Members of Congress on Sunday reacted to the collapse of the Afghan government with a mixture of concern for allies there and condemnation of President Joe Biden’s leadership, with many lingering questions about what comes next in the region.
White House and Capitol Hill leaders held a series of emergency briefings on the devolving security situation on Sunday morning, including comments from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The phone briefings occurred at nearly the same time Afghan officials told the Associated Press that President Ashraf Ghani had fled his country as Taliban fighters entered the capital city of Kabul. The U.S-backed government and Afghan security forces have largely folded in recent weeks, as American military troops have withdrawn from the region.
After the calls, Republicans blasted the Biden administration for the chaos, blaming his withdrawal plans for the Taliban advance.
“The moment the Taliban flag is hoisted above the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will be the most embarrassing moment of American weakness we have seen in our lifetimes,” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. and a naval reservist who deployed to Afghanistan in 2014.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., predicted the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan will be followed by “a humanitarian crisis” for the people of Afghanistan.
“The regime that is taking power is one that routinely violates human rights, particularly the rights of women,” he said in a statement. “Afghan women who have voted, gone to school, and lived independently for 20 years will suffer the most.”
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., blamed the “Trump/Biden policies of weakness and retreat” for the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, and said the U.S. withdrawal from the country means “future generations will have to continue to fight, at much higher costs.”
On Saturday, ahead of the fall of Kabul, Biden released a statement acknowledging the worsening situation there but saying his administration was constrained by decisions made by former President Donald Trump to set a withdrawal deadline for this year.
“When I became President, I faced a choice: follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict,” he said.
“I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
Democrats in Congress tempered their criticism of the situation after Sunday’s briefings but also expressed concern about getting American personnel and Afghan allies out of the region.
“There will be plenty of time to Monday morning quarterback [the administration’s Afghanistan strategy], but right now, we need the airport in Kabul open to all traffic, including civilian charters,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich, said in a statement.
“The US military must ensure the safety of that critical location. Without that protection, Afghans who upheld our values but didn’t work directly for us will die.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., offered a similar focus.
“Right now, I am gravely concerned for the safety of our Afghan partners who served side-by-side with our troops, our diplomats, our development professionals, and our partner forces to carry out our mission,” he said in a statement. “We must not leave them behind. Every effort must be made to ensure those who stood with America are not abandoned.”
In a pre-taped interview with NBC Sunday, Blinken acknowledged “the inability of Afghan security forces to defend their country” and the strength of the Taliban despite 20 years of war with western forces.
“We have a massive effort underway to bring Afghans at risk out of the country if that’s what they so desire,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the Afghans themselves. It’s up to the Afghan government, it’s up to the Taliban to decide the way forward for the country, including Kabul.”
Members of Congress are expected to receive more briefings on the situation in coming days.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.