WASHINGTON — Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Peter Meijer, R-Mich., stunned Washington when they secretly flew to Kabul on Tuesday on an unauthorized mission to witness the evacuation of Americans and Afghans.
The lawmakers — Iraq War veterans who have emerged as two of the toughest critics of the Biden administration’s withdrawal — took a commercial flight to the United Arab Emirates, where they boarded a military plane to Afghanistan’s capital. They spoke with State Department officials and U.S. commanders and troops on the ground, and saw throngs of Afghans at the gates outside Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The unauthorized trip infuriated administration officials who were already annoyed by the lawmakers’ outspoken criticism and drew bipartisan rebukes from Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, said the trip “certainly took time away from what we had been planning to do that day.”
Moulton and Meijer defended their decision to travel into a dangerous and unpredictable situation and said they had walked away with important insights.
They said the trip had changed their minds about Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for a full withdrawal, which they had previously urged the administration to extend. Given that there is little chance that all Americans and Afghan allies can be evacuated in the next two weeks, they said, a swift departure is the only way for the United States to ensure that the Taliban will cooperate in eventually getting those left behind to safety.
Moulton and Meijer spoke with The New York Times on Wednesday about what they saw in Kabul. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To start out, how did the two of you ultimately decide to do this trip?
Meijer: As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated far more rapidly than many of us anticipated, we realized that we were not going to get the full story from the administration. A lot of the information that we were getting from them was outdated, inaccurate or otherwise irrelevant.
Seth and I were talking and realized, I don’t know what else we could do but to try to get there to understand and help communicate, especially to many of our colleagues who are struggling to get U.S. citizens or special visa applicants out.
On our first call after the fall of Kabul, frankly, when one of the senior briefers couldn’t even say to us — claiming it was classified — where President (Ashraf) Ghani was, when it had been widely reported in local and international media for hours. To me, that was a bit of a breaking point, that they would use any argument to obstruct us from understanding what the true contours of the conflict were.
You have said you tried to minimize disruption to people on the ground. But do you really think that having two members of Congress show up unexpectedly during a perilous time in Kabul did not distract and divert resources from the mission at hand?
Meijer: We had planned to have no requirement for any support by any governmental entity.
We had hoped — and were successful — in briefly talking with a number of leaders on the ground, but also wanted to talk to individuals who weren’t in the highest leadership positions, to get that sense of ground truth.
Moulton: We actually apologized to people for showing up unexpected, and several people said, ‘This is great, because we didn’t have to do anything to prepare for it.’
We said, ‘We do not want to take any resources away from you.’ So we were assigned to people to take us to the gate, both of whom we were told were not doing anything because their work is during the night. And so we did that during the daytime, and at night, we sat in an office in the headquarters, so that we wouldn’t be a burden.
At the end of the day, the impact of our visit on ongoing operations, I believe, will pale in comparison to the impact of the visit.
Walk me through what you saw when you first got to the airport.
Meijer: There were I think close to 20,000 individuals who were waiting on flights out a day or two before we arrived. When we were there, the Air Force and the other personnel on the ground had so efficiently moved those individuals to intermediate staging locations that there were some people there, but it was by no means an overwhelming number waiting for flights. It was probably in the few hundreds.
Moulton: This is one of the most complicated operations that the U.S. military has done in decades. It’s so bad because the administration did not follow our advice for months and start the evacuation earlier. But in the space of a few days, the Marines and soldiers in Kabul have turned this from utter chaos into an orderly evacuation — or at least as orderly as you can hope for in this truly crazy environment.
What are some of the takeaways that you want to share with your colleagues in Congress and the broader public?
Moulton: Almost every veteran in Congress wants to extend the Aug. 31 deadline, including us, and our opinion on that was changed on the ground, because we started the evacuations so late. There’s no way we can get everyone out, even by Sept. 11. So we need to have a working relationship with the Taliban after our departure. And the only way to achieve that is to leave by Aug. 31.
Meijer: It is utterly bizarre and baffling that we’re in this position. To go from having the Taliban as an adversary we’re seeking to kill, to relying upon them for security, coordinating to make sure things run smoothly. It’s a complicated situation that’s impossible to understand if you’re not on the ground and yet critical to saving the lives of tens of thousands.
There are tireless diplomatic officials there who have been working around the clock to clear backlogs, to work on the permissions needed to land in order to make sure all of this goes smoothly.
Moulton: In fact, one of the critical things we learned from our visit is that the task force prioritizing all the (special immigrant visa) applicants is overwhelmed by requests from members of Congress. That’s never been communicated to us, but that is something that we are now communicating to our colleagues.
Did you speak with commanders on the ground about what can be done to help Americans and our Afghan allies who are not in Kabul get to the airport?
Meijer: The commanders on the ground have assembled an array of options. I don’t want to get into specifics. But the important thing to communicate is the way in which those forces will move heaven and earth to rescue American citizens who are stranded. And there are American citizens who are stranded, despite what the White House press secretary would like to say. They have developed actionable plans for that.
Moulton: But the other thing to emphasize is that at the end of the day, we don’t have time to get everyone. That’s why our ongoing relationship with the Taliban is so important.
Meijer: At those gates, that’s where it’s just incredibly chaotic, incredibly heartbreaking — to see individuals with that level of desperation, begging to be rescued.
Something I think people need to know is that there is no scenario that trains a soldier or Marine to take somebody in a wheelchair, and have to push them back out because they don’t meet the paperwork criteria. I think we both are just incredibly concerned.
Moulton: It’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve never been more proud to be an American than after witnessing the soldiers and Marines. They’re navigating conflicts of humanity.
Meijer: But they’re going to need help after.
Moulton: I’ve never talked to more public servants — from salty Marines to the most seasoned State Department officials — who came to tears describing their work.