Military members and veterans of the Afghanistan war offered harrowing eyewitness testimony of the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from the country’s longest conflict, during an hours-long congressional hearing on Wednesday. They also pleaded with Congress to help the Afghan allies left behind.
In searing, sometimes graphic detail, several witnesses recounted their experiences as active-duty service members sent to assist with the evacuation of US troops and civilians from Afghanistan as the Taliban swept to power in August 2021.
“The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence,” said marine Sgt Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was grievously injured in the suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport that killed 13 US service members and scores of Afghans.
In tearful testimony, he recalled scenes of desperation as parents handed their children to soldiers in hopes that they would be saved while others unable to leave chose to take their own lives rather than face the brutality of the Taliban.
“Thoughts of those two weeks have plagued my mind since coming home,” said Aidan Gunderson, a former army specialist who left active duty in July. “I see the faces of all the people we could not save, all the people we left behind.”
The hearing was the first in what is expected to be a multi-part investigation by Republicans into the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan.
After the president’s decision to abruptly withdraw US forces, which followed Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban requiring US forces to depart by May 2021, the Afghan government and army collapsed far more quickly than US intelligence had predicted. The world watched the aftermath unfold live on television – including desperate Afghans clinging to a US transport plane before takeoff.
“What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level,” Congressman Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the foreign affairs committee, said in his opening remarks, vowing to hold to account every administration official responsible for what he said was the “abdication of the most basic duties of the United States government to protect Americans and leave no one behind”.
In the chaos, McCaul said the US left more than “1,000 American citizens” in Afghanistan as well as “almost 200,000” Afghan allies. To those “left behind”, the Republican chair said he was committed to getting them “the hell out of there”.
Speaking under oath in a personal capacity, Vargas-Andrews told the panel that he and others serving alongside him in Kabul had identified two men who matched the description of the people believed to be plotting an attack on the crowd of Afghans attempting to enter the Kabul airport. But Vargas-Andrews said he and his fellow soldiers were not given approval by their commander to shoot the suspects.
“The 11 marines, one sailor and one soldier that were murdered that day have not been answered for,” said Vargas-Andrews, who has since undergone 44 surgeries for injuries sustained in the bombing.
The Biden administration has defended its handling of the withdrawal, arguing that it was a difficult but ultimately effective end to the US presence in Afghanistan.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Gregory Meeks of New York, said Biden made the “right decision” to end the decades-long war in Afghanistan, which he said “began as an effort to decimate al-Qaida” and “ballooned into a nation-building exercise that lasted across four administrations and saw more than 800,000 US service members deploy, and, yes, the tragic deaths of over 2,461 Americans including the 13 killed during the evacuation operation”.
He acknowledged that the were “mistakes made” during evacuation that deserved scrutiny but urged the panel to use the opportunity to help improve the situation for Afghans still stranded in their country and those who remain in legal limbo in the US.
The witnesses all implored members of Congress to act to aid the Afghans and their families who risked their lives to aid US troops during the 20-year war. Those who remain in Afghanistan face retribution by the Taliban, while many of those who were evacuated face uncertainty over their legal status.
“If I leave this committee with only one thought it’s this: it’s not too late,” Peter Lucier, a marine veteran who helped relocate allied Afghans with Team America Relief, said in his remarks to the panel.
“This is not the story of a Biden failure or a Trump failure. This is the story of an American failure and the effect it has had and continues to have on Afghans who served alongside myself and so many others,” he continued. “The failures that led to this point are owned and shared by four administrations, by Congress and by 320 million Americans. This was our war.”
The testimony revealed the mental and physical wounds carried by those who aided in the withdrawal, and their accounts brought witnesses, lawmakers and audience members to tears.
In another gripping account, Vargas-Andrews recalled reuniting a family as he helped control the crowds gathered outside the airport gate. He said he noticed a little girl, roughly about seven or eight years old, who had managed to squeeze past, holding the hand of her younger brother and a baby in her arms.
When he reached the children, he noticed that the baby’s face was blue and didn’t appear to be breathing. Not knowing if the baby was alive, he searched frantically for a medic who then successfully administered aid. The little girl began to sob as she tugged on his uniform and begged for abba, her father.
Vargas-Andrews said he climbed on to an SUV overlooking the razor-wire fence erected around the airport and hoisted the girl into the air. She pointed to a man amid the hundreds of people with his hands on his head staring back at her, tears streaming down his face.
The family embraced, and, waving the paperwork that would allow them to leave the country, the father led his children toward a “life of freedom and opportunity”, Vargas-Andrews said.
“For me”, he said, “that was a moment that my personal injury was worth it.”