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What went wrong in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? Two lawmakers weigh in

As more American and allied flights are leaving the capital of Afghanistan Thursday, an ever-growing panic descends on the city. More American troops and marines arrived, but despite U.S. efforts,Taliban fighters are hindering movement toward the Kabul airport, leaving thousands of civilians trapped. With support from the Pulitzer Center, Jane Ferguson reports on the situation in Kabul.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And joining us now are two lawmakers with experience in Afghanistan.

    Republican Congressman Peter Meijer of Michigan is an Iraq War veteran who worked in Afghanistan as a conflict analyst from 2013 to 2015. Democratic Congressman Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts served as a Marine infantry commander in Afghanistan in 2012.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Congressman Meijer, to you first.

    You have just been listening to Jon Finer, deputy White House national security adviser. What is your overall assessment listening to him and everything else you know of how the administration's handled this aftermath of the collapse of the Afghan government?

  • Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI):

    I have a lot of respect for Jon. I know he's been involved with SIV, Special Immigrant Visa, issues for probably close to a decade and has really been a leader in this space.

    I, frankly, think the issue is not some of the hardworking individuals who've been on this, but the fact that the problem starts at the top. This is not an issue that President Biden ever prioritized. I was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers going back to April that were trying to raise the attention in just the scenario that we feared, to make sure that we did everything we could as soon as we could to get these Special Immigrant Visa applicants out.

    And, again, there are a lot of hardworking folks who were trying to make that happen. But, frankly, this is an issue that President Biden didn't want to have to deal with. But you can only spin optics for so long. You can't spin away this reality we're facing today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congressman Auchincloss, do you see this as spinning optics and that the president didn't want to deal with this question of getting Afghan civilians and others out of the country?

  • Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA):

    Well, I agree with Mr. Meijer that this starts at the top.

    This president came into office and made a clear-eyed, wrenching decision. It was either go big or go home. And he had the integrity to tell the American people the hard truth that a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan could not succeed without a political endgame and that we were going to have to do a withdrawal.

    Now, I know Representative Meijer agrees with this. He said so in April. A withdrawal from a country whose moniker is the graveyard of empires is going to be rocky.

    What's critical is that this president and his administration have adapted in real time. We have security at the airport. We have got commercial and military evacuations taking thousands out every day, and we have committed that American personnel are going to be secure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about that, Congressman Meijer, that the — again, you heard from Jon Finer. We have heard from others in the administration. We're watching this unfold. We're still in the middle of this evacuation.

    Do you — I mean, have you concluded already that it's going to be a failure?

  • Rep. Peter Meijer:

    I don't think you need to conclude that. I think it's readily apparent.

    I would respectfully tell my colleagues that there is an arguable debate on the merits of withdrawal. In the president's speech on Monday, he spent the entire focus of it defending the decision to withdraw.

    The criticism doesn't come, by and large, from the decision to withdraw. It comes from how that withdrawal was handled out, the way in which we missed intelligence signals about the degree of co-option in mid-level Afghan government and Afghan security force areas, the way in which that didn't tie into the negotiations going on in Doha, and the way in which we lost all of our leverage within the span of a week-and-a-half that we had spent 20 years building up.

    I agree that a negotiated political settlement is the way to go. But what we saw in August, how quickly this collapsed, this is an intelligence, operational and strategic failure. And I think that's plainly evident by the images coming out of Afghanistan.

    It was never going to be pretty, but we are in a nightmare scenario. And there were plenty of worlds in which this sad reality was not the conclusion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Representative Auchincloss, can you specifically — you can respond to any of it, but I'm particularly interested in your take on the intelligence failures, the accusation the administration just didn't have the information it should have had about what was going on inside the Afghan government, the Afghan military.

  • Rep. Jake Auchincloss:

    Well, what I heard from Mr. Meijer here was this idea of a negotiated political settlement as the basis of a withdrawal.

    The challenge here is that there was not a negotiated political settlement. The Trump administration in Doha with the Taliban basically committed to a unilateral withdrawal, not a conditions-based withdrawal. A conditions-based withdrawal is what grants an administration the kind of leverage to use intelligence that they have to adapt on the ground.

    But a conditions-based withdrawal was never going to work in Afghanistan. A conditions-based withdrawal works in a settlement like Colombia, where you have got an arms-into-plows program that gives fighters avenues into economic gainful employment, where you have got a reconciliation process where victims can seek redress and where low-level fighters are allowed to reenter civil society, where you have got a political solution for really knotty problems like land use, or voting, or power sharing in a government.

