WASHINGTON - House Republicans on Wednesday will broaden their scrutiny of the Biden administration's evacuation from Afghanistan, calling six witnesses to testify about the haphazard operation, including an active-duty Marine grievously wounded in an explosion that killed an estimated 170 civilians and 13 U.S. troops.
Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who lost an arm and a leg in the suicide attack at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26, 2021, will appear at the hearing in his personal capacity, according to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Testimony is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.
The Marine, a focus of an extensive Washington Post report last year reconstructing events surrounding the airport bombing, has disputed parts of the Pentagon's account of the incident, contending he had identified the suspected suicide bomber among those clamoring to get inside - only to be told "no" upon seeking his commanders' approval to shoot the man dead.
Other witnesses include Aidan Gunderson, a former Army specialist who left active-duty in July; and three military veterans involved with the ad hoc effort to help identify and locate Afghans allied with the U.S. government as they sought to flee the Taliban. They are Francis Q. Hoang of Allied Airlift 21, Peter Lucier of Team America Relief, and Scott Mann of Task Force Pineapple. They will be joined by Camille Mackler, executive director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative, which has assisted Afghans resettling in the United States.
Wednesday's testimony marks the first in what could be a series of hearings while lawmakers examine how, amid the Western-backed government's collapse, security in Afghanistan unraveled and left tens of thousands vulnerable as the Taliban seized power. The airport became ground zero for a crisis that unfolded over two weeks as more than 124,000 people were flown to safety but thousands of others were left behind.
"What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level - and a stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "As a result, the world watched heartbreaking scenes unfold in and around the Kabul airport."
At peak disorder, thousands of Afghans choked the streets outside the airfield for days as U.S. military personnel and Taliban foot soldiers, in a hastily reached agreement, sought to enforce security. U.S. troops have described witnessing regular beatings - even executions - but they were ordered not to intervene.
Three days after the bombing, U.S. military personnel carried out a drone strike on a compound near the airport and claimed initially to have killed a potential second suicide bomber. But after days of questions about the strike, U.S. officials acknowledged they had made a mistake and instead struck an Afghan family, killing three adults and seven children.
Administration officials have sought to portray the crisis as a heroic effort that was necessary because President Biden's predecessor, former president Donald Trump, had signed a deal with the Taliban requiring all U.S. military personnel to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by spring 2021. After a 20-year war, Biden did not want any more U.S. troops killed in a war that was not winnable, administration officials have said.
A recent independent assessment of the collapse, conducted by John Sopko, an inspector general who for years catalogued the enormous taxpayer expense associated with America's foray in Afghanistan, has placed blame on both administrations, and previous ones, for failing to set up the Afghan military to function without U.S. support.
The "first factor" in the collapse, the inspector general found, was the decision to remove U.S. military personnel and military contractors "through the February 2020 signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement under the Trump administration, and the withdrawal following President Biden's public address in April 2021."
"These decisions fundamentally altered every subsequent decision by U.S. government agencies, the [Afghan government], and the Taliban," the inspector general's report said. "Many Afghans thought the U.S.-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the U.S. was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country."