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Veterans’ searing testimony drives GOP-led House panel hearing on Afghanistan exit

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(WASHINGTON, D.C.) — During their first hearing investigating the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee sought Wednesday to evoke memories of the frenzied final days of the occupation, relying on emotional testimony from veterans who witnessed the evacuations and a deadly explosion outside of Kabul’s airport that killed 13 American service members along with scores of Afghans.

One of the witnesses at the hearing, Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, was badly injured by that blast — a suicide bombing carried out by the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K.

Through tears, Vargas-Andrews described in poignant detail the moment he was thrown 12 feet by “a massive wave of pressure.”

“I opened my eyes to Marines — dead or unconscious — lying around me,” he said. “A crowd of hundreds vanished in front of me, and my body was catastrophically wounded.”

Vargas-Andrews lost an arm and a leg in the explosion, but much of his testimony focused on the hours leading up to the attack — the moments when he believes he and his fellow Marines could have stopped it from ever happening. He testified that on Aug. 26, 2021, the day of the attack, the military had intelligence that a suicide bomber traveling with a companion intended to strike Abbey Gate, the entrance to the airport, as well as a description of their physical appearances.

His team spotted two men matching that description who were “consistently and nervously looking up at our position through the crowd,” Vargas-Andrews said, adding that the older of the two appeared to be coaching the younger one.

Although they sent photos to their higher ups and asked for permission to shoot them, Vargas-Andrews said the only answer they received from their battalion commander was “I don’t know.”

Shortly after, the blast came.

While tacticians and other experts might debate the merits of pulling the trigger on an unconfirmed target, Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, argued that the lack of clear answer from Vargas-Andrews’ superiors at the time was indicative of a broader issue — the Biden’s administration’s disorder.

In his opening statement on Wednesday, McCaul accused diplomats and the White House of ignoring grim intelligence assessments depicting the realities on the ground in Afghanistan as the Taliban crept closer to Kabul, eventually overtaking the city in August 2021. At the time, the final American troops were preparing to leave the country as part of what the president said then was a necessary if difficult end to a historically long conflict that had stretched far beyond its goal, costing too much in lives and money.

But in McCaul’s view on Wednesday, “We simply weren’t ready” to leave.

Another veteran, former Army Spc. Aidan Gunderson, spoke to the lack of preparedness. He recalled embarking on a rapid deployment to help secure the Kabul airport in 2021 while evacuations of American citizens and allies were underway, saying the only food they had was whatever they happened to stash in their rucksacks before departing the U.S.

“Not a single person on that plane was prepared for Kabul,” Gunderson said of his unit’s crossing into Afghanistan. “To say supplies were scarce is an understatement.”

Gunderson said that immediately upon landing in Kabul, the disorder and desperation was apparent. He vividly described seeing the airport swarmed with Afghans trying to flee and completely encircled by heavily armed Taliban fighters, who were permitting the withdrawal.

He also recalled the remains of those who had been so desperate to escape that they tried clinging to the landing gear of a plane as it took off.

“At this moment, I truly understood that the Afghans were risking everything — even death — to escape the Taliban,” he said, choking up. “I see the faces of all the people we cannot save — all those we left behind.”

Retired Army Special Forces Lt. Col. David Scott Mann, another witness, spoke to the trauma inflicted on the veteran community by the withdrawal, predicting the U.S. was on the “front end of a mental health tsunami.”

“We might be done with Afghanistan, but it’s not done with us,” he said.

Although Democrats listened attentively to the witnesses and expressed a desire to learn from mistakes made throughout the decades-long war, some of them accused Republicans of putting on a partisan show and unfairly pinning the blame solely on the Biden administration.

“Today’s hearing should be focused on examining the full scope of this conflict — its failures and its successes,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. “I fear, however, that today’s hearing was not convened in that spirit but rather as an attempt to distract us from the full picture and even in some cases to try and score political points, which I believe dishonors the lives lost and the bravery of those who sit in front of this committee.”

Republicans disagreed.

Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry accused Democrats in turn of attempting to avoid accountability and called for a full hearing with “the folks at the top” — the secretaries of defense and state, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“That’s certainly our game plan,” McCaul replied.

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