By: Lubna Hassan Heikal, MPAC Policy Intern
Two decades after the tragic events of 9/11, the Biden Administration made good on its promise to withdraw all U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, ending the longest war in American history. Before the withdrawal was complete, the Taliban began taking control of city after city and one province after another. Sadly, the withdrawal left the American citizens and Afghan allies behind. Critically, women and girls along with religious minorities including the Hazaras are vulnerable to human rights violations and abuse. To address this issue, Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, followed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, over the course of two days this past week. The hearing evaluated the withdrawal and the series of policies enacted over the past two decades. While there was bipartisan support in some areas, such as the focus on the ongoing humanitarian crisis and criticism for poor planning, Republicans voiced concerns over national security and Democrats suggested that, although flawed, the efforts were still commendable.
Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY 5), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led the initial hearing in support of the withdrawal, but later acknowledged that some elements could have proceeded differently in terms of the evacuation of both Americans and Afghan allies. He asked an important question to the audience: “What would a smooth withdrawal look like?” Chairman Meeks does not believe a perfect scenario exists. The representative ended his opening remarks by warning that it is crucial not to engage in criticism through political partisanship.
On August 31st, the Biden Administration faced a deadline where a decision had to be made on whether to withdraw the troops or maintain our presence in Afghanistan. Secretary Blinken argued that the choice to withdraw was contingent on the fact that the Taliban was at the strongest it had been over the past two decades, U.S. troops were limited, and the Special Immigrant Visa grant process was at a standstill. He emphasized the role that the Trump administration played by stating, “We inherited a deadline, we did not inherit a plan… Had [President Biden] not followed through on his predecessor’s commitment, attacks on our forces and those of our allies would have resumed”. However, Ranking Member James Risch (R-ID) noted that President Trump’s 2020 agreement for withdrawal was only contingent upon certain conditions that the Taliban did not meet, and he blamed the Department of Defense for failing to provide records of Afghans who helped the U.S. forces. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, declined to testify at the second hearing, leaving Chairman Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), among others to reconsider their judgments on the pending DOD nominees.
Republicans voiced their concerns over the current state of national security and perceived domestic threats due to the withdrawal. Ranking Member, Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX 10) criticized the administration heavily, stating, “Our allies may well not trust us as much and our enemies may not fear us as much”. While this may hold to be true, he used language, such as the “dark veil of Sharia law,” to emphasize his points, which encourages anti-Islamic rhetoric and the continuation of policies that disproportionately target the American Muslim community. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) also used similar language when describing the Taliban rule, stating, “Mr. Secretary, they [the Taliban] don’t want to be welcomed into the community of civilized nations. They are terrorists who want to murder us”. These statements, again, pose serious implications for discriminatory national security policies and practices.
Additionally, other representatives, including Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC 2) and Chris Smith (R-NJ 4), also raised questions about the vetting process of refugees entering the U.S. It is important to address these concerns in order to protect against any threats, not only for U.S citizens but also for the refugees themselves, who have faced tremendous hardship already. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) elaborated more on the role of Pakistan in the second hearing, by insinuating that Pakistan provided a “safe haven” for the Taliban, where they could operate in safety along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The upcoming meeting of the Quad, where leaders from the U.S., India, Japan,and Australia will come together to discuss a new shift in foreign policy, will be crucial in understanding the U.S. strategy for engaging with Pakistan and India in the future.
The new face of public health in the counterterrorism approach was evident in the hearings. Although there were concerns for Americans and Afghan allies in Afghanistan, there was bipartisan support for resolving this problem with a humanitarian lens rather than through military might. Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA 30) mentioned support for potential legislation that would require Americans to register if they go to a war zone, while Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), also made suggestions that the State Department revisit the recommendation that the 2001 AUMF should be repealed, however, it would be imperative to assess the potential impacts this may have on specific minority groups in the US. Additionally, the Administration assured the Committee that they will continue to support humanitarian aid to the Afghan people and protect vulnerable populations by directing assistance through nonprofits and other groups, including veterans, who are willing to help, and not through the Taliban. Blinken made a powerful statement in his closing remarks that “While we are effective at eliminating terrorist threats, [we] should not use military force to rebuild societies.”