After weeks of chaotic evacuations in the wake of the collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban, and a devastating attack that saw dozens of Afghan civilians and 13 American Marines killed, the last American planes have departed the country.
“Every single U.S. servicemember is now out of Afghanistan. I can say that with 100 percent certainty,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters on Monday afternoon Eastern time—shortly after midnight in Afghanistan.
Two decades of conflict have concluded with an unceremonious exit—although the ending isn’t so much an exclamation point as it is an ellipsis, as recent drone strikes targeting ISIS-K militants, which have possibly resulted in the deaths of civilians, indicate that removing troops may not yet translate to the termination of the U.S. military’s involvement.
Many members of Congress have criticized President Joe Biden’s steadfast commitment to the withdrawal of U.S. forces, calling on the president to extend the August 31 deadline. Republican Representative Peter Meijer, who served in Iraq as a Marine and lived in Afghanistan while working for a disaster response organization, was one such congressman. But after an unsanctioned trip to Afghanistan by Meijer and Democratic Representative Seth Moulton last week, the Michigan congressman no longer thinks this is the wisest course of action.
“We went into that trip thinking, ‘We need to push that deadline back, we need to give those guys on the ground more time. After talking to the commanders, after seeing the situation, we changed our mind,” Meijer told The New Republic in an interview on Monday. “And that was not something we did gladly, but recognizing that this was not a choice between a good option and a bad option but between a bad option and a worse option.”
It’s not that he trusts the Taliban either to maintain order in Afghanistan or honor their pledge to continue to allow people to leave the country once American forces have withdrawn. At this point, Meijer said, staying would be worse than leaving.
“If we broke that agreement, if fighting resumed between the U.S. forces and Taliban, not only would we probably take significant casualties on our side, but we would also be precluding any hope of getting the remaining folks that we need to get out to safety,” Meijer said.
Meijer blamed the “botched withdrawal” on the Biden administration, saying it had made a mistake in “missing some of the early signals or not acting on the signals that the Taliban shadow government had been making significant inroads” with members of the Afghan security forces outside of Kabul. After a series of provinces fell to the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul on August 14, the capital was plunged into chaos.
“Once the foundational assumptions that so much of the withdrawal had been predicated on, once those eroded, we should have immediately reassessed the timeline, reassessed some of those components. And instead, it was a mad rush to the exits, and pandemonium ensued,” Meijer argued.
The administration’s execution of the withdrawal has been criticized by Republicans but also by some Democrats. Representative Susan Wild said in a statement last week that “the evacuation process has been egregiously mishandled,” and that “our country will need to receive answers and accountability regarding the cascading failures that led us to this catastrophic moment.”
Despite the cacophony of congressional complaints, the White House remained firm in its belief that exiting Afghanistan by August 31 was the right move and that prolonging the war would only lead to more bloodshed.
“The president stands by his decision to bring our men and women home from Afghanistan, because if he had not—in his view and the view of many experts and military out there—we would have sent tens of thousands potentially, or thousands at least, troops back into harm’s way, risking more lives and more people,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. McKenzie acknowledged that “we did not get out everybody we wanted to get out,” but said that he did not believe an extra 10 days in Afghanistan would have been enough to do so, either. He said that he believed the number of U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan is in the “very low hundreds.”
Over the past two weeks, congressional offices have been deluged with requests for help from American citizens in Afghanistan and Special Immigrant Visa applicants, many of whom are now in mortal danger after having aided U.S. forces. Meijer said that his own office had retasked several staffers to deal with the issue.
“We still have a lot of cases that we’re working, we still have a lot of people we need to figure out how to get to safety. I don’t know, at this point that there’s a legislative solution on that,” Meijer said. According to the White House, a total of 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul on Sunday, and 116,700 individuals have been evacuated since August 14. But despite the valiant efforts of American troops to evacuate Afghan allies, many will be left behind—along with a substantial surveillance infrastructure that the Taliban may exploit to root out those who collaborated with the U.S. military and their coalition partners.
Meijer argued that Congress had offered the administration a series of legislative fixes. The House overwhelmingly passed the ALLIES Act in July, which is aimed at strengthening and streamlining the SIV program. Both houses of Congress also passed a security supplemental that increased the number of authorized visas by 8,000 and allocated $600 billion “for refugee and migration assistance and to improve and strengthen the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program.” That bill was signed into law by Biden at the end of July.
Meijer also believes congressional hearings are needed, to focus on both the botched withdrawal of forces and two decades of decision-making at the highest levels. At 33, Meijer is on the younger end of the spectrum for a member of Congress and one of several members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11. As with many millennials who came of age in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the country has been embroiled in Afghanistan for more than half of Meijer’s life.
“All of that is important in context, to ensure we learn the right lessons, that we reform the national security establishment as necessary, and really commit to making sure that what we saw in these failed post 9/11 conflicts, that we never allow our country to go through this again. That we never put our men and women of our armed forces in the position that they’ve been put in for these past two decades,” Meijer said.
Some Republican lawmakers have argued that the United States should not accept the thousands of Afghans who have been evacuated, falsely portraying them as would-be terrorists seeking to infiltrate the country. Fear of this right-wing canard may have contributed to the Biden administration’s hesitancy to begin processing SIV applications earlier, despite bipartisan pleas from members of Congress. Reuters reported this month that Biden was concerned about the politics of accepting refugees and preferred they be sent to third countries. (In May, Biden raised the refugee cap to 62,500—after initially keeping it at the historically low 15,000 level set by President Trump, reportedly due to concerns about bad optics.)
Meijer attributed these arguments from some of his colleagues and right-wing media personalities not to xenophobia but to a “misunderstanding,” in part stemming from the word “refugee,” which he said connotes “random individuals in a hard position.” He noted that the “overwhelming number” of individuals taken had “either worked with or closely supported United States forces and put themselves and their families in mortal danger as a result, or they were participating in missions that were supported by the U.S., and as a result put themselves in harm’s way.”
“I think there’s a lot of rapid assumptions being made without understanding the full picture,” Meijer said. “These are not random foreign individuals. These are our loyal Afghan allies that we’re getting out of harm’s way, and … we have an obligation to look after those who put their lives on the line to support us.”