Politics

Lawmakers Unite in Bipartisan Fury Over Afghanistan Withdrawal

Moderate Democrats are furious at the Biden administration for what they see as terrible planning for the evacuation of Americans and their allies. Liberal Democrats who have long sought to end military engagements around the world grumble that the images out of Kabul are damaging their cause.

And Republicans who months ago cheered for former President Donald J. Trump’s even faster timetable to end U.S. military involvement in the nation’s longest war have shoved their previous encouragements aside to accuse President Biden of humiliating the nation.

If Mr. Biden hoped to find cover from politicians in both parties who had reached a broad consensus around withdrawal, he is finding little so far.

Confronted with images of panic-stricken Afghans mobbing Kabul’s airport and inundated with requests from Afghans seeking refuge, some Democrats by Monday were openly attacking their president’s performance.

“I’ve been asking the administration for a refugee evacuation plan for months,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former captain in the Marine Corps. “I was very explicit: ‘We need a plan. We need someone in charge.’ Honestly, we still haven’t really seen the plan.”

“They had weeks of opportunity. They had an amazing coalition of liberal and conservative lawmakers who were willing to support the administration in this effort,” Mr. Moulton, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, continued. “In my mind this was not just a national security mistake, but a political mistake too.”

A few liberal Democrats emerged before Mr. Biden’s White House speech to the nation to defend the president, in television appearances that White House officials recirculated on Twitter. Still, finding few vocal defenders, administration aides distributed talking points to congressional Democrats to bolster the president’s position.

The administration said the collapse of the Afghan government and ensuing chaos were not indictments of U.S. policy but proof that the only way to forestall disaster would have been to ramp up the American troop presence. And answering critics who say the president was caught flat-footed, the talking points stated: “The administration knew that there was a distinct possibility that Kabul would fall to the Taliban. It was not an inevitability. It was a possibility.”

Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, who has for more than two decades been one of the fiercest voices opposed to the wars waged after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, offered, “There is no military solution, unfortunately, in Afghanistan,” adding, “We’ve been there 20 years, we’ve spent over a trillion dollars and we’ve trained over 300,000 of the Afghan forces.”

Representative Jake Auchincloss, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former Marine infantry officer who served in Helmand Province, argued that Mr. Biden’s only feasible options were to ramp up the American military footprint in Afghanistan as the deadline for withdrawal, agreed to by Mr. Trump, came and went — or to “finally tell the truth to the American people.”

“What I’ve been hearing” from constituents, he said in an interview, “is that what we’re seeing in Afghanistan is distressing, but that people appreciate the integrity of the president for highlighting that there’s no ending there. Twenty years was a long time to give Afghan leaders to plant the seed of civil society, and instead they planted only the seeds of corruption and incompetence.”

Privately, liberal Democrats were appalled by the spiraling catastrophe facing Afghan refugees. And some fretted that the images of chaos in Kabul would serve as a bludgeon for hawkish Republicans such as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, to wield against Democrats pressing to repeal authorizations for the use of military force passed in 1991 ahead of the Gulf War, in 2001 after the attacks of Sept. 11 and in 2002 ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The Democratic left flank has been pushing for significant cuts in military spending and Defense Department engagements abroad and a reordering of government priorities toward anti-poverty, education and child welfare programs. But they must now contend with indelible images of the cost of U.S. disengagement.

Representative Daniel Crenshaw, Republican of Texas and a former Navy SEAL, wielded that bludgeon when he said on Fox and Friends Monday, “This is what we get, because we’ve been relying on hollow slogans like ‘Bring the troops home’ and ‘No more endless wars.’”

Mr. McConnell, who had been unsparing during Mr. Trump’s administration in his disdain for the former president’s desire to fulfill his campaign promise and pull troops out of Afghanistan, hammered Mr. Biden in a statement, saying that the nation’s enemies were “watching the embarrassment of a superpower laid low.”

“America’s two-decade involvement in Afghanistan has had many authors,” Mr. McConnell said. “So have the strategic missteps made along the way. But as the monumental collapse our own experts predicted unfolds in Kabul today, responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of our current commander in chief.”

Few Republicans, however, were willing to allude to the role played by any of Mr. Biden’s predecessors — or that Mr. Trump had supported an even swifter withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and had in April called ending the war “a wonderful and positive thing to do.”

Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona and chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, accused Mr. Biden on Monday of abandoning “Trump’s peace plan & exit strategy & haphazardly created his own.” In February, he had written to Mr. Biden imploring him to remove American troops from Afghanistan “in coming weeks.”

But in a sign that lawmakers believed that withdrawing from Afghanistan was still supported by many American voters — at least for the moment — even some famously hawkish Republicans refrained from condemning the decision itself.

“There’s a difference between the decision to withdraw and how that decision was executed,” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, said on “Fox and Friends.”

“Whatever you think of the first decision, the execution by Joe Biden has been recklessly negligent,” he said, adding that “all” Biden “had to do, perhaps, was wait a few more months” to begin the withdrawal.

The political impact of the chaos and possible bloodshed in Afghanistan is far from clear, either in the midterm congressional elections next year or the 2024 presidential election. Mr. Trump sensed the political advantage of withdrawal when he signed a peace accord with the Taliban, and even invited Taliban leaders to Camp David ahead of an anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, launched from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. (The idea was quickly scotched.)

Once the images from Kabul this week fade from television screens, relief that the war was over — at least for U.S. troops — could be the dominant emotional outcome.

Representative Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona and a former Marine who served in Iraq, said in a long statement on Twitter that the American public had simply “stopped caring about Afghanistan years ago.”

“Our military didn’t fail Afghanistan. The American people didn’t fail Afghanistan,” Mr. Gallego wrote. “Hubris of us the elites in Washington, D.C., did. We failed to understand Afghanistan and we failed to understand the American public’s will for a long engagement … again.”

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.


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