Two members of the United States Congress flew unannounced into Kabul airport in the middle of the chaotic evacuation, stunning State Department and US military personnel who had to divert resources to provide security and information to the lawmakers, US officials say.
Representative Seth Moulton (Democrat, Massachusetts) and Representative Peter Meijer, (Republican, Michigan) flew in and out on charter aircraft and were on the ground at the Kabul airport for several hours on Tuesday.
That led officials to complain that they could be taking seats that would have otherwise gone to other Americans or Afghans fleeing the country, but the congressmen said in a joint statement that they made sure to leave on a flight with empty seats.
“As members of Congress, we have a duty to provide oversight on the executive branch,'” the two said in their statement.
“We conducted this visit in secret, speaking about it only after our departure, to minimise the risk and disruption to the people on the ground, and because we were there to gather information, not to grandstand.”
The two lawmakers are both military veterans, with backgrounds in the region. Mr Moulton, a Marine who has been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, served multiple tours in Iraq.
Mr Meijer was deployed as part of the Army Reserves and later worked in Afghanistan at a nongovernmental organisation providing aid.
Mr Moulton serves on the House Armed Services Committee and Mr Meijer is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Three officials familiar with the flight said that State Department, Defence Department and White House officials were furious about the incident because it was done without coordination with diplomats or military commanders directing the evacuation.
The US military found out about the visit as the legislators’ aircraft was inbound to Kabul, according to the officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military operations.
One senior US official said the administration saw the lawmakers’ visit as manifestly unhelpful and several other officials said the visit was viewed as a distraction for troops and commanders at the airport who are waging a race against time to evacuate thousands of Americans, at-risk Afghans and others as quickly as possible.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement on Tuesday evening taking note of the desire of some legislators to visit Afghanistan and saying she was writing to “reiterate that the departments of Defence and State have requested that members not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger.
“Ensuring the safe and timely evacuation of individuals at risk requires the full focus and attention of the US military and diplomatic teams on the ground in Afghanistan,” she said.
The Pentagon has repeatedly expressed concerns about security threats in Kabul, including by the Islamic State group.
When members of Congress have routinely gone to war zones over the past two decades, their visits are typically long planned and coordinated with officials on the ground in order to ensure their safety.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday said he was sticking to his August 31 deadline for completing the risky airlift as people flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The two congressmen said they went into their visit wanting “to push the president to extend the August 31st deadline”.
“After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late, that no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time, even by September 11,” they said.
G7 leaders can’t sway Biden to delay Afghanistan withdrawal
Leaders of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialised democracies have so far failed to convince Mr Biden to keep troops on the ground into September.
The United States clashed with some of its closest allies over the insistence on sticking to a withdrawal date that will shut down a frantic international evacuation effort from Taliban rule.
Mr Biden insisted after virtual talks on Tuesday that the US and its closest allies would “stand shoulder to shoulder” in future action over Afghanistan and the Taliban, despite disappointing them in their urgent pleas now to allow time for more airlifts.
The US president was adamant that the risk of terror attacks was too great to accede to appeals from G7 leaders to keep what are now 5800 American troops at Kabul’s airport beyond the end of the month, anchoring the airlifts.
Britain and other allies, many of whose troops followed American forces into Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago to deal with the plotters of the September 11 attacks on the United States, had urged Mr Biden to keep American forces at the Kabul airport longer.
No country would be able to evacuate all their citizens and at-risk Afghan allies by the end of August, allied officials had said.
“We will go on right up until the last moment that we can,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had openly lobbied to maintain the airport presence longer.
Mr Johnson acknowledged he was unable to sway Mr Biden to extend the US military presence in Tuesday’s talks.
A senior French official, speaking anonymously in accordance with the French presidency’s customary practices, said President Emmanuel Macron had pushed for extending the deadline but would “adapt” to the American sovereign decision.
“That’s in the hands of the Americans,” he said.
In a partial show of unity, G7 leaders agreed on conditions for recognising and dealing with a future Taliban-led Afghan government, but there was palpable disappointment Biden could not be persuaded to extend the US operation at the Kabul airport to ensure that tens of thousands of Americans, Europeans, other third-country nationals and all at-risk Afghans can be evacuated.
“Our immediate priority is to ensure the safe evacuation of our citizens and those Afghans who have partnered with us and assisted our efforts over the past twenty years, and to ensure continuing safe passage out of Afghanistan,” the leaders said in a joint statement that did not address precisely how they would guarantee continuing safe passage without any military presence.
Going forward, the leaders said they would “judge the Afghan parties by their actions, not words,” echoing previous warnings to the Taliban not to revert to the strict Islamic form of government that they ran when they last held power from 1996 until the US-led invasion that ousted them in 2001.
“In particular, we reaffirm that the Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing terrorism, on human rights in particular those of women, girls and minorities and on pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan,” the leaders said.
“The legitimacy of any future government depends on the approach it now takes to uphold its international obligations and commitments to ensure a stable Afghanistan.”