Michigan GOP reps slam Biden over collapse of Afghan government

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan Republican lawmakers on Monday blasted President Joe Biden for the chaotic, last-minute evacuation of U.S. personnel from Kabul, the swift collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban roaring back to power in the wake of the troop withdrawal he ordered.

At least seven people were killed Monday at the Kabul airport as desperate Afghans rushed departing aircraft, with some falling to their death from a departing U.S. military transport plane, according to wire reports.

“Twenty years of combating terror was brought down by one disastrous Democrat decision and has led to the resurgence of the Taliban in a matter of days that will only lead to more terror around the world," said GOP U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain of Bruce Township, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

A US soldier points his gun towards an Afghan passenger at the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the group's feared hardline brand of Islamist rule.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican, said his office was getting calls from constituents who are trapped outside the Kabul airport and who reported getting beaten up and arrested. He was at a loss for what to tell them. 

"They're literally fearing for their lives," Huizenga said. "It's bringing us all to tears."

The advice from the State Department, Huizenga said, is for Americans to flee to a bordering nation or to try to get into the airport to board a departing flight.

But the Pentagon said Monday flights out of Kabul were grounded as soldiers tried to remove crowds from the tarmac. Roughly 6,000 U.S. troops are being deployed to Kabul with the aim of keeping the airport open to continue the evacuation process.

"How idiotic that we are here at this point? Clearly, we didn’t have the military assets or military will in place to push back to create a safe zone," Huizenga said. "How do you not call this anything but an utter intelligence and military leadership failure? On both sides. And that buck stops at the top."

He called on Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. intelligence leaders to resign in light of the deteriorating situation. 

Biden said Monday afternoon he stood "squarely" behind his decision to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan, though he admitted the fall of the government there unfolded faster than anticipated. 

"If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision," the president said.

"American troops cannot and should not be fighting in the war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves."

Biden said in the coming days, the U.S. intends to transport thousands of American citizens who have been living and working in Afghanistan, as well as Afghans who helped the U.S. cause. 

"As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban if they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation," Biden said, "we will defend our people with devastating force if necessary."

Democrats have generally avoided criticizing Biden in recent days, defending his decision to leave Afghanistan while acknowledging the devastating images from the ground at the Kabul airport and the grave risk for those in harm's way.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, chief deputy whip for House Democrats, urged the administration to continue to make every effort to ensure the safety of American citizens and service members who remain in Afghanistan.

"But after two decades of war in Afghanistan, President Biden made the difficult — but right — decision to bring our American troops home. The United States must not remain in an endless war and become involved in Afghanistan’s civil conflict," said Kildee, D-Flint Township. 

He noted that former President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban last year to draw down American troops by the end of May, adding that Biden is now executing that agreement.

But even GOP lawmakers who supported Biden's decision to withdraw American troops demanded the administration answer for intelligence and operational failures, including gravely overestimating the capabilities of the Afghan security forces.

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, said it's been "gutting" to watch the Taliban's swift advance across the country. After serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army, Meijer advised humanitarian groups in Afghanistan. He said what is unfolding now is "an institutional failure on a staggering scale."

"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. 

"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. We saw that with Iraq and with ISIS. And it has to stop. It is infuriating to me."

Meijer is upset the U.S. failed 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.

More:Grand Haven veteran’s Afghan interpreter evacuated from Afghanistan to Canada

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 said. He 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," Meijer said. 

Biden on Monday acknowledged concerns about why the U.S. did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner.

"Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave early. They were still hopeful for their country," he said, adding that the Afghan government had also discouraged a mass exodus to avoid triggering a "crisis of confidence."

Blinken on Sunday defended the administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, arguing the offensive by the Taliban likely would have happened even if the U.S. had remained, and that the Americans would be back at war with Taliban forces.

"The idea that the status quo could have been maintained by keeping our forces there, I think, is simply wrong," Blinken said on CNN.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Bloomfield Township Democrat who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said there will "much work ahead" for those in Congress with the duty to probe foreign policy decisions and craft responsible policy moving forward. He also defended the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

"The hollowness of the Afghan regime after 20 years of U.S. war is the central lesson of this moment. Obviously, what we were doing was not working. If we kept going another 20 years, there is no indication the result would have been different," Levin tweeted Monday. 

"Right now, we must focus on the needs of those who need humanitarian aid & refuge, & we must not let the images we're seeing fade from memory. A moment will come when we are told new wars & prolonged ones are the answers to our problems. They are not."

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former top defense official during the Obama administration, had supported the planned troop withdraw back when it was announced in April. But she had also urged the Biden administration to provide Congress a strategy to ensure terrorists wouldn't reconstitute and plan attacks against the U.S. or its allies.

“There will be plenty of time to Monday morning quarterback (Biden's strategy), but right now, we need the airport in Kabul open to all traffic, including civilian charters," the Holly Democrat said Sunday. 

"To our veterans, intel officers, civil servants, NGO workers & Afghan partners: I know you are gutted. I know you are scared for those left behind. There will be time for analysis, but for now: we need to channel our energy & voices to getting the Kabul airport back open & secure."

Many lawmakers are not waiting to analyze the footage they are watching from Kabul's airport tarmac, where terrified Afghans were swamping aircraft on Monday. 

Rep. Jack Bergman, a Republican and retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Marines, was among those comparing the scene to the frantic helicopter departure In Vietnam from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975

Bergman said Monday that the administration "abandoning" U.S. allies in the region is a "national embarrassment and a disgrace" to those American service members who gave their lives in the fight against terrorism.

"The manner in which our troops were withdrawn under President Biden has led to a total collapse in the government. Countless lives will undoubtedly be lost and the region further destabilized as the Taliban regains footholds across the region," he said.

"This failure isn’t on our troops."

mburke@detroitnews.com