Some members of Congress who served in the military in the Middle East blamed decades of Washington politics and congressional inaction for the Taliban’s jarring takeover in Afghanistan — and focused Monday on policy changes they think the United States needs to make.
As U.S. forces evacuated civilians and the Taliban spread across Kabul, many members of Congress released statements that stuck to party lines. Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego tweeted that he hadn’t gotten one constituent call about it from a district with a large military veteran population.
“The American public stopped caring about Afghanistan years ago,” Gallego, a Marine in Iraq for seven months in 2005, wrote. “The national security community, veterans, the media and politicos were just talking to each other for years while isolating the public. It was an unholy alliance that Washington, D.C. and the Pentagon had gotten used to.”
Some veteran lawmakers made clear that evacuations were a higher priority than assigning partisan blame for the collapse of the Afghanistan government. Scenes circulated online from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport of Afghans running alongside and climbing on top of American military planes in desperate attempts to flee the incoming Taliban militants.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, an Afghanistan War veteran and former Army Ranger, tweeted Monday that his heart has broken.
“Like most vets, I left part of me in Afghanistan,” Crow said. “Later we’ll debate the failures of last 20 years, but today our mission is clear: hold the airport as long as possible and get ALL U.S. citizens and as many Afghan partners out as we can. We will debate the rest later.”
Gallego underscored that sense of urgency, even bringing up the idea of using empty cruise ships or bases around the world.
“What can we do now? Evacuate every person we can that helped us in Afghanistan. Skip the bureaucratic bull----, get people on planes,” Gallego said. “Land them anywhere in the United States. We are a country of 330 million people. We can easily absorb 100,000 people.”
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, an Iraq veteran and former Marine infantry officer, also called for immediate evacuations and said the events in Kabul must serve as a “wake-up call” to Congress.
“Congress holds ultimate, constitutional responsibility for sending our best and brightest to war on the nation’s behalf,” Moulton said. “Successive leaders of both parties have failed to hold the votes for re-authorizing this conflict over the last two decades. For that, all of us in Congress should be ashamed.”
An effort to repeal past war authorizations is working its way through Congress. In June, the House voted 268-161 to repeal the military authorization for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Senate is working on a similar measure that would repeal the 1991 use of force authorization, and the White House has said it supports the legislation.
The U.S. has evacuated around 2,000 applicants for the Afghan special immigrant visa program and their families, but as many as 50,000 remain in the nation now under control of the Taliban, advocates estimate. The U.S. has slots for 34,500 under its SIV program.
A Capitol security spending supplemental spending bill that was cleared for President Joe Biden on July 29 will authorize 8,000 additional visas and provide over $1 billion in funds for the relocation efforts.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer who co-founded the For Country Caucus, a bipartisan group of military veterans serving in Congress, said Congress should provide “immediate resources” to pockets of Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, including to members of the now-defunct Afghan government.
“They will continue the fight against Al Qaeda 3.0,” Waltz said.
The statements come as the Taliban completed its lightning-fast takeover of the country 20 years after being toppled by the U.S. As Taliban militants entered Kabul’s presidential palace, thousands of Afghans descended on the airport, where U.S. troops were attempting to secure a perimeter, in an attempt to flee the country.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen in Qatar told the BBC Sunday that “there will be no revenge” on civilians: “We assure the people in Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kabul, that their properties, their lives are safe.”
But fears remain among Afghans that the Taliban will again rule the country under a harsh version of Islamic law, as the group did before the U.S. invaded following 9/11.
But Gallego said the collapse of Afghanistan was inevitable, and the relatively low intensity of the conflict in recent years blinded lawmakers to how tenuous the situation there really was.
“Keeping casualties low meant we could keep the war going and not admit defeat. You didn’t have to be the last general to ‘lose Afghanistan.’ Or the president that pulled out,” Gallego tweeted. “But Afghanistan was always going to collapse. Keeping it low profile stopped many, including Congress, from seeing institutionally how weak it was and asking for hard reforms or a quicker exit.”
Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., an Iraq War veteran, said he was focused on ensuring the safe evacuation of U.S. nationals and Afghans who served and are at risk but was “stunned at what’s missing."
“Where is President Biden? We have a total leadership vacuum that is humiliating and inexcusable,” Meijer said.