Congressional Democrats are promising rigorous investigations of the Biden administration’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan. It might come back to bite them.
President Joe Biden’s Hill allies are already plotting a potentially risky gamble in fulfilling Congress’ traditional oversight role, with at least six Democrat-led congressional committees promising to investigate various aspects of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
They’re charging ahead regardless of the possible political consequences for a president who is already facing significant hurdles for his domestic agenda as well as sagging poll numbers — a dynamic that has some top Democrats worried.
“As usual, a lot of Democrats are choosing to play on the ground created by Republicans, are choosing to fit into the narrative that they’ve constructed — and I think that’s a mistake,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), among the Biden team’s most vocal defenders amid a sea of bipartisan criticism. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be prepared to go on the offensive to talk about why we got to the summer of 2021.”
While the congressional probes will initially focus on the Biden administration’s missteps, Democrats leading them have promised a broad look at the failures by officials who served in previous administrations of both parties. It’s how Democrats plan to head off a GOP-led campaign to pin the Afghanistan collapse solely on Biden, whom his allies say inherited a flawed diplomatic agreement with the Taliban from former President Donald Trump that tied his hands.
Still, Democrats’ keen interest in investigating the withdrawal of American troops is a reflection of the widespread bipartisan anger over how America’s longest war ended — and, for many, questions about why it was dragged on when it became clear long ago that the war was unwinnable.
Congress’ oversight machine — which has been relatively dormant since Trump left office — is booting up for the first time under Biden’s presidency to tackle Afghanistan. Democrats are already grappling with how to conduct investigations without making it a liability for Biden, especially as Republicans fixate on the issue to portray the president and his party as incompetent ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
“What we’re trying to do is a careful, thorough and objective review of what happened, and learn lessons,” Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a brief interview.
When asked if it could become a headache for Biden, Reed quipped: “Well, I hope not. It’s more just us doing our jobs.”
Murphy, who chairs the Foreign Relations panel’s Middle East subcommittee and therefore could be charged with spearheading some of the investigation, said “we can concede that an operation this size doesn’t happen without mistakes” but that Democrats shouldn’t allow the GOP to dictate the scope of the probes.
“I do worry we’re falling into this trap created by Republicans who are trying to create the impression that the administration had the ability to manage a smooth, chaos-free evacuation,” Murphy lamented. “That was impossible.”
Still, Biden is facing the brunt of the criticism over the way the U.S. left Afghanistan — including a frenetic, deadly evacuation operation that ultimately left hundreds of Americans and thousands of vulnerable Afghans behind, which his detractors blame on poor planning and intelligence failures.
The oversight effort began in earnest this week when Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he vigorously defended the Biden administration from bipartisan criticism over the withdrawal.
Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was unsparing with Blinken, calling the withdrawal “clearly and fatally flawed” and even threatening to subpoena Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for declining to appear before the panel.
Menendez said he wouldn’t shy away from criticizing the Biden team in part because his panel intends to conduct an exhaustive inquiry on the failures of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan over the past two decades. However, he said he thought Biden’s decision-making might be “redeemed” in the end.
“What I envision as oversight goes beyond this administration. In that respect, I don’t see it being a political liability [for Biden],” Menendez said in an interview this week. “From my perspective, chips fall where they may as it relates to the whole process.”
Menendez, in his third term in the upper chamber after serving 13 years in the House, isn’t afraid to criticize members of his own party on foreign policy. He frustrated the Obama administration with his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and the détente with Cuba, for example, and his hawkish views have informed much of his criticism of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Menendez, though, supported Biden’s April decision to pull all U.S. troops out of the country.
“I think he feels [an] institutional responsibility … I don’t think he’s thinking about the politics of it,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a Foreign Relations and Armed Services committee member, said of Menendez. “So, I don’t have advice for Democrats. I think we’re just trying to give an issue of importance the attention and care it deserves.”
Menendez isn’t alone. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has skewered the State Department for its “delay and inaction” and “inexcusable bureaucratic red tape” that has prevented the swift evacuation of some Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan in recent days, in particular from Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where some planes carrying evacuees have been grounded.
He escalated that critique this week, telling reporters that “we are tanking America’s reputation around the world, but more importantly abandoning essential honor and moral imperative by failing to do more to evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies who put their lives on the line.”
Blumenthal, too, said he simply wants to hold the Biden administration to its word and suggested that intra-party politics shouldn’t be a factor.
“We need to speak the truth to power and hold the administration accountable for honoring its promises and commitments,” he said. “The president has committed that he will enable Afghan allies and American citizens to evacuate from Afghanistan, and all I’m doing is trying to raise the profile of this issue and show that we want to encourage the administration to do the same.”
The next few weeks could be a rough patch for Biden’s national security brass. Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28.
That means the focus of the Afghanistan oversight effort will remain on the Biden administration’s missteps for the time being, even as Democratic committee leaders vow to pull the camera back to examine previous administrations. Once it’s underway, that work could involve hauling in former Bush, Obama and Trump administration officials for testimony.