One month after Afghan airlift, answers hard to come by about what really happened

The Biden administration says the Afghanistan airlift was the largest rescue operation in history — yet a month after it ended, officials still can’t or won’t say exactly who was left behind, who made it out of the country or why they were the ones rescued.

About 124,000 people escaped Afghanistan, most on U.S.-run flights. More than 60,000 had reached the U.S. as of last week. Some were American citizens, and others were green card holders with permanent immigrant rights. Fewer than 2,000 were special visa holders by dint of their assistance to the U.S. war effort.

But more than 50,000 of them didn’t fall into any of those categories, leading to questions about who they are, why they are in the U.S. and what dangers they may pose. Reports of sex crimes and assaults have already emerged at military bases where they are staying.

Then there are 60,000 or so others who were evacuated to other countries. Many of those evacuees are sitting at U.S. military bases overseas while the government tries to verify their identities and stories, checks them against security databases and figures out where they should go.

The chaos of the aftermath matches the chaos of the withdrawal itself. The administration delayed a full evacuation until the Afghan government toppled and the Taliban took control, shutting down pathways to the airport — the last ground controlled by the U.S.

“It has now been a month since the U.S. withdrawal, and State and DoD are still unable to provide us with basic numbers and information,” said Rep. John Katko of New York, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. “This is unacceptable and violates the very checks and balances of our government.”

It’s not even clear how many American citizens were left behind. Experts say the number should be readily available.

The State Department said the total is about 100, but members of Congress say that math doesn’t add up, given the 10,000 to 15,000 the department estimated were in Afghanistan and the 6,000 who were evacuated.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said trying to get answers has been “a Kafkaesque experience in bureaucracy.” He started with the Defense Department, which told him to talk to the National Security Council, which told him to talk to the State Department, which pointed him right back to the Defense Department.

“Nobody is in charge right now,” the senator told Pentagon leaders in a hearing this week.

Demands for information have streamed from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon, the State Department’s headquarters at Foggy Bottom, the Homeland Security Department’s St. Elizabeths campus and President Biden himself.

The response, lawmakers say, has been crickets.

Even when briefings are arranged, they provide no new details, senators told Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last week.

Administration officials say the feat of getting 124,000 people out of Afghanistan is stunning and represents the largest such evacuation in history.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before, and no other military in the world could have pulled it off,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

Administration officials say most Americans who remained in Afghanistan didn’t want to leave. Congressional aides say that explanation is not helpful. They want to know whom the State Department has contacted and whether it considers a lack of response as a message of wanting to stay.

As for those who made it out, the administration says it is checking security databases and screening out those who shouldn’t be in the U.S. Mr. Mayorkas told Congress last week that the number failing the checks was “de minimis.”

The Washington Times has reported on two Afghans with serious felony records and previous deportations who made onto flights that reached the U.S., fueling calls by lawmakers on Capitol Hill for more transparency on what checks are being conducted, including whether previous deportees should be excluded.

Homeland Security has declined to answer those questions.

Over the past week, two Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin have been charged with sex crimes. Authorities are also investigating an assault on a female soldier by Afghan refugees at a military complex in New Mexico.

“Afghan men on U.S. bases have now assaulted women and children, yet the American people are being denied transparency,” said Rep. Yvette Herrell, New Mexico Republican. “It is more important than ever to demand answers in the wake of our chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.”  

Rep. Thomas P. Tiffany, a Wisconsin Republican who has been tracking developments at Fort McCoy, where some 13,000 evacuees are being held, said the situation has turned out nothing like what Mr. Biden promised.

Hardly any of the Afghans are special visa holders. The fort’s capacity was supposed to be 10,000, but it got an order from Washington to go to 13,000. Of those, 600 were in quarantine for disease.

“We know disease is being imported into our country. We know there are people committing criminal acts that are being imported into our country,” the congressman said. “They brought some of the problems of Afghanistan into the United States.”

Mr. Tiffany said Afghans are free to walk out of the bases at any time. They are required to obtain vaccinations by a specific date or risk losing their status, though former Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say it’s unlikely anyone would go looking for them.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill have added their voices to the chorus calling for answers, but the party’s leaders have taken steps to shield the administration by limiting the number of hearings on the issue.

Mr. Mayorkas has testified about worldwide threats and faced questions over the Afghanistan evacuation, but he has yet to sit for a hearing exclusively on the issue.

Republicans say a parliamentary vote last week strips Congress of another tool it might have used to demand answers.

Lawmakers normally can pursue a resolution of inquiry, a formal demand for information. The ROIs, as they are known, are usually granted speedy debate privileges, but Democrats have derailed the process.

The limit on ROIs has been in place since at least May 2020, when the House was in pandemic mode.

Republican lawmakers said it’s time to lift the blockade, given the abundance of bungles from the Biden team.

“Democratic Leadership has suspended a centuries-old House rule that allows for more congressional oversight — all to protect President Biden from scrutiny for the multiple disasters his failed leadership has caused,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

A Democratic aide on the Rules Committee said committees like Mr. McCaul’s can conduct oversight in other ways, and lawmakers got a chance to offer proposals as part of the recent debate on the defense policy bill.

Democrats also fear that lifting the curb on ROIs would give Republicans a new means to derail committee agendas.

“Republicans have consistently tried to disrupt the House floor, demanding votes even on noncontroversial bills that they support. Now they are demanding even more tools to derail the work of congressional committees,” the Democratic aide said. “We are staying focused on allowing committees to do their work and passing legislation to provide for the American people.”

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