WASHINGTON — For weeks as the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan loomed, Representative Seth Moulton publicly pushed the Biden administration to evacuate thousands of interpreters and other Afghan citizens who helped American forces during the 20-year war there.
The scenes from Kabul’s airport Monday, with desperate Afghans running across the tarmac, some even clinging to a US military plane as it taxied down the runway, were the type of chaos that Moulton and others wanted to avoid. Seven people reportedly died at the airport Monday, including some who fell from the plane as it took off. And Moulton said he is now worried not just for the safety of Afghan allies trying to flee the country, but also for the remaining US personnel there.
“It’s exactly what I feared, but I never imagined it would be such a disaster that our citizens would be at risk as well,” the Salem Democrat told the Globe. “The harsh reality is they’re handling it terribly,” he said of the Biden administration, “and the consequences are people will die unnecessarily.”
But Moulton, an Iraq war veteran, is so far an outspoken outlier among Democrats.
While Republicans have leveled intense criticism at the Biden administration for the mayhem, most Democratic lawmakers from Massachusetts and elsewhere have either been silent or largely defended the president for doing the best he could with a military mess he inherited while also expressing their concern for the safety of US personnel and Afghan allies still in the country.
They echoed President Biden’s argument on Monday that the havoc in Kabul only underscored the futility of the United States’s decades-long efforts in the region, which cost the lives of 3,500 American and allied troops and tens of thousands of Afghans.
“I’ve long supported ending the war in Afghanistan. Four US administrations, Republican and Democrat, and countless US and NATO military troops spent 20 years arming, training, and fighting alongside the Afghan military,” said Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester in a statement. “It’s hard to watch them unable to protect their own country after so much blood, sweat, and tears invested, but another year or more would not have made a difference.”
But McGovern urged the Biden administration to safely evacuate US staff and Afghan allies whose lives are now at risk. “We cannot leave them behind,” he said.
In an address from the White House Monday afternoon, Biden admitted that Afghanistan’s collapse unfolded more quickly than US officials had expected and called the images of desperate Afghans attempting to flee the country “gut wrenching.” But he defended his decision to withdraw US forces and suggested the chaos could not have been avoided, given the Afghan government’s unwillingness to fight against the Taliban.
“I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for president that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end, and while it’s been hard and messy and, yes, far from perfect, I’ve honored that commitment,” he said.
Biden also said that part of the reason the United States did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner was that some did not want to leave because they remained “hopeful” for their country. But the lengthy backlog of US visa applications from Afghan allies cast doubt on that explanation.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat, called the images from Afghanistan “devastating” and said he planned to ask “tough but necessary questions” about why the United States wasn’t better prepared for the rapid fall of the Afghan government and its security forces.
Representative Jake Auchincloss of Newton said he would hold Biden to account for his promise to safely evacuate Americans and Afghan allies still in the country. But having served as a Marine platoon commander in Afghanistan in 2012, Auchincloss said he saw firsthand that the United States could not win the war there because Afghan’s political leaders lacked the resolve to fight the Taliban.
“The Taliban had a maxim. . . ’You have the watches, we have the time.’ What that meant was they didn’t have to beat us in firefights and actually they knew they couldn’t,” he said. “They knew they just had to outlast us and they have.”
The imminent withdrawal of US troops left the security of Afghanistan in the hands of its own forces, which collapsed quickly in the worst-case scenario envisioned by the Pentagon, Auchincloss said.
“You can train and equip troops, you can buy new airplanes, but you can’t buy will and you can’t purchase leadership. And the Afghan central government has collapsed because it hasn’t been able to procure either,” he said.
Like Auchincloss, some Democrats pointed to missteps by previous US presidents in handling the Afghanistan war as they worried about the safety of American forces and Afghan allies during the withdrawal.
Noting his vote against the Iraq war, Representative Richard Neal of Springfield said it “took precious resources and focus away from the growing unrest in Afghanistan.” And Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston said that “the tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan are further proof that the US policy of forever wars — endless occupation and intervention — will not bring lasting peace to the region.”
“We cannot respond to the escalating situation with violence or further military intervention and we must continue to bring our troops home,’' she said.
As former president Donald Trump slammed Biden for the withdrawal, Democrats noted that Trump had wanted all US troops out of Afghanistan by May 1 and argued he had made the situation in the country worse by engaging in peace talks with the Taliban that excluded the Afghan government. Trump also had significantly reduced the admission of refugees into the United States, which prevented many Afghan allies from coming during his term.
“President Trump approached Afghanistan with his characteristic ignorance, narcissism, and obliviousness, and it only made the options facing President Biden all that much harder,” Auchincloss said.
Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a statement Monday that Biden made the right decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after inheriting the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban.
“I agree with him that an endless military presence in another country’s civil conflict is not in our nation’s interest,” she said. “Now, it is our moral responsibility to immediately admit more refugees and to ensure the safety of those who aided the United States throughout this conflict.”
Senator Ed Markey said in a statement after Biden’s speech that the events of the past week “demonstrate how ineffective a 20-years long effort to prop up the Afghan military and government was” and the need for the United States to prioritize diplomacy over the use of force to stop wars before they begin.
Markey and Warren, along with 44 other senators, asked the Biden administration to create a humanitarian category to allow for the quick relocation to the United States of women leaders in Afghanistan.
Other Massachusetts Democrats, including Representative Stephen Lynch, who chairs the House national security oversight subcommittee, were silent on Afghanistan as the events unfolded over the weekend and on Monday.
Moulton and several members of Congress pushed the Biden administration starting in the spring to quickly evacuate an estimated 17,000 Afghan allies and their families to Guam, where their visa applications could be processed in safety. In a bipartisan vote late last month, Congress allocated $1 billion to pay for resettling Afghan allies and to make 8,000 additional special immigrant visas available for Afghans who assisted US troops, on top of the 4,000 already in place.
But with the US military sending more troops to secure Kabul’s airport, the future of Afghan allies seeking refuge appeared deeply uncertain. The Biden administration said it would try to evacuate as many as possible.
“I expect this to get far worse before it gets better,” Moulton said.