Michigan GOP reps: Work in Afghanistan isn't over with U.S. citizens left behind

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan Republican lawmakers in Congress are lamenting that American citizens and Afghan allies remain in Afghanistan after the last U.S. military transport plane departed Kabul airport late Monday, marking the end of the longest U.S. war.

"The simple fact is the United States left hundreds of its citizens on the ground who couldn't get through the gates, and thousands if not tens of thousands of allies," U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican, said in a video posted to Facebook

"The fact that we turned this all over to the Taliban, it's completely unacceptable."

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said leaving no American behind is part of the  country’s credo. "Yet right now there are Americans still stranded in Afghanistan because President Biden abandoned them," Walberg tweeted. "What a national disgrace."

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that up to 200 Americans, likely closer to 100, did not get out of Afghanistan, but that the U.S. government is committed to getting them out safely if they want to leave. 

"The bottom line is 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave," Biden said in remarks at the White House, where he called the evacuation mission an "extraordinary success."

"For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline."

Biden defended his decision to pull out all U.S. troops by Tuesday, saying it was not an arbitrary date but unanimously recommended by his military and civilian advisers on the ground "to save American lives."

"I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit," Biden said. 

The U.S. airlift out of Kabul transported over 120,000 people in recent weeks, including 6,000 American citizens, in an operation that Secretary of State Antony Blinken called one of the most difficult military and humanitarian undertakings in the nation's history. 

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron load people being evacuated from Afghanistan Tuesday on to a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"We made extraordinary efforts to give Americans every opportunity to depart the country — in many cases talking and sometimes walking them into the airport," Blinken said in remarks late Monday. 

In some cases, the Americans who remained are longtime residents and dual-citizen Americans who struggled with the decision to leave their extended families in Afghanistan, he noted. "For many, it’s a painful choice," Blinken said. 

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, said the mission in Afghanistan isn't over, noting his office was continuing to work "hundreds" of open cases. His team has helped at least 50 and potentially over 100 people depart the country — numbers they were still working to confirm, he said.

"We've obviously seen multiple promises broken. As recently as August 18th, President Biden said we'd stay until we got every American out," Meijer said in a video posted to Twitter.

"We cannot let up on this issue. We need to keep working. We need to make sure we get every American citizen in Afghanistan who wants to get out," Meijer added, stressing the need to also aid Afghans who helped the U.S.-led coalition. "This is no time for victory laps."

Meijer said he understands how chaotic the situation was at the airport gates, and how hard U.S. military and diplomatic officials worked to evacuate people. He saw the chaos firsthand last week when he secretly flew to Kabul with Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and spent 12 hours on the ground.

"This is a sad day. This is a somber day," said Meijer, who has blasted the Biden administration for not starting the evacuation months earlier. "It's time for us to focus on completing this mission."

Biden said Tuesday he "respectfully" disagrees with critics who said he should have begun the mass evacuation sooner. 

"Imagine if we'd begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 140,000 people in the middle of a civil war," Biden said. 

"There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence and control of the government, and it still would have been very difficult and dangerous mission."

Blinken on Monday reiterated the U.S. commitment to Afghan allies who helped the American cause in Afghanistan and are at risk of reprisal by the Taliban. "Our commitment to them has no deadline," he said.

But Huizenga said he's exploring options to force the firing of Blinken — an appointee of President Joe Biden, a Democrat — if the secretary of state doesn't first resign based on the State Department's role in the messy and deadly evacuation from Kabul.

Huizenga said he'd learned a constituent from his district was among the 20 Americans wounded in the blast from last week's suicide bombing at the gate of the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and as many as 169 Afghans.

Huizenga said he doesn't have any information yet about the injured Marine, including the soldier's identity from the Pentagon. 

"We are awaiting details and wish we had more details, so we can reach out to that family," he said. 

Aides for several members of Congress said they'd received a flurry of last-minute calls from Michigan veterans and residents desperate to get former interpreters or family members out of Kabul on Monday as the final five U.S. transport flights departed. 

Huizenga recounted the story of an Afghan interpreter who had worked for the U.S. military and who resettled in Kent County through a special visa program for Afghans who worked for American or coalition forces overseas.

The interpreter called Huizenga's office every 30 minutes Monday for an update on efforts to evacuate his fiancé, who tried three times to pass through the gates at the Kabul airport but was beaten by the Taliban, Huizenga said. 

"She was calling him all day saying, 'I'm seeing airplane after airplane after airplane leave. There's no soldiers out. Are they going to leave me?'" Huizenga said. "Those are the kinds of people that we have left behind."

Another constituent who contacted Huizenga's office was worried about his brother, an American citizen with four children, who were unable to get through the airport gates, with the father having been beaten twice by the Taliban, Huizenga said. 

"At the end of the day, adhering to the Taliban's timeline, rather than the timeline that the president had talked about and many of us had demanded, which was a timeline of get the Americans out, get the allies out, then depart — it is just inexcusable," Huizenga said.

He emphasized his support for resettling Afghan refugees in Michigan. "Let's be clear. If you are a friend in the United States, and you fought alongside the United States, you're welcome in my neighborhood," he said.

Other Michigan lawmakers' offices have also been fielding calls from constituents with family or veterans with former interpreters who were trying to leave Afghanistan amid the Taliban's rapid takeover this month. 

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat, shared the story Friday about how her team helped to secure the evacuation of 114 Afghan nationals to Albania, including 70 affiliated with Michigan State University, which is in Slotkin's district. 

More:Rep. Slotkin says her team helped evacuate 114 Afghan nationals from Kabul

Thirty of the evacuees were former deputy ministers, staff and military officers of the former Afghan government, and all were being threatened by the Taliban, she said on Twitter. 

She said her staff worked with a "ragtag" network of people around the globe "who felt the fear of these Afghans & stepped up to help," thanking the current and former military forces who helped the group onto buses and to safely enter the Kabul airport after 23 hours of "anxious waiting" outside the gates.

Slotkin, a former Pentagon official and former CIA officer who served in Iraq, said it was one of her proudest moments after all her years of working in war zones.

"As a congresswoman whose family, generations ago, left their home countries seeking a better life, I know that there’s no telling what these resilient people will do with this opportunity," she said. "In the hardest of moments, I feel I have seen the best of American ingenuity & grit."