The Biden administration has spent much of August shouting over a chorus of critics who have lambasted the White House about the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden reiterated his intention to stick to the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal. However, he also said that he has asked the State Department and the Pentagon to draw up “contingency plans to adjust the timetable should that become necessary.”
The administration has highlighted the thousands of evacuations from the country in the weeks since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. On Tuesday, approximately 19,000 people were evacuated from Kabul, with around 82,000 evacuated since August 14, according to the White House.
But despite Biden’s assurances, members of Congress of both parties remain unconvinced that the mission to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies is going as well as the administration would like the public to believe. Chaotic scenes from the international airport in Kabul have prompted a similarly chaotic range of responses from lawmakers, from standard calls to action to whirlwind international jaunts.
While most members of Congress are using their bully pulpit to pressure the White House, two representatives took their frustrations on the road. Democratic Representative Seth Moulton and Republican Representative Peter Meijer, both of whom served in Iraq, embarked early Tuesday on a rogue mission to Afghanistan without the knowledge of congressional leaders or the Biden administration.
The two claimed in a joint statement on Tuesday evening that they had visited Kabul in the midst of a frenetic evacuation process “to gather information, not to grandstand.” The conclusions from their trip appear to confirm everybody’s preexisting concerns about the evacuation process, but they have now also drawn the ire of administration officials and members of Congress.
Moulton’s spokesperson told The Washington Post that the pair had traveled to the United Arab Emirates on a commercial flight, then “figured out a way onto an empty military flight going into Kabul.” The two also said in their statement that they had “conducted this visit in secret to minimize the risk to the people on the ground.”
“We left on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence,” Meijer and Moulton said.
“After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late, that no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time, even by September 11,” the two said. Meijer and Moulton had both already raised concerns about whether evacuations would be completed on time. Their sojourn to a war zone on an unauthorized trip amid a chaotic evacuation overseen by a strained military presence seems to have just bolstered that conclusion.
The duo defended their trip in a joint interview with The New York Times published on Wednesday evening, and said that they had changed their minds on one key issue: extending the deadline for troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.
“Almost every veteran in Congress wants to extend the August 31 deadline, including us, and our opinion on that was changed on the ground, because we started the evacuations so late,” Moulton said. “So we need to have a working relationship with the Taliban after our departure. And the only way to achieve that is to leave by August 31.”
Department of Defense spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in a briefing on Wednesday morning that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “would have appreciated the opportunity to have had a conversation before the visit took place.”
“They certainly took time away from what we had been planning to do that day,” Kirby said.
Most members of both parties have simply renewed their calls for either extending the deadline or concocting some means to sidestep the slogging process for special immigrant visa applications, which threatens to leave evacuees abandoned after the clock runs out.
“Our troops are doing a remarkable job trying to create some order out of a very difficult situation, and the people on the ground there are working very hard to do it under very difficult, dangerous circumstances. But what’s very clear is that we’re not going to be able to accomplish that mission between now and the end of the month,” Democratic Representative Jason Crow, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, told The New Republic on Tuesday. Last month, the House passed a measure introduced by Crow aimed at strengthening and streamlining the SIV program, and increasing the number of visas by 8,000.
Democratic Representative Andy Kim, who worked as a civilian adviser to Generals David Petraeus and John Allen in Afghanistan, told reporters Wednesday that his office alone had received 6,000 evacuation requests.
“This isn’t about Republican or Democrat, it’s about America and about the expectation of what the American handshake means to those that were willing to put their lives at risk to be able to help us and our service members and our diplomats on the ground,” Kim said in a press conference with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday.
Kim said in response to a question by The New Republic that the urgent focus should be trying to get people out and “not getting caught up in the bureaucracy right now.”
“I do think that there will be ongoing issues about that, because even if you get them out, we know the process itself is broken in a way that just takes a significant amount of time,” Kim said, noting that some refugees may be stuck in third locations while their applications are processed.
Meijer and Moulton’s trip was hardly received with applause by their colleagues in Congress. Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter on Tuesday evening urging members not to travel to Afghanistan, and told reporters on Wednesday, “There’s a real concern about members being in the region.”
“It was not, in my view, a good idea,” Pelosi said in a press conference. Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday that “it’s not the best idea to go there,” but that he understood the frustrations of Meijer and Moulton. He added that he would discourage members from traveling to the region, saying, “It creates a greater risk.”
Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, raised concerns that members traveling to Afghanistan could put a strain on military officers administering the evacuation. “I don’t think it helps necessarily for us to be going over there, and we’re trying to get people out of there,” Meeks told reporters, adding that it “does not help the mission.”
Republican Representative Mike McCaul, the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters in a press conference on Wednesday that Meijer and Moulton’s sojourn was a “distraction.”
“I never recommend trips like this. You want to do it in [what] we call a CODEL approved by the speaker and the leader, and they are diverting necessary resources in Afghanistan,” McCaul said. “I wouldn’t have advised it myself, but I think it’s a frustration on the part of Congress, to want to do something about this very dire situation.”
Other rank-and-file members were also quick to condemn their colleagues. Democratic Representative Madeleine Dean called Moulton and Meijer’s trip “troubling” on MSNBC Wednesday morning, then tweeted that it was “utterly irresponsible.”
Republican Representative Brian Mast told reporters on Wednesday that he had asked the State Department about sending a congressional delegation to Afghanistan, but had been denied. He also criticized Moulton and Meijer’s trip, saying that he understood their frustrations but that it likely created “headaches” for the military.
“You put two members of Congress on the ground in an unannounced way, and you do have a situation where now all of a sudden they’re scrambling for security for those individuals, and that can create a dangerous situation or obviously another headache for them to deal with, mounted on the mountain of headaches that they have to deal with,” Mast said.