2 Congress members, including Michigan's Meijer, fly to Kabul amid chaotic evacuation
Washington — Two members of Congress flew unannounced into Kabul airport in the middle of the ongoing chaotic evacuation Tuesday, stunning State Department and U.S. military personnel who had to divert resources to provide security and information to the lawmakers, U.S. officials said.
Reps. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, and Seth Moulton, D-Mass., flew in on a charter aircraft and were on the ground at the Kabul airport for several hours, officials said. The two House members were flying out of Kabul on another charter aircraft, prompting officials to complain that they were taking seats that could have gone to other Americans or Afghans fleeing the country.
Two officials familiar with the flight said that State Department, Defense Department and White House officials were furious about the incident because it was done without coordination with diplomats or military commanders directing the evacuation.
The U.S. military found out about the visit as the legislators' aircraft was inbound to Kabul, according to the officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military operations.
In his words:Why Meijer flew to Kabul amid the evacuation
In a joint statement, Meijer and Moulton said they traveled to Kabul to "conduct oversight" on the mission to evacuate Americans and allies.
"As veterans we care deeply about the situation on the ground at Hamid Karzai International Airport," the congressmen said in the statement. "America has a moral obligation to our citizens and loyal allies, and we must make sure that obligation is being kept."
Meijer and Moulton said they conducted the visit in secret and left on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to avoid taking a seat from someone who needs one.
They had hoped to push President Joe Biden to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to evacuate Americans and allies from the country, but after visiting "it is obvious that because we started evacuation so late, that no matter what we do, we won't get everyone out on time, even by Sept. 11."
"Washington should be ashamed of the position we put our service members in, but they represent the best in America," they said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned other members against traveling to Afghanistan in a Tuesday statement.
"Given the urgency of this situation, the desire of some Members to travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding areas is understandable and reflective of the high priority that we place on the lives of those on the ground," said Pelosi, D-California.
"However, I write to reiterate that the Departments of Defense and State have requested that Members not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger. Ensuring the safe and timely evacuation of individuals at risk requires the full focus and attention of the U.S. military and diplomatic teams on the ground in Afghanistan."
She added that members traveling to Afghanistan would "unnecessarily divert needed resources from the priority mission of safely and expeditiously evacuating America and Afghans at risk from Afghanistan."
Moulton served in the Marine Corps and Meijer served in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
Meijer supported Biden's decision to withdraw American troops but has demanded the administration answer for what he called "an institutional failure on a staggering scale," including gravely overestimating the capabilities of the Afghan security forces.
After serving in Iraq, Meijer advised humanitarian groups in Afghanistan. He ran for Congress in 2020 on a platform of withdrawing from Afghanistan after former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township decided not to run for re-election.
"I was supportive of a withdrawal. That was under the assumption that this was something had been thought through, planned out, coordinated. We saw absolutely none of that. I feel just furious," Meijer said in mid-August after Kabul fell to the Taliban.
"This is what happens when you have intelligence analysis that is shaped to support what politicians want to have happen. And we’ve seen the consequences of that again and again," he told The Detroit News. "We saw that with Iraq and with ISIS. And it has to stop. It is infuriating to me."
Meijer said he was upset America's failure to plan sufficiently for the evacuation of thousands of Afghan civilians — interpreters and others who risked their lives to help the Americans' cause and are now likely to to be targeted and killed by militants.
The Biden administration had advised members of Congress in the spring that they had six to nine months to evacuate the Afghans, based on the assumption that the Kabul-based government would not fall quickly. Meijer and other military veterans in Congress had urged officials not to wait.
"I do not know what took so long, and why this was not an integral part of the withdrawal planning process ... or why this wasn't immediately acted upon," the first-term House member said.
Meijer also was upset that an Afghan interpreter who worked for the U.S. Army and has ties to west Michigan had to be evacuated, along with his wife and children, by the Canadian government to Toronto — not by the U.S. government.
The 29-year-old interpreter, Rahim, had waited for years for the U.S. government to approve his special immigrant visa to the United States. But the approval never came, despite his 27 months of work for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and threats against his life by the Taliban.
Rahim had hoped to be evacuated to live in Michigan with Gerald Keen, who met him in 2016 when Keen was deployed with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Rahim interpreted for him and other officials during high-level meetings at a mountain outpost, and the pair became close.
Keen later sponsored the visa paperwork for Rahim, whose full name The Detroit News is not using due to safety concerns for his family who remain in Afghanistan.
"The fact that the U.S. is unable to provide for folks who worked alongside our effort, but our NATO partners like Canada are able to move heaven and earth while we sit around — should be to our unending shame," Meijer said more than a week ago.
One senior U.S. official said the administration saw the lawmakers' visit as manifestly unhelpful and other officials said the visit was viewed as a distraction for troops and commanders at the airport who are waging a race against time to evacuate thousands of Americans, at-risk Afghans and others as quickly as possible.
The Pentagon has repeatedly expressed concerns about security threats in Kabul, including by the Islamic State group. When members of Congress have routinely gone to war zones over the past two decades, their visits are typically long planned and coordinated with officials on the ground in order to ensure their safety.
Biden on Tuesday said he is sticking to his Aug. 31 deadline for completing the risky airlift as people flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He said a key reason for the deadline is the ongoing IS threat targeting the airport. The Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate is known for staging suicide attacks on civilians.
Detroit News Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke, Riley Beggin and the Associated Press contributed.