MARY REICHARD, HOST: It's the 15th of March, 2023. You’re listening to today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s time for Washington Wednesday. Congress is examining the lingering effects of the catastrophic U-S military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It was 18 months ago that American troops left Afghanistan in a wave of chaos as the Taliban took control.
REICHARD: Now, U-S troops who witnessed the pullout say a lack of answers and accountability is adding to the trauma on all sides. Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee gathered some of those witnesses to try to figure out what went wrong.
MICHAEL MCCAUL: The committee on foreign affairs will come to order. The purpose of this hearing is to examine the administration’s disastrous, emergency evacuation from Afghanistan.
EICHER: Committee chairman Michael McCaul opened the hearing by stating the obvious: The war in Afghanistan ended in disaster.
Throughout the five-hour hearing, U-S service members told heart-rending stories of Afghans who helped American troops, only to be left behind to suffer at the hands of the Taliban.
DAVID SCOTT MANN: Jay, a former Navy SEAL in Pineapple received a text on Signal from his Afghan partner: "My daughter has been trampled, Sir. I know we are going to miss our chance to escape, but she is unconscious and barely breathing. It’s okay, my friend. Thank you for trying."
REICHARD: That’s retired Lieutenant Colonel David Scott Mann testifying to the committee. He served three combat tours in Afghanistan and worked with other veterans to rescue Afghan supporters when the Taliban took over. He blasted U-S leaders not only for abandoning Afghan allies but also for keeping silent about it afterward.
Service members described how in the final days of the war, they looked to leaders for answers and direction, but got none. In mid-August 2021, Aidan Gunderson deployed from Fort Bragg to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to help with the evacuation.
AIDAN GUNDERSON: I remember vaguely remember the wheels touching down the night of August 15th and thinking to myself, Are we going to land in a firefight? Not a single person on that plane was prepared for combat. A sense of dread spread spread over me, and to make matters worse, the only food and water we had was what we packed in our rucksacks before leaving America.
EICHER: Another veteran, Tyler Vargas-Andrews, lost an arm and a leg in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport—a bombing he thinks he could have prevented. He said he and a fellow soldier spotted someone in the crowd who fit the description of the would-be suicide bomber. They asked permission to shoot, and got no answer.
TYLER VARGAS-ANDREWS: We made everyone on the ground aware. Operations had briefly halted but then started again. Plain and simple we were ignored. Our expertise was disregarded. No one was held accountable for our safety.
REICHARD: At one point in the hearing, Congressman Rich McCormick of Georgia addressed the panel of witnesses:
RICH MCCORMICK: If we're gonna have an entire hearing, we're gonna have all these fine people who have sacrificed their lives, and we talked about traumatic brain injuries, limbs, lost, family members, lost friends lost, time spent away from family years away from our family, and then we looked down the line we say, not one person was held accountable that made the decisions, then how can we learn and how can we heal?"
EICHER: In 2021 as the withdrawal unfolded, critics made dire predictions about Afghanistan’s future—many of which have already come true. Just last week, the United Nations declared Afghanistan the most repressive country for women in the world. Girls may not continue their education beyond sixth grade. Women cannot work. They must cover themselves from head to toe when they go out in public.
Roza Otunbayeva is head of the UN special assistance mission in Afghanistan. She addressed the UN Security Council last week:
ROZA OTUNBAYEVA: At the moment when Afghanistan needs all of its human capital to recover from the cuts of war, half of the country’s potential doctors, scientists, journalists, and politicians are shut in their homes, their dreams crushed, and their talents confiscated.
REICHARD: In Congress, lawmakers asked witnesses what, if anything, the U-S can do to make things right in Afghanistan. They answered that first and foremost, America must keep its commitments to its Afghan allies, doing everything possible to get those left behind to safety.
U.S. forces evacuated about 80,000 Afghans when Kabul fell, but more than 160,000 are still waiting to be approved for special immigrant visas.
The U-S also needs to care for veterans of the war. Colonel Mann warned lawmakers of a coming “mental health tsunami” among veterans. He said three of every four Afghan war veterans say they feel betrayed by how the war ended. And he had one more warning:
COLONEL MANN: We might be done with Afghanistan, but it's 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 inflicted on the most at-risk Afghan Allies, this colossal foreign policy failure will follow us home and ultimately draw us right back into the graveyard of empires where it all started.
EICHER: The hearing concluded after five hours of testimony, but Chairman McCaul told Margaret Brennan of CBS earlier this week that he’s not finished.
MCCAUL: In fact, Margaret, this is the first open hearing we've had on Afghanistan since the fall of Afghanistan. And I intend to move forward with this investigation. And I want to know what the commanding officer was thinking when he denied permission to take out the threat and how what levels did it go to within the United States government? I think those are all very important questions and the State Department has not been compliant with our document requests. I met with the secretary, we had a very cordial conversation. Cooperation is always key but they're not cooperating. If he fails to cooperate with my document production request by you know, the time he testifies on March 23rd, I am prepared to issue a subpoena.
REICHARD: Regardless of what Secretary of State Tony Blinken does, the investigation will continue later this month. But whether anyone will take responsibility for the carnage in Kabul remains an open question.
That’s this week’s Washington Wednesday.
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