Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say constant finger-pointing between the Pentagon and State Department is making it difficult to get a full accounting of the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Recent hearings on Afghanistan have left members of Congress frustrated as top officials from the State Department and Department of Defense (DOD) lay blame on the other at congressional hearings on Afghanistan.

“When the State Department is here and we asked them a question they say, ‘Well, you have to ask the Defense Department that,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said at a recent hearing. “And now today, again, Defense Department people are before us. And the question was asked and the answer … was, ‘Well, you’ll have to ask the State Department that.”

“I object to the continuation of that.”

It’s been two months since President Biden said “the buck stops with me” on Afghanistan, but the State Department has yet to announce a formal review of its work in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon has stopped short of laying out its own timeline.

“There is a lot of finger pointing taking place right now, and I think we’ve got to learn what worked and what didn’t,” Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), whose district is home to one of the largest Afghan populations in the U.S., told The Hill.

“I would try to take the politics out of it,” he said. “How did we get Afghanistan so wrong after 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment?”

In the wake of the chaotic August withdrawal, Biden administration officials have grown irritated with the focus on the military’s final two weeks in the country instead of overall U.S. involvement over two decades.

Though there have been several efforts to require reviews of various aspects of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, many are Republican-led.

Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to create a joint select committee with lawmakers from both chambers, with Hawley saying they need to examine how the Biden administration “purposefully obscured the facts around their botched Afghanistan withdrawal.”

Another measure, backed by 30 Senate Republicans, is more forward-looking, requiring the State Department to establish a task force to determine how to evacuate the many Afghan allies the U.S. left behind.

Eliot Cohen, a counselor at the State Department on topics including Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration who previously led a review of the first Gulf War, said efforts to evaluate U.S. actions in Afghanistan are “only helpful if you create a self-appetite within government for self-examination.”

He said he has doubts that Congress can act as an effective review board.

“I think neither Republicans nor Democrats are going to be particularly inclined to a really close examination of the presidencies that dealt with this,” said Cohen, who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“You’ve got both Republican and Democrat presidents here — two of each — and a really serious accounting of all of this is going to be hard on all of them,” he said. “It would require a certain amount of, dare I say, statesmanship for both Republicans and Democrats to go into this knowing that their guys are going to get pummeled because that is virtually certain to happen.”

What Cohen would like to see is something modeled after the 9/11 Commission that could draw together a panel of experts to review the war in its entirety. Such an endeavor, he said, would need to be led by people “whose bipartisanship or nonpartisanship is beyond reproach and who have a mantle to call it as they see it. And a lot of people will find that dangerous, frankly.”

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has put out numerous reports over the years, including 11 that focus on “lessons learned.”

But lawmakers still see some gaps that need to be closed.

Bera is among the Democrats pushing for a broader review, asking several departments’ inspectors general to do an audit of special immigrant visa processing — the route for allies to come to the U.S.

“That’s something I’d be critical of. I think the Biden administration was slow to appreciate how big the backlog was,” he said, pointing to several efforts in Congress to speed the processing.

However he’s also concerned about the way the U.S. mission was portrayed to lawmakers, noting they were “constantly given a much rosier picture.”

“Clearly mistakes were made for the analysis of how stable the Afghan government was. How stable the Afghan security forces were when we pulled out was clearly misassessed. Certainly in briefings we received, the worst case scenario was six-months post August; obviously we saw complete collapse in a week,” Bera said.

“Were we not given the whole picture as Congress?” he asked. “That’s super important information. Was information withheld from Congress? What information did the administration have? Or was it just bad analysis … in which case that’s a different question. Like how did we miss this?”

Among House Republicans, some calls for investigations have met resistance from Democrats.

House Oversight GOP members have made numerous requests for a hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal but have been thwarted by committee Democrats.

Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Committee hired their own investigator to delve into the U.S. withdrawal, but they say their efforts have been stymied by the majority, who have not approved the resolution of inquiry forwarded by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the panel’s ranking member.

“It is unacceptable that the State Department and White House are refusing to accept any responsibility for the debacle that was their withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s time for this administration to stop pointing fingers and take responsibility for the disaster they caused that resulted in Americans, [permanent residents], and countless Afghan partners being left behind enemy lines,” McCaul said in a statement to The Hill.

“Mistakes were made across the government – including DOD – but at the end of the day, the horrific catastrophe we saw unfold happened because of policy failures at the White House and State Department. We certainly question some of the choices DOD made in implementing those policy decisions, and will push for oversight and accountability of those issues as well,” he continued. “But as the president has said, the buck stops with him.”

A State Department spokesperson told The Hill that the agency is committed to learning lessons from the two-week period of the evacuation, but stressed that it would be a tremendous disservice to not also review the war in its 20-year entirety.

That sentiment was underscored by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview with KDKA in Pittsburgh.

“I think for anyone to say that any of these decisions were made by any one agency, that’s not how we work. We do these – we do all of this together. The president brings everyone together, everyone is heard, everyone is listened to, and we make these decisions collectively. That’s what happened in Afghanistan,” Blinken said.

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill.

Cohen said that any effort to get the full picture on Afghanistan is likely to come with significant hurdles.

“This was an extremely long, complicated conflict with lots and lots of different people involved. And having seen some of this from the inside myself, you have a lot of people that all think they’re trying to do the right thing. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing it very well,” he said.

“If you have a serious endeavor, it’s not going to give simple answers that would make people in the Bush administration or the Obama administration or the Trump administration or the Biden administration happy,” he said. “And it won’t make journalists happy either because it won’t have clear cut villains or heroes or clear cut lessons or explanations because the reality is, it’s complex.”

Via The Hill