Biden faces increasing questions from lawmakers on messy Afghan exit

The Biden administration for a second day in a row on Tuesday sought to swat away criticism of its botched withdrawal from Afghanistan as the U.S. military worked to ramp up evacuation flights out of Kabul.

After a chaotic Monday that saw desperate Afghans flood the tarmac at the Kabul airport, the U.S. military resecured the airfield and pledged Tuesday to accelerate the pace of evacuations.

But more than 10,000 U.S. citizens, as well as tens of thousands of Afghans fearful for their lives now that the Taliban are back in power, still need to get out, and questions persist about whether the U.S. military mission — which is still slated to end Aug. 31 — can finish in time.

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The administration is also facing repeated questions about why it did not adequately prepare for the disarray that ensued after Kabul fell.

“Yes, there were chaotic scenes yesterday,” national security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanHillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — World leaders call for enhanced cooperation to fight wave of ransomware attacks White House weighing steps to address gas shortages World leaders call for enhanced cooperation to fight escalating wave of ransomware attacks MORE told reporters as he argued the administration planned for “all contingencies.”

“Even well-drawn plans don't survive first contact with reality,” Sullivan said. “And they require adjustments. And we've made those adjustments.”

Congressional sources on both sides of the aisle told The Hill their offices have been contacted by desperate American citizens and Afghans who say they’ve been unable to make it to the airport despite Taliban assurances they would be allowed safe passage. 

“They keep saying that we are going to continue to evacuate until Aug. 31. This is an arbitrary and self-imposed deadline,” one Republican staffer told The Hill. “So it's ridiculous that they are trying to stick to this. We need a commitment from them that they are not going to leave behind the Americans and that they are not going to leave behind the people that Joe BidenJoe BidenPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks State school board leaves national association saying they called parents domestic terrorists Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases MORE personally promised to rescue.”

The Biden administration has come under sharp criticism from across the political spectrum for the chaos that has ensued as people try to evacuate Afghanistan after the Taliban won control of the country over the weekend.

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Biden sought to rebut the criticism Monday, saying in a White House speech that he stands by his decision to withdraw and blaming Afghan leaders, including exiled President Ashraf Ghani, for failing to stand up the Taliban.

But critics said Biden’s speech failed to address a bungled execution of the withdrawal that neither anticipated the speed of the Taliban’s takeover nor heeded calls from lawmakers in both parties to start evacuating Afghans months ago.

The drumbeat of criticism, particularly from Republicans, continued Tuesday.

“For months, we have been asking you for a plan on your withdrawal from Afghanistan. You failed to provide us with one and based on the horrific events currently unfolding in Afghanistan, we are confident that we never received your plan because you never had one,” 26 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee wrote in a letter to Biden on Tuesday. “The security and humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Afghanistan could have been avoided if you had done any planning. Pretending this isn’t your problem will only make things worse.”

Amid the criticism, the Pentagon said Tuesday it was working to pick up the pace of evacuations, as more than 80,000 Afghans, including those who assisted the U.S. military and their families, await approval to escape the country. 

About 11,000 U.S. citizens are also estimated to still be in Afghanistan, White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases Biden giving stiff-arm to press interviews MORE said. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has warned American citizens to shelter in place until they secure a flight.

By Wednesday, the military plans to have one flight leaving Kabul per hour, a pace that could evacuate up to 5,000 to 9,000 people per day, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor of the Joint Staff said at a Pentagon briefing. The flights that are leaving have been landing in Qatar and Kuwait.

The Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, led by Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, has been put in charge of securing the airport, with Pentagon press secretary John Kirby saying, “The task of securing and operating an airfield is actually a unique task that the 82nd can do.”

But in a grim reminder of the chaos that unfolded the day before, the Air Force confirmed Tuesday that human remains were found in a wheel well of one of the C-17 transport planes that left Kabul when it landed in Qatar. The Air Force also said it is investigating videos that circulated on social media showing people who had clung to landing gear falling as the aircraft ascended.

“Alongside our joint force, interagency and international partners, the U.S. Air Force remains laser-focused on maintaining security at [Hamid Karzai International Airport] to prevent a situation like this from happening again as we safely process Afghan civilians seeking to depart the country,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a statement.

Meanwhile, U.S. commanders on the ground have been in contact with the Taliban about not interfering in the evacuation operations, Kirby said.

“In meetings with Taliban senior leaders in Doha on Sunday, I cautioned them against interference in our evacuation, and made it clear to them that any attack would be met with overwhelming force in the defense of our forces,” U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie added in his own statement Tuesday.

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Sullivan held that the Taliban “have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment.” Still, he acknowledged reports of people being “turned away or pushed back or even beaten” by the Taliban as they make their way to the airport. 

Congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle told The Hill that they had been contacted by multiple people on the ground who were held up at checkpoints and threatened with violence by the Taliban as they sought to flee. 

One staffer said a constituent faced a Taliban attack on the way to the airport and had to return home. That office asked if there was a plan to help people get to the airport and was told that right now there is not.

One GOP aide said even those with proper documentation who have made it to the airport have struggled to make it past overwhelmed guards, instead turned away despite having secured a flight.

The same staffer said they have asked the administration for details about how many American citizens and Afghan partners are still far outside Kabul.

“To be 100 percent honest, if you’re a partner of ours and you’re not an American citizen and you’re not inside Kabul, I just don’t know how we’re going to get to you,” the staffer said. “What about the Americans that are trapped outside. How are they going to get them in places that are being controlled by the Taliban?”

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“They're not providing any assistance, and they are denying that they are aware of the fact that the security situation in Kabul is not allowing that,” they added. “It is utterly ridiculous. At this stage this is no longer an issue of the administration not being aware of the situation on the ground; they are lying. And they are lying to the detriment of American citizens and our Afghan partners.”

Questions also persist about what will happen after Aug. 31, the date Biden has set for the official end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Kirby stressed Tuesday that the “commander in chief made it very clear that we were to complete this drawdown by Aug. 31” and deferred questions about why the evacuation mission can’t be extended to Biden. Sullivan later declined to “comment on hypotheticals” when asked whether U.S. forces would stay if the evacuation isn’t complete by then.

“What I'm going to do stay focused on the task at hand, which is getting as many people out as rapidly as possible,” Sullivan said. “And we will take that day by day.”