In Washington, recriminations over Afghanistan emerge quickly

American soldiers overseeing training of their Afghan counterparts at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on March 22, 2016.
American soldiers overseeing training of their Afghan counterparts at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on March 22, 2016.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A conference call between members of Congress and the Biden administration's top diplomatic and military leaders on Afghanistan turned contentious Sunday (Aug 15), as lawmakers pressed the administration on how intelligence could have failed so badly and how long the military would help hold the Kabul airport.

Lawmakers said the 45-minute call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not particularly revelatory.

"It was, I would say, a rote exercise in telling us what we had already learned from the media and social media," said Representative Peter Meijer and a former Army reservist who did conflict analysis in Afghanistan.

But the questioning was pointed and at times contentious, centring on which Afghans the United States would get out and how.

Representative Tom Malinowski, who was a State Department official in the Obama administration and a former leader of Human Rights Watch, pressed the top officials on how long the US military would be able to keep the Kabul airport open to charter and commercial flights.

Lawmakers also asked whether the Afghans that Americans were trying to help leave would include more than those who worked for the embassy, interpreters for the military and others with special immigrant visas (SIVs).

The briefers assured them that they would try to help a broader group, including human rights and women's rights activists, journalists and students of the American University of Afghanistan.

"I want to make sure we don't pick up and leave when all the Americans and SIVs are out," Mr Malinowski said.

Democrats said they did emerge from the call convinced that the military would hold on to the airport for a while, even if the Taleban took full control of the government. But that is no guarantee that all Afghans who want to get out will be able to do so.

"It is overwhelmingly clear to me that this has been a cascade of failures at the Defence Department, with the intelligence community and within our political community," Mr Meijer said. "And nothing on the call gave me the confidence that even the magnitude of the failures has been comprehended."

On the conference call, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican minority leader, was recognised to ask a question, then began a blistering attack on the Biden administration, saying the collapse in Afghanistan would empower China and weaken the US position in the world, according to people on the call.

He put out a statement afterwards saying that during the call "I only heard excuses".

"Amidst the ongoing chaos and ensuing instability at home and abroad, the only solution President Biden has offered is to play politics and baselessly blame his predecessor," he said.

He added: "Given that Republican members were somehow not allowed to ask questions during the call, I've requested the administration hold another call in the immediate future."

That request was greeted with incredulity by Democrats, given Mr McCarthy's lengthy attack.

But few lawmakers were happy. Representative Ro Khanna said his office had been bombarded with calls from the large Afghan population in his East Bay district because the repatriation assistance page of the State Department website included a broken link that had gotten them nowhere. Mr Khanna was given a single point of contact at the State Department for all of his callers, but that person was soon overwhelmed.

"Maybe they ought to have a functioning link on the website with a direct way of processing all these requests," Mr Khanna said.

The political fallout for Mr Biden remains unclear. Defence hawks such as Representative Liz Cheney are outspoken about what they see as a precipitous withdrawal and a collapse that can and should be placed at the Biden administration's feet.

"If you look at what it would have taken in terms of maintaining the status quo, 2,500 to 3,500 forces on the ground conducting counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence operations, this disaster, the catastrophe that we're watching unfold right now across Afghanistan, did not have to happen," Ms Cheney said on Sunday on ABC's This Week.

But such voices are becoming rarer in a Republican Party that continues to embrace former president Donald Trump, who had demanded an even swifter pullout from Afghanistan, and in a war-weary Democratic Party that is largely standing by Biden - or staying silent. That may reflect the opinion of voters in both parties.

But ultimately an end to the US military's involvement in Afghanistan may prove to be more popular than the weekend chaos proves to be a liability.

Representative Ruben Gallego, a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq, wrote on Twitter: "What I am feeling and thinking about the situation in Afghanistan, I can never fit on Twitter. But one thing that is definitely sticking out is that I haven't gotten one constituent call about it. And my district has a large Veteran population."