The Mercury News
Vets testify of `catastrophic' impact of Afghan collapse
Active-service members and veterans provided firsthand testimony Wednesday about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, describing in harrowing detail the carnage and death they witnessed on the ground while imploring Congress to help the allies left behind.
Former Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews testified to Congress about the stench of human flesh under a large plume of smoke as the screams of children, women and men filled the space around Kabul's airport after two suicide bombers attacked crowds of Afghans.
“I see the faces of all of those we could not save, those we left behind,” said Vargas-Andrews, who wore a prosthetic arm and scars of his own grave wounds from the bombing. “The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion. And there was an inexcusable lack of accountability.”
The initial hearing of a long-promised investigation by House Republicans displayed the open wounds from the end of America's longest war in August 2021, with witnesses recalling how they saw mothers carrying dead babies and the Taliban shooting and brutally beating people.
It was the first of what is expected to be a series of Republican-led hearings examining the Biden administration's handling of the withdrawal. Taliban forces seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, far more rapidly than U.S. intelligence had foreseen as American forces pulled out. Kabul's fall turned the West's withdrawal into a rout, with Kabul's airport the center of a desperate air evacuation guarded by U.S. forces temporarily deployed for the task.
The majority of witnesses argued to Congress that the fall of Kabul was an American failure with blame touching every presidential administration from George W. Bush to Joe Biden. Testimony focused not on the decision to withdraw, but on what witnesses depicted as a desperate attempt to rescue American citizens and Afghan allies with little U.S. planning and inadequate U.S. support. “America is building a nasty reputation for multigenerational systemic abandonment of our allies where we leave a smoldering human refuse from the Montagnards of Vietnam to the Kurds in Syria,” retired Lt. Col. Scott Mann testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He added, “Our veterans know something else that this committee might do well to consider: We might be done with Afghanistan, but it's not done with us.”
Vargas-Andrews sobbed as he told lawmakers of being thwarted in an attempt to stop the single deadliest moment in the U.S. evacuation — a suicide bombing that killed 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. servicemen and women.
Vargas-Andrews said Marines and others aiding in the evacuation operation were given descriptions of men believed to be plotting an attack before it occurred. He said he and others spotted two men matching the descriptions and behaving suspiciously, and eventually had them in their rifle scopes, but never received a response about whether to take action.
“No one was held accountable,” Vargas-Andrews told Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the committee.
U.S. Central Command's investigation concluded in October 2021 that given the worsening security situation at Abbey Gate as Afghans became increasingly desperate to flee, “the attack was not preventable at the tactical level without degrading the mission to maximize the number of evacuees.” However, that investigation did not look into whether the bomber could have been stopped or whether Marines on the ground had the appropriate authorities to engage.
Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Rob Lodewick said Wednesday the Pentagon's earlier review of the suicide attack had turned up neither any advance identification of a possible attacker nor any requests for “an escalation to existing rules of engagement” governing use of force by U.S. troops.