the Taliban, which they say set the stage for the messy exit from Afghanistan.

  • In late 2021, several Democrat-led Senate committees held hearings.
  • Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said lawmakers will investigate what he called the Biden administration’s flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal, as well as a "series of mistakes made by Republican and Democratic administrations over the past 20 years."

The intrigue: House Foreign Affairs' first hearing on Afghanistan will test the extent to which partisan politics will shadow the panel's probe, as has been the case with several other GOP-led investigations this session.

  • Some nonprofit organizations who played significant roles on the ground in Kabul in the weeks leading up to and after the U.S. withdrawal are choosing not to testify for fear of becoming pawns in a political game.

The details: Foreign Affairs staff members have been negotiating with the State Department, pushing it to produce documents such as a dissenting cable that department employees sent, warning about the potential collapse of Kabul during a rapid withdrawal by the U.S.

  • While in the minority, House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) released an interim report concluding that the Biden administration failed to prepare for withdrawal's consequences, including the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
  • That report provides a blueprint for questions likely to dominate hearings: the decision to close Bagram Airfield, recommendations made by military generals about troop levels, and inadequate military and consular personnel to Kabul.
  • The State Department says as of November 2022, it had done more than 150 briefings to Congress on the Afghanistan withdrawal, and that senior officials have appeared in public hearings and responded to other requests for information.

What they're saying: The Biden administration will argue that Biden inherited a withdrawal timetable that Trump agreed to with the Taliban, and that any exit from a 20-year war would have been messy.

  • “Instead of returning the U.S. to active combat with the Taliban and putting even more of our troops’ lives at risk, President Biden made the tough decision to finally end the 20-year war in Afghanistan," Sharon Yang, White House spokesperson on oversight, told Axios.
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