Active-duty personnel and veterans gave first-person evidence about Wednesday’s tumultuous American pullout from Afghanistan. They described in gruesome detail the bloodshed and devastation they saw on the ground while pleading with Congress to aid the allies left behind.
As two suicide bombers targeted crowds of Afghans, former Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews testified before Congress about the smell of human flesh behind a thick cloud of smoke as the screams of children, women, and adults filled the area around Kabul’s airport.
“The withdrawal was a catastrophe, in my opinion. And there was an inexcusable lack of accountability,” said Vargas-Andrews, who wore a prosthetic arm and scars of his grave wounds from the bombing.
“I see the faces of all of those we could not save, those we left behind,” Aidan Gunderson, an Army medic stationed at Abbey Gate, testified. “I wonder if our Afghan allies fled to safety or they were killed by the Taliban.”
With witnesses recounting how they saw moms carrying dead newborns and the Taliban shooting and brutally torturing people, the opening session of a long-promised investigation by House Republicans revealed the ongoing wounds from the end of America’s longest war in August 2021.
That was the first in what is anticipated to be a string of hearings chaired by Republicans to look into how the Biden administration handled the departure. After American forces withdrew, Taliban militants gained control of Kabul much more quickly than U.S. intelligence had anticipated.
As Kabul fell, the West’s release developed into a rout, with Kabul’s airport serving as the focal point of a desperate air evacuation manned by U.S. soldiers temporarily stationed there.
Most witnesses testified before Congress that every presidential administration—from George W. Bush to Joe Biden—should share responsibility for the fall of Kabul as an American failure.
The focus of the testimony was not the withdrawal decision but rather what witnesses described as a futile endeavor to save American citizens and Afghan allies with little planning and backing from the United States.
From the Montagnards of Vietnam to the Kurds in Syria, America is developing a bad reputation for systemically abandoning its partners and leaving them as smoldering human waste, retired Lt. Col. Scott Mann stated before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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He added, “Our veterans know something else that this committee might do well to consider: We might be done with Afghanistan, but it’s not done with us.”
Vargas-Andrews sobbed as he described to senators how he failed to avert the suicide explosion that claimed the lives of 170 Afghans and 13 American military members, the single bloodiest incident during the U.S. withdrawal.
According to Vargas-Andrews, those thought to be organizing an attack were described to Marines and others helping with the evacuation effort before it took place.
He claimed that he and others saw two individuals who fit the descriptions and were acting strangely. They eventually had them in their rifle scopes but never heard back on whether or not to take action.
“No one was held accountable,” Vargas-Andrews told Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the committee chairman. “No one was, and no one is, to this day.”
According to U.S. Central Command’s investigation, the attack “was not preventable at the tactical level without degrading the mission to maximize the number of evacuees,” completed in October 2021.
The Abbey Gate security situation worsened as Afghans became more desperate to flee. Its review, however, did not examine whether the bomber might have been stopped or if Marines on the ground had the right to intervene.
According to Lt. Col. Rob Lodewick, spokesman for the Defense Department, the Pentagon’s earlier investigation into the suicide attack had not revealed any requests for “an escalation to existing rules of engagement” governing the use of force by American troops or any advance identification of a potential attacker.
How the Biden administration handled the withdrawal has drawn harsh criticism from McCaul. He claimed that what transpired in Afghanistan resulted from a systemic collapse at every federal government level and a remarkable lack of leadership by the Biden administration.
The sudden collapse of the Afghan government and military, even before American forces entirely withdrew in August 2021, was primarily caused by actions taken by both the Trump and Biden administrations, according to a new report released last month by the US Inspector General for Afghanistan, John Sopko.
That includes the unilateral withdrawal agreement between President Donald Trump and the Taliban and Vice President Joe Biden‘s abrupt departure of American troops and contractors from Afghanistan, leaving behind an Afghan air force that previous administrations had failed to make self-sufficient.
Since American forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, every U.S. administration has been held accountable for continually altering, inconsistent policies prioritizing short solutions and disengagement from the country over a sustained commitment to developing a strong, resilient Afghan military.
The witnesses who spoke on Wednesday urged action to aid the hundreds of thousands of Afghan comrades who served alongside American soldiers and are currently trapped in the United States and back in Afghanistan.
“If I leave this committee with only one thought, it’s this: It’s not too late,” said Peter Lucier, a Marine veteran who now works at Team America Relief, which has assisted thousands of Afghans in relocating.
“We’re going to talk a lot today about all the mistakes that were made leading up to that day, but urgent action right now will save so many lives.”
Creating a path to citizenship for the almost 76,000 Afghans who have collaborated with US soldiers since 2001 as translators, interpreters, and partners was one of the possibilities considered on Wednesday.
Following the withdrawal, those individuals flew into the country on military aircraft, and the government accepted them as refugees under the auspices of Operation Allies Welcome, the most significant resettlement initiative to take place in the nation in recent memory, promising them a path to a future in the country in exchange for their service.
The Afghan Adjustment Act, which would have prevented Afghans from being left without a legal residency status when their two years of humanitarian parole expire in August, was pushed for by both political parties in Congress.
According to the idea, Afghans who met the requirements might have applied to become citizens of the United States, just like it was done in the past for refugees from Cuba, Vietnam, and Iraq.