    None of that was in existence in Afghanistan. The Colombian president was a Nobel laureate for what he was able to negotiate. The Afghan president fled at the first sign of trouble. So, that gives you an indication of the kind of political partnership we had in Afghanistan. And it gives you an indication that any kind of conditions-based withdrawal that would have made use of intelligence on the ground was simply not viable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that, Congressman Meijer, the argument that there never was — there never were going to be the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan for there to be a satisfactory conclusion here?

  • Rep. Peter Meijer:

    I think, if that was the case, then we wouldn't have seen all of the investments in diplomatic negotiations that were started in the Trump administration, but were also absolutely continued under the Biden administration, with Ambassador Khalilzad in Doha.

    I mean, the — there's not a lot I can discuss on this because of the nature of it, but there were certainly conditions. There were certainly ongoing negotiations.

    And the idea that if a conditions-based withdrawal doesn't work, then we should just withdraw unconditionally, I find really hard to accept. We had leverage as long as there's an Afghan military. We had leverage as long as there's an Afghan government.

    The challenge was the erosion of those didn't — took place far more rapidly than anticipated. I mean, all the intelligence assessments in July that we're saying six to nine months, remember, that was starting on August 31. That was post-withdrawal.

    In the beginning of August, that was moved up to 30 to 90 — yes, 30 to 90 days, but, again, starting August 31. We didn't even make it to August 15. So there were clearly failures on that end, where all of these pieces that were intended to move in concert, I mean, that machine just broke down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Representative Auchincloss, you want to pick up on that?

    I mean, I'm interested to know whether you believe the administration could have foreseen what was going to happen.

  • Rep. Jake Auchincloss:

    This was absolutely one of the scenarios mapped out for the president, a complete Taliban takeover of the country.

    A lot of focus has been put on Taliban horsepower. I think more salient is the lack of Afghan willpower. And here's where I have got to disagree with my friend from Michigan. The idea that we had leverage with the Afghan military or with the Afghan central government I think has been pretty disproved by watching them cave in a matter of days here.

    These are front-line troops who I know from personal experience are good fighters who care about their homeland, but are watching their senior commanders and their senior political leaders line their own pockets, devolve into corruption and incompetence, instead of serving the best interests of the people.

    That is a recipe for the front line to crack. So we had no leverage in this. And the pace of the Taliban advance here was less critically important than the fact that there was not going to be a political counterpush to what the Taliban were offering in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Richard Meijer, do you want to respond?

  • Rep. Peter Meijer:

    I would just say I'm by no means making the allegation that the Afghan government was stronger, that Afghan military leaders were strong. They were weak. And that is 100 percent the fault of the 20-year American effort in that region.

    And those — that's something we need to have a very in-depth look at. I mean, the challenge here is that we did have leverage. I mean, we still had forces that were there. We were so set on not violating the conditions of agreements that were struck, when we had arguable violations on the Taliban side where we did have recourse.

    I think, if this scenario, if this total Taliban takeover and collapse was one of the contingencies that the Biden administration — that President Biden had foreseen, then how come this plan went to — went to seed so incredibly rapidly?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me…

  • Rep. Peter Meijer:

    I mean, if this is the plan, God help us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me just finally ask both of you how — how well you think this process is going to work here at the end in getting the Afghan allies, Afghans who helped Americans out?

    What do you see coming, Congressman Auchincloss?

  • Rep. Jake Auchincloss:

    I spoke with White House national security officials in the last 48 hours. They have made clear that mission one, two and three are these commercial and military evacuations first for American personnel, but also for Afghan allies, those who were prominent advocates for women and girls, journalists, and, of course, those who interpreted or otherwise helped the U.S. military.

    We made promises. We should keep them. I will absolutely be holding administration to account for that.

    And I just want to close here with a quick look back and a quick look forward. Looking back, in these last 20 years, the legacy in Afghanistan is complicated. Literacy is twice what it was. Infant mortality is half what it was. There are 10 times as many kids in schools as there were 20 years ago.

    The Taliban are taking over a very different country. And it's my fervent hope that they have to adapt somewhat to the progress that's been made. But, looking forward, it's going to be incumbent on veterans and members of Congress like Peter and I, next time a Bush-like president tries to blunder and bluster his way into a war of choice, we have got to stand up and say no.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to have to leave it there.

    Congressman Jake Auchincloss, Congressman Peter Meijer, we appreciate it. Thank you both.

  • Rep. Jake Auchincloss:

    Thank you.

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