© 2024 WHRO Public Media
5200 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk VA 23508
757.889.9400 | info@whro.org
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

An injured Marine gives searing testimony on the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan

Win McNamee/Getty Images
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the injuries he sustained during the emergency evacuation from the airport in Kabul during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Updated March 8, 2023 at 6:13 PM ET

House Republicans vowed when they took control of the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterms they would hold the Biden administration accountable for the fallout from the chaotic withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.

The House Foreign Affairs panel's first oversight hearing on what happened leading up to and after the U.S. end to a more than 20-year war featured emotional and graphic testimony from a Marine injured in the bombing at the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Lawmakers also heard from a young Army medic who is still haunted by images of trying to save his fellow soldiers killed during that attack. And veterans who scrambled and set up mini State Departments to evacuate Afghan allies recounted frustration with the U.S. government's lack of planning and continued problems as they try to process visas.

The exit of U.S. forces and rushed evacuation of allies by the U.S. military as the Afghan government fell and the Taliban regained control of the country stand as one of the most damaging periods of President Biden's tenure in office.

Panel chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, a persistent and vocal critic of the decision to pull all U.S. forces out in the summer of 2021, declared what happened in Afghanistan "a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level, and a stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration."

Multiple Democrats and some of the witnesses noted that the policy ultimately implemented by the Biden administration was a product of multiple administrations' policies. And Democrats were quick to point out that former President Donald Trump set the withdrawal date in motion when he negotiated the framework for pulling out U.S. forces with Taliban leaders months earlier.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat, acknowledged "mistakes along the way" but he maintained that Biden "made the right decision to bring all our troops home because I can't in good conscience imagine sending more American men and women to fight in Afghanistan."

In a statement White House spokesperson Ian Sams insisted Biden made the "tough decision" to end the war in Afghanistan despite that Trump had "failed to establish an evacuation plan."

"As a result, we are no longer losing American lives and spending tens of billions of dollars a year fighting a war with no end in sight, putting the U.S. in a stronger position to lead the world and address the challenges of the future, while continuing to welcome our Afghan allies and maintaining our ability to deal with terrorist threats in the region," according to the statement.

Marine tells panel: 'Plain and simple, we were ignored'

The hearing's most compelling testimony came from Tyler Vargas-Andrews, a Marine sergeant injured in the Aug. 26, 2021 terror attackat the Abbey Gate at the Kabul airport. He recounted the events leading up to the bombing that left 13 U.S. servicemembers protecting the airport dead, many others injured and scores of Afghan civilians killed.

Vargas-Andrews said he and another Marine assigned to protect the airport received intelligence about a possible suicide bomber approaching the area. He said they spotted him and his associate in the crowd and alerted supervisors and requested authority to engage but never got it. He told the panel he believes those individuals were responsible for the attack. "Plain and simple, we were ignored," he said.

Vargas-Andrews broke down and paused several times as he described the flash of the bomb knocking him off his feet.

"My body was overwhelmed from the trauma of the blast. My abdomen had been ripped open. Every inch of my exposed body took ball bearing and shrapnel." He said no one interviewed him about the attack in the investigation that followed.

"The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion, and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence," Vargas-Andrews concluded.

Aidan Gunderson, an Army medic who was stationed at Abbey Gate, responded to the attack. He turned 21 on the day he deployed to Afghanistan, but when he and his platoon landed, he heard the head of the government had fled. Gunderson told the committee "not a single person on that plane was prepared for Kabul."

Retired Lt. Col. David Scott Mann, the founder of Task Force Pineapple, a volunteer network of veterans who served in Afghanistan, told the committee the experience working to get allies — often translators and former Afghan military fighters — was "gutting." He warned that the U.S. is on the "front end of a mental-health tsunami." He said calls to the VA hotline spiked 81% in the first year since the withdrawal. Mann reported a friend whom he served with was found dead in a hotel room in the aftermath and his wife told Mann the incident reignited trauma about his experience in Afghanistan and the way allies were treated as the U.S. left.

"We might be done with Afghanistan, but it is not done with us. The enemy has a vote. If we don't set politics aside and pursue accountability and lessons learned to address this grievous moral injury on our military community and right the wrongs that have been inflicted in our most at risk Afghan allies, this colossal foreign policy failure will follow us home," Mann said.

Another veteran who advocates for relief organizations, Peter Lucier, told the panel that years of neglect over four presidents created a humanitarian crisis.

"The failures that led to this point are owned and shared by four administration, by Congress and by 320 million Americans. This was our war." Lucier said it's crucial that we learn lessons, but added "it's not too late."

Panel members trade barbs about whose policies led to chaos

Republicans and Democrats largely agreed that the U.S. has a responsibility to help any remaining Afghan allies get out of the country and the process for granting special immigration visas failed and needs to be evaluated and fixed.

McCaul told the witnesses about those Afghan citizens still trying to leave the country "we need to get them the hell out of there."

But at times the hearing devolved into political sniping. Several Republicans argued that Biden failed to take personal responsibility for the deaths of those servicemembers because his administration lacked a plan and failed to communicate with Congress.

Shortly after the attack, Biden told reporters: "I bear responsibility for fundamentally all that's happened of late." But he immediately added: "You know as well as I do that the former president made a deal with the Taliban."

Panel member Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., noted "as a Democrat I was critical of this withdrawal" in 2021. But she emphasized that she agreed with the U.S. policy to get out of Afghanistan. She argued there were "two decades of intelligence failures" and said allies and the American people need "real answers" about "forever wars."

And Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., said Congress deserved criticism for the failures of the end of the Afghan war. She said it underfunded the State Department over the two decades of the conflict, which made it harder for them to coordinate the evacuation.

McCaul said Wednesday's hearing was the first on the topic, and he wanted to hear first from those who served and those who worked tirelessly to evacuate allies. He vowed to invite top Pentagon and other administration officials to appear before the committee.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.