A group of veterans in Congress on Friday called on White House officials to unveil clearer plans to provide security for Americans and Afghan allies trapped inside Afghanistan, saying thousands of lives hinge on decisive action as soon as possible.
“There are hordes of crowds who think the clock is ticking, that their opportunity to save their own lives is ticking,” said Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich. and an Army veteran who deployed to Iraq in 2010. “That is hindering this operation, because of the lack of clarity on where we’re going.”
Meijer and other lawmakers took part in a roundtable on Afghanistan hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, ahead of President Joe Biden’s second national address (scheduled for Friday afternoon) on the chaotic withdrawal.
The veterans expressed dismay at the work so far, and promised congressional oversight into the missteps in the months ahead.
But they also said the focus now must be on streamlining evacuations for individuals trapped behind Taliban checkpoints outside the Kabul airport, and calming the situation on the ground there.
“I see in those crowds the same kind people that I relied on to provide for my safety,” Meijer said. “But I also see in those crowds a tremendous danger.
“The longer we keep this volatile situation up, the greater the risk that something spins wildly out of control.”
Defense Department officials have evacuated about 8,000 people from the Kabul airport this week, but outside advocacy groups have said thousands more are being turned away because of Taliban restrictions or paperwork problems.
“We wanted this work to start back in April, and had that happened, we would be in a very different position right now,” said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo. and an Army vet who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“So now, we’re continuing to push and calling the administration for a commitment to stay as long as necessary to evacuate all American citizens, and asking our partners to hold the airport to extend that security beyond the perimeter of the airport so [evacuees] will actually make it to the airport.”
Defense Department officials have said in recent days they do not have the deployed manpower to extend the security perimeter in Kabul past the airport, or into other cities already taken over by the Taliban.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Thursday said that officials “are aware of congestion around the airport, and we are working closely with the Department of Defense to facilitate safe and orderly access for consular processing on the airport compound.”
But foreign news outlets have reported that British and French forces have deployed teams throughout Kabul to help their citizens and other allies navigate the unsafe entryways to the airports. That has upped pressure on U.S. officials to find more ways to help beyond the airfield compound borders, especially as violence in the area swells.
The veterans turned lawmakers involved in Friday’s event said they have been in regular communication with the White House on their concerns, and are expecting numerous additional briefings on the situation in the days ahead.
“We need to move as many Afghans and American assets out of the country, move them to locations where we can figure the rest out,” said Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, an Air National Guard airman who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “Especially with this Aug. 31 [deadline] hanging over us, which is leading to a panic situation.”
The group of lawmakers is planning a rally early next week to highlight further needs. Several congressional committees are also planning oversight hearings in coming weeks on various aspects of the unfolding tragedy.
“The time for finger-pointing and oversight will come, but it’s not right now,” Crow said. “Our call today and all next week will be on what is happening on the ground and how we can do better.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.