House Republicans pushed their probe of the nation’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan to the brink this week, threatening to hold the secretary of state in contempt of Congress.
Yet some of them aren’t convinced that voters care.
For the House GOP the messy 2021 military removal that resulted in the death of 13 U.S. service members remains a potent political liability for President Joe Biden. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said that “oh yeah, 100 percent” the withdrawal has done lasting damage to Biden, whose approval ratings demonstrably sank in the summer of 2021.
Yet Afghanistan is a far trickier oversight for the Republican Party than the base-pleasing topics of border security or the Biden family. That’s because, as even some GOP lawmakers acknowledge, it’s not clear whether the 2021 pullout still resonates with voters.
“Americans want their pizzas in 30 minutes, and that’s about our attention span,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “The average American, they’ve moved on.”
“The trouble with this bunch up here, in both parties,” Burchett added, is that “it takes them too dadgum long to get to issues.”
Indeed, the Afghanistan withdrawal is rarely acknowledged by the conservative media. It’s a stark difference from the 2012 attacks on U.S. officials in Libya that metastasized into a GOP-fueled investigation into then-presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
And even as McCaul pledged to hold State Department chief Antony Blinken in contempt over the withholding of an internal dissent cable — a document that details concerns from officials who objected to the withdrawal — some of his GOP colleagues are openly skeptical that his work will change any minds.
“The political points have all been scored,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in an interview. “All you had to do was turn on the television. … The American people know it was a debacle, but I think they’d like to understand the decision-making process leading up to it.”
McCaul said in an interview that he views his Afghanistan oversight as “a federal prosecutor” might, vowing that “I’m not trying to score political points here.” His Democratic counterpart atop the committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), countered that the investigation is part of a broader strategy by Speaker Kevin McCarthy to make Afghanistan matter in the 2024 elections.
And Meeks predicted that it would end in disappointment for the GOP.
“Look at any of the polls. You don’t even see it,” Meeks said of the Afghanistan exit in an interview. “It’s a blip on the screen. It’s not even there. This is just something that I think that the Republicans are doing.”
Democrats on both sides of the Capitol agree, saying it’s unlikely Republicans will be able to use their investigations to unearth new and significant enough information about withdrawal of troops, arguing that the facts of what happened are already well-established.
“It is not a type of situation where things are not known,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “We know what happened. Can we do things better? Did we learn from the experience? Absolutely. It was a chaotic ending. We know that. But the cards were dealt by previous administrations, not by this administration.”
California Rep. Ted Lieu, a member of House Democratic leadership, all but shrugged at the Afghanistan probe — describing himself as “certainly fine” with evaluating the withdrawal but noting that foreign policy issues rarely affect the national political landscape.
“The election next year will be won by Democrats and it’s not going to be very complicated. There will be one issue: abortion,” he said.
Public polling has been limited since the U.S. withdrawal. An August 2021 poll from Pew Research found a solid majority of respondents approved of the decision to remove troops from Afghanistan, even as they critiqued Biden’s handling of the situation. That survey found 69 percent of Americans believe the U.S. failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.
An October 2022 poll ahead of the midterms by Pew found foreign policy listed as the 12th most important issue to voters, behind topics such as the economy, violent crime and abortion. It found 54 percent of people considered the broader topic of foreign policy “very important” to their midterm vote.
That may be part of what’s driving the sense among even some Republicans that, while many in the party see investigations as important, they’re unlikely to fundamentally alter how voters already view the issues at hand.
“I’m not convinced that really you’ve got the American public fixated on any of these investigations,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “Nobody back home is asking me about any of these.”
Other rank-and-file Republicans say the emotional toll of the chaotic withdrawal continues to arise regularly when they’re at home, predicting that any new revelations through their investigations would resonate with Americans broadly.
“It’s still a question I get not just from veterans. Not just from Gold Star families, but I get it frequently from people all the time,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), who suffered severe injuries while serving in Afghanistan, said. “There’s so many different ways that people come about that conversation.”
It’s a conversation continuing in real time in the halls of Congress. McCaul worked for months to view the State Department dissent cable, subpoenaing Blinken for it in March. Efforts to get hands on the cable began in August 2021, when Meeks still chaired the foreign affairs panel.
The State Department relented on Wednesday and offered to let McCaul and Meeks view the document at its headquarters and with personal information redacted.
McCaul responded in a Thursday letter that he would “pause efforts to enforce” the subpoena and accepted an offer to view the documents “as soon as possible,” but said he would “insist on the Department allowing other Members to review the dissent cable and response.”
He, along with House Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), also sent a letter Thursday to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley seeking information about the 2021 terrorist attack outside Kabul airport that resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. service members and approximately 170 Afghan civilians.
And McCaul isn’t alone in conducting oversight on the Afghan withdrawal. A House Oversight Committee spokesperson described a recent hearing with inspectors general as the “first in a series of hearings the committee will have to examine President Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
“Chairman [James] Comer has made it clear that he will continue to work to hold this Administration accountable for the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, safeguard taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse, and provide the American people answers,” the panel spokesperson added.
But as far as McCaul’s concerned, he’s in the driver’s seat. The Oversight panel knows “that we’re kind of taking the lead moving forward with this,” he said. “It’s understood.”