But, increasingly, that explanation isn’t satisfying some top Democrats.
Democrats as a whole have largely hewed to the Biden administration’s key talking point — on the rightness of the withdrawal. But that’s not really what the current debate is about; it’s about whether a long-planned withdrawal with long-standing bipartisan support was executed appropriately. And some Democrats are speaking out about the latter issue — including three key Senate committee chairmen and some military veterans in the House.
“The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan reveals a failure to prepare for a scenario where the Afghan government and military would refuse to fight the Taliban’s advances when put to the test,” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) said flatly in the hours after Biden’s speech.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said there was blame to go around, including for the deal the Trump administration cut last year with the Taliban, and said his committee would hold hearings.
But he also seemed to point the finger at the Biden administration, citing “failures of intelligence, diplomacy and a lack of imagination as we transitioned military forces from the country.”
The Biden administration and the intelligence community significantly underestimated how swiftly the Taliban might retake the country and its capital, Kabul, leading to valid questions about whether there was a lack of urgency in the evacuations of U.S. civilians and Afghan allies.
Reed wasn’t the only Senate Democratic committee chairman who indicated that this would be scrutinized. While he suggested hearings broadly focused on the years-long effort to get out of Afghanistan, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) focused more on the idea of hearings to address what we had just seen in that country.
“I hope to work with the other committees of jurisdiction to ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario involving such a swift and total collapse of the Afghan government and security forces,” Warner said. “We owe those answers to the American people and to all those who served and sacrificed so much.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) added Tuesday: “I am disappointed the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal. We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures.”
A member of Reed’s committee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), emphasized the immediate need to evacuate U.S. allies but added: “There’ll be a lot of time to be asking the tough questions, and I will be as a member of the Armed Services Committee.”
These comments from high-profile senators suggest major hearings are in the offing, but some of the strongest Democratic criticism of Biden came from House members — and a pair of military veterans, in particular.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), an Air Force veteran, indicated the administration had disregarded her and others’ warnings.
“These past few days have been difficult to process, and not because the Taliban’s progress was surprising,” she said. “In fact, the opposite. We sounded the alarm, and our dire warnings fell on deaf ears.”
Houlahan said she would be “holding accountable those who seemingly misled the American people.”
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who served in Iraq, issued a blistering statement Sunday saying: “To say that today is anything short of a disaster would be dishonest. Worse, it was avoidable.”
Moulton told CNN that he had been urging the administration to assemble a more robust and instantaneous evacuation plan but that he was met by “silence.”
“That has been my distinct clear call to the administration for several months now: You need to evacuate our allies. Sort out the paperwork once you get these heroes to safety,” Moulton said. “And they have not headed that call.”
In the same CNN report, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) bristled at White House talking points that included suggesting that Afghan allies who haven’t been evacuated actually wanted to stay. Biden claimed Monday that they declined to leave because they were “still hopeful for their country.” (This despite a lengthy backlog in processing visa applications from those seeing to exit the country.)
“Anyone writing … talking points should get on the visa line,” Malinowski said.
These Democrats speaking out remain a small minority of the party’s congressional membership. But they include some potent voices and two, in particular, who could play a major role in applying a magnifying glass to just how this went down. In the months to come, we’ll find out how anxious they are to wield that magnifying glass.