Today, nearly two years after President Joe Biden announced that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan “responsibly, deliberately, and safely,” Congress begins its investigation into the chaotic exit that was predictably catastrophic.
Meaningful oversight of the U.S. withdrawal and scrutiny of the collapse of Afghanistan’s elected government is needed, but that is not what the House Foreign Affairs Committee is delivering.
The Committee’s hearing focuses on the valor of veterans who spent sixteen days in late August 2021 doing everything they could to rescue their allies. It’s a story that is made for Hollywood and has already been etched on screen in documentaries like Escape from Kabul and action movies like Jake Gyllenhaal’s The Covenant. The truth is always more complicated, and interesting, than what movies make it out to be. The Committee should hear it.
The truth is that American civil society and our Afghan allies in their country begged the United States government and Congress to act, months and even years before the Taliban again stormed through Afghanistan and refugees threw themselves at the mercy of U.S. Marines.
After the Trump administration abandoned Afghanistan’s democratically-elected government and cut a bilateral peace deal with the group that harbored Osama Bin Laden, advocacy groups in the United States witnessed the Afghan military lose confidence in American promises. Once the Biden administration made clear that they would not reverse the Trump-Taliban deal, advocates and Afghans knew it was just a matter of time before the withdrawal began.
When Biden announced the United States would be leaving Afghanistan, a broad swath of the public sprang into action. Faith leaders, historians, retired diplomats, and business leaders joined veterans to create organizations like Evacuate Our Allies (EOA), a coalition advocating for the rapid relocation of thousands of Afghans ahead of the withdrawal. The coalition understood the reasoning behind ending the war; my own organization, Human Rights First, is a founding member of EOA and has a long history of calling for the end of the “forever war.” We also knew that a responsible peace must be grounded in our collective promise to the Afghan people.
We worked toward the relocation of our Afghan allies, and through the summer 2021, our coalition notched important wins for at-risk Afghans, including Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government. In July, the White House commenced Operation Allies Refuge, expediting the travel to safety of a small group of Afghans who served alongside American forces. Though it wasn’t nearly enough, by late August it provided the framework for what would become the largest airlift in history.
Despite these efforts, the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) was a disaster. As lines of authority broke down, private citizens, veterans, and relief organizations worked 24-hours per day trying to connect Afghans to safety. Almost none of this work was grizzled vets parachuting into firefights like in Gyllenhaal’s movie. Some important tasks were certainly undertaken in Afghanistan, but most of the work was done at kitchen tables across the world at all hours of the day, fueled by hope, commitment, and pots and pots of coffee. People used their cell phones to guide and support Afghans making harrowing journeys through miles of Taliban checkpoints.
If the Foreign Affairs Committee investigated those stories, it would offer a meaningful snapshot into a time filled with anguish, pain, and limited success. I will never forget some of my own experiences from that time, like being on a call with a woman based in California who was desperate to help her sister’s family in Kabul while I spoke to a contractor with a friend who had a tenuous connection to a Marine at the gate of Kabul’s airport. With our combined help, that family landed in Italy three days later.
The Committee should hear testimony from the many, almost always anonymous, people who are as deserving of mention as the veterans they have invited. To understand the full story of the evacuation, they should hear from military moms who saw Afghans arriving and found them housing, small businesses owners who put to work recently arrived Afghan parolees, faith leaders who welcomed Afghans into their communities, students who took years off from graduate school to help their local resettlement agencies, and many others. Most importantly, they should hear from the Afghans themselves who took control of their destiny and sought refuge in the promise of America. These are the heroes of the evacuation and resettlement effort, because while many groups that formed during the NEO have disbanded, there are many people who stayed with the effort and continue to work to see Afghans to safety today.
Were these everyday heroes to testify, they would be unified in urging Congress to fix the mistakes of the NEO and to help integrate our Afghan allies into American society. They would call for meaningful solutions rather than partisan theatrics and finger pointing.
Meaningful solutions start with Congress passing the Afghan Adjustment Act – a bipartisan piece of legislation that would solve many of the issues that will be raised in the hearing today. Passing this bill would provide stability and an opportunity to put down roots for Afghans who were evacuated by American servicemembers in 2021. It would also create pathways out of Afghanistan for those who have been left behind, so that civil society groups can use established immigration mechanisms to rapidly help Afghans who fought alongside U.S.-led coalition forces in communities like the Afghan Special Forces, Female Tactical Platoons, Air Force, and other specialized groups – all of which are prime targets for the Taliban.
In addition to passing the Afghan Adjustment Act, Congress should codify interagency coordination on relocation efforts with civil society groups. Over the past year and a half civil society groups have been working alongside the State Department to identify at-risk Afghans and provide them a path to relocation and safety. The Coordinator for Afghan Relocation Efforts (CARE) at the State Department meets regularly with experts and advocacy organizations to ensure that the right people are being prioritized for relocations and that efficiencies within the process can be maximized. But this process could be stopped as priorities shift and a new administration could easily shutter this effort. Those who’ve worked so hard on this deserve to have the program, or something equivalent, codified into a statue to honor America’s promises to the Afghan people.
Finally, Congress must create a process to ensure that this never happens again. One of the biggest motivating factors for many civil society groups working on this issue was that, prior to the evacuation, there was no plan to ensure the safety of Afghan allies who would be left behind. We looked at Vietnam and the Gulf War and saw disastrous consequences for our allies when we withdrew, but no one within the government would listen. No one was responsible for ensuring that government policy would honor America’s promise. That’s why Congress must create an Ombudsman for Allies, an office that would ensure that America’s local partners, who believe so much in the promise of democratic ideals, have a voice. If U.S. policy was truly aligned with its values, then perhaps we would not have seen such a chaotic and traumatic withdrawal in August 2021.
What happened in 2021 was a dark moment in history for the United States and Afghanistan. Congress can play politics with that history, or use it as another impetus to keep promises the United States made to its allies. Beyond needling the Biden administration for its failures in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Congress should recommit to the United States’ broken promise to the people of Afghanistan by seeing the whole story of the withdrawal and working with civil society on meaningful solutions.