Veterans give evidence of ‘catastrophic’ impact of Afghan collapse

Veterans give evidence of ‘catastrophic’ impact of Afghan collapse

Active service members and veterans have provided first-hand evidence in the House of Representatives about the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, describing in harrowing detail the carnage and death they witnessed on the ground.

Former Marine Sergeant 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.

“The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion. And there was an inexcusable lack of accountability,” said Mr Vargas-Andrews, who wore a prosthetic arm and scars of his own grave wounds from the bombing.

“I see the faces of all of those we could not save, those we left behind,” Aidan Gunderson, an Army medic who was stationed at Abbey Gate, said.

“I wonder if our Afghan allies fled to safety or they were killed by the Taliban.”

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 US intelligence had foreseen as American forces pulled out

Kabul’s fall turned the West’s withdrawal into a rout, with Kabul’s airport the centre of a desperate air evacuation guarded by US 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.

Evidence 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 US planning and inadequate US support.

“America is building a nasty reputation for multi-generational systemic abandonment of our allies where we leave a smouldering human refuse from the Montagnards of Vietnam to the Kurds in Syria,” retired Lieutenant Colonel Scott Mann said 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.”

Mr Vargas-Andrews sobbed as he told of being thwarted in an attempt to stop the single deadliest moment in the US evacuation — a suicide bombing that killed 170 Afghans and 13 US servicemen and women.

Mr 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,” Mr Vargas-Andrews told Mike McCaul, the chairman of the committee.

“No one was, and no one is, to this day.”

US 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 maximise 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.

Defence Department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Rob Lodewick said on Wednesday that 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 US troops.

Mr McCaul has been deeply critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal.

“What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level, and a stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration,” he said.

Last month, US inspector-general for Afghanistan John Sopko concluded again that actions taken by both the Trump and Biden administrations were key to the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and military, even before US forces completed their withdrawal in August 2021.

That includes Donald Trump’s one-sided withdrawal deal with the Taliban, and the abruptness of Mr Biden’s withdrawal of both US contractors and troops from Afghanistan, stranding an Afghan air force that previous adminis

The report blamed each US administration since American forces invaded in 2001 for constantly changing, inconsistent policies that strived for quick fixes and withdrawal from Afghanistan rather than a steady effort to build a capable, sustainable Afghan military.