Congress poised to grill Biden officials on messy Afghanistan exit
The Biden administration is about to face a grilling from both the House and Senate over the bungled U.S. exit from Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s quick advances caught key officials off guard.
Congress could kick off its efforts to question President Biden’s team as soon as next week, when the House will briefly return from its weeks-long summer recess for a few days before heading back out of town until late September.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sent Biden a letter on Wednesday requesting a briefing or call next week for the “Gang of Eight”—the top four congressional leaders and top members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has requested three briefings: One unclassified briefing via telephone for all House members on Friday, an in-person classified briefing for Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. and a “Gang of Eight” briefing, that is in the works but still being finalized, according to a Pelosi aide.
Pelosi also told KPIX, a San Francisco TV station, that the House Foreign Affairs Committee would hold a hearing next week with “the highest level officials in the Biden administration.”
“That will take place early next week, at least it will begin then,” Pelosi said.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has not publicly announced a timeline for when he might hold the first hearing, or suggested publicly that he’s looking at next week. But he said he had invited Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify.
“The situation in Afghanistan is rapidly changing and it is imperative that the administration provide the American people and Congress transparency about its Afghanistan strategy,” Meeks said.
He added that he wanted to hear what “the administration’s plan is to safely evacuate American citizens, [special immigrant visa holders], and other vulnerable Afghans from the country, and to understand our broader counter terrorism strategy in South Asia following the collapse of the Ghani government.”
In addition to Meeks, the House Armed Services Committee is also “in the process of scheduling closed briefings for Members to receive most current information,” Monica Matoush, a spokesperson for the panel, told The Hill in an email Wednesday.
Matoush added that Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) — who she said supports the “decisions made” and “rationale” from Biden — is “in contact with [White House] and [Department of Defense] officials” and is urging administration officials “to do everything in their power to safely evacuate” U.S. personnel, Afghan nationals who aided the U.S. military and their family members as well as Afghans who could be targeted by the Taliban.
In addition to the two House panels, two Senate committee chairmen have said they will hold hearings into the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban and how the Biden administration miscalculated how quickly the Afghan government and military would fall.
Neither Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) nor Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have scheduled the hearings or indicated who they would invite to testify. The Senate is scheduled to be out of town until mid-September.
Reed, in a statement, said he would hold hearings “at the appropriate time” on “what went wrong in Afghanistan and lessons learned to avoid repeating those mistakes.”
Meanwhile, Menendez, who also had a foreign policy independent streak during the Obama administration, said his committee will hold a hearing on both the Trump administration’s “flawed negotiations” and the Biden administration’s “flawed execution” of the withdrawal.
“The Committee will seek a full accounting for these shortcomings as well as assess why the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces collapsed so quickly. Congress was told repeatedly that the Afghan Defense and Security Forces were up to the task, that it had the troops, equipment and willingness to fight. … The American and Afghan people clearly have not been told the truth,” Menendez said in a statement.
A third Senate chairman, Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), said he would work with other committees to ask “tough but necessary questions.”
The push by Democratic-led panels to hear from Biden officials, either publicly or behind closed doors, comes as the president has sparked broad, bipartisan frustration over his handling of the U.S. drawdown. Several senators in both parties say their staff are being flooded with calls for help on how to get out of Afghanistan.
Democrats largely support Biden’s ultimate endgame of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan after two decades of fighting, and some have rallied to his side this week.
But the quick rise to power of the Taliban, chaotic images over the weekend and calls to several congressional offices from family members or individuals stuck in Afghanistan sparked public tensions between Congress and the White House. It’s a notable rift between congressional Democrats and Biden, who have largely remained unified since he took office in January.
Meanwhile, Republicans are launching heavy broadsides against Biden, viewing the Afghanistan exit a messy misstep of his own making.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who had voiced support for Biden’s April announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops, on Wednesday called for Biden’s defense and policy teams to resign — an apparent first among Senate Republicans. But GOP senators more broadly are demanding public hearings to determine what went wrong.
Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter this week to Menendez asking to hear directly from Blinken.
“We need to hear from Secretary Blinken directly, to understand why the State Department was so ill prepared for the contingencies unfolding before us and what it will take to get the State Department back on track,” they wrote.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday, predicted there would be “plenty of inquiries,” and pointed to the comments from the Democratic chairmen as a sign of how badly Biden had misstepped.
“The three Democratic chairmen of the Defense, Armed Services and Intelligence committees announced they are upset about this as well. So the president has managed to alienate even his allies with this step. And in terms of the political consequences of it, his approval rating is below 50 percent for the first time,” McConnell said.
McConnell added that lawmakers would “need to find out how this happened, and monitor it, along and keep the pressure on. This job is not over. This withdrawal is not complete until all the Americans are safely out.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, and 24 other GOP senators also sent a letter to Austin on Wednesday saying they had “grave concerns” about the U.S. military equipment left behind in Afghanistan, while demanding a rundown of what was still left in the country.
“It is unconscionable that high-tech military equipment paid for by U.S. taxpayers has fallen into the hands of the Taliban and their terrorist allies,” the GOP senators wrote. “Securing U.S. assets should have been among the top priorities for the U.S. Department of Defense prior to announcing the withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Rebecca Kheel contributed to this report.
This story was updated at 7:26 p.m.