Top Republican accuses Biden administration of ‘unlawful’ stonewalling of Afghanistan oversight

The ranking Republican of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is accusing top Biden administration officials of violating the law by stonewalling oversight efforts of U.S. assistance in Afghanistan, in a letter exclusively obtained by The Hill.

The letter serves as an opening salvo for how Republicans, when they take control of the House in January, are planning to investigate the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the top Republican on the foreign affairs panel and its likely next chairman, sent a letter to the State Department, the Treasury Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) criticizing the agencies for refusing to comply with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

“The State Department, Treasury, and USAID’s refusal to comply with SIGAR’s requests is unlawful and unacceptable,” McCaul wrote. “I urge you in the strongest terms to promptly ensure that the entities which you lead end this obstruction and return to full compliance with SIGAR’s oversight before congressional action becomes necessary.”

The ranking member cited a SIGAR report published in October that stated several U.S. government agencies had not cooperated with its efforts at oversight, and a letter from the SIGAR Inspector General to the committee in June, that USAID and the Treasury Department “refused to cooperate with SIGAR in any capacity.”

McCaul’s letter, dated Dec. 1, was sent to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power.

McCaul gave the top Biden officials a two-week deadline to provide all materials related to the agencies’ “refusal to comply with any SIGAR request since August 16, 2021,” citing the date the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan fled Kabul as the Taliban took control of the city.

The letter pushes back on varying assertions provided by the three agencies to SIGAR, when responding to the investigator’s requests, as falling outside the realm of its mandate to document U.S. reconstruction efforts.

McCaul cites that the State Department and USAID legal counsel wrote to SIGAR in July that its requests for information were unrelated to reconstruction and exceeded the scope of its jurisdiction, saying the U.S had stopped providing funds for the purpose of reconstruction in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

McCaul also cites State Department and USAID arguments that SIGAR inquiries are unnecessary and duplicative because other inspectors general and Congress are conducting oversight efforts, calling the reasoning “not only legally irrelevant, but substantively misleading.”

“SIGAR coordinates and deconflicts its work with the Inspectors General for the State Department and USAID, including through the OIG Afghanistan Project Coordination Group, which meets every six weeks,” he wrote, adding: “SIGAR stands distinct from other Inspectors General in its cross-jurisdictional authority to audit across agencies and its longstanding expertise in Afghanistan oversight. Cutting SIGAR out would fundamentally weaken Afghanistan-related oversight.”

SIGAR was established in 2008 to provide independent and objective oversight to how U.S. funds were being used in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The oversight office continued publishing its quarterly reports even after the U.S. ended its 20-year presence in Afghanistan.

“The State Department and USAID do not have the authority to determine the scope of SIGAR’s jurisdiction or evade it on the grounds that they no longer deem their programs ‘reconstruction,’” McCaul wrote in the letter.

A State Department spokesperson responded to a request for comment by The Hill saying, “Despite our disagreement regarding SIGAR’s mandate, we are continuing to provide responses to SIGAR inquiries and will look for more opportunities to do so in the future, in the spirit of cooperation.”

A USAID spokesperson told The Hill the agency had provided SIGAR written responses to “dozens of questions, as well as thousands of pages of responsive documents, analyses, and spreadsheets describing dozens of programs that were part of the U.S. government’s reconstruction effort in Afghanistan,” even as the spokesperson argued the U.S. had stopped providing assistance for the purpose of the reconstruction of Afghanistan with the Taliban takeover.

“We are frequently, regularly working with SIGAR within the scope of its statutory mandate. In addition to SIGAR, the State Department and USAID continue to cooperate with oversight bodies—including Congressional committees and both agencies’ Inspectors General—that have jurisdiction over aid that the United States is currently providing to Afghanistan, including the $1.1 billion in humanitarian aid that has been provided since August 2021,” they said.

Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized President Biden and his officials for the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan, which unfolded over a chaotic two weeks in August 2021.

At that time, hundreds of thousands of people swarmed Kabul’s main airport to escape the country following the Taliban’s takeover and establishment of a strict, Islamist rule that has since worked to erase women from public life and wiped out the more than two decades of democracy-building the U.S. and allies worked to construct.

The U.S. spent an estimated $2.2 trillion over the course of its 20-year presence in Afghanistan, which began with an invasion in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

While more than 150,000 people were evacuated over the two-week period in August, a suicide bombing at the airport killed 13 U.S. soldiers and 150 Afghans, and injured scores of others. Hundreds of Americans were left behind when the U.S. ended its evacuation on August 31, and tens of thousands of Afghans who worked alongside American security forces faced uncertainty, either stranded in Afghanistan or in limbo outside the country.

Republicans have homed in on holding the Biden administration accountable for the Afghanistan pullout. House GOP lawmakers will inherit subpoena power when they take majority control in January and are likely to exercise it for interviews with Biden officials and documents related to the effort.

McCaul’s letter follows a request sent in October for the State Department to preserve all documents related to the pullout from Afghanistan.

The State Department in December 2021 appointed former acting Secretary of State Dan Smith to lead a review of U.S. operations in Afghanistan that will cover the period between January 2020 and August 2021. A State Department spokesperson told The Hill at the time that the final report will be classified but that the agency would “be as transparent as possible.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told The Hill on Friday that Smith’s review is ongoing.

“Colleagues across the administration are in the process now of extracting key lessons from that time in Afghanistan,” he said.

“Of course, we want to be as transparent as possible, but we will always do so consistent with classification and safeguarding of sensitive information, this process is ongoing so I don’t have anything additional to offer at this time,” he continued.

Price added that State Department officials “have engaged regularly with members of Congress since and of course well before the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of last year.”

“State Department officials have taken part in dozens, if not more, of hearings and briefings with members and their staff, I’m certain that will continue in the months to come,” he said.

Via The Hill