You saw the pictures.
The swarm of humanity, jostled against fences at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Take Abbey Gate. That’s where the Americans were. Then the Taliban shut off access to Abbey Gate.
Then the suicide bomber came.
You could anticipate a flurry behind the walls of the Pentagon. The CIA in Langley, Virginia. The State Department in Foggy Bottom. The West Wing. On Capitol Hill. Afghanistan consumed official Washington.
This was all part of a dance which unfolds on the global stage. A crisis erupts far outside the Beltway – often in a place that’s 180 degrees different from Washington, DC. Yet when things turned for the worse in Kabul, things turned for the worse in Washington, too.
The U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. But Afghanistan will continue to rent space in Washington for a long time.
Afghanistan was “bad” – in that sort of “Washington” way.
Anyone in D.C. will always tell you it’s better for a foreign policy crisis to emerge when Congress is out of session. There just aren’t hundreds of reporters trolling about Capitol Hill, sticking cameras and tape recorders into the faces of members of Congress for their comments.
The Senate has been out of session for weeks. Senators started their “August recess” late, toiling on a budget framework for the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social spending bill and the bipartisan infrastructure package. As fate would have it, House Democratic leaders recalled lawmakers in late August to wrestle with the budget resolution for the big spending plan – just as Afghanistan devolved. The Democratic brass struggled for a day to engineer an accord with moderate Democrats, The Democratic discord threatening to imperil President Biden’s agenda.
Nonetheless, Afghanistan threatens do that by itself.
And, from a “Washington” point of view, late August may have been the worst possible time for the House to come back into session.
House members rolled into town in late August. There was an all-House briefing for lawmakers and separate sessions for the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that the intelligence community presented an “increasingly pessimistic” view of Afghanistan over the past six months.
“There were any number of warnings that the Taliban might take over. And some that included a very rapid takeover,” observed Schiff just after his briefing. “I think it’s also fair to say that no one predicted such a rapid collapse and complete collapse of the Afghan government forces.”
Schiff said there was “a real danger” at the airport for someone to engineer an IED and set it off in the crowd.
The bombing happened a few days later. It completely altered the equation.
Democrats were muted in their defense of the Biden administration. Republicans were in full-throated outrage.
But some lawmakers said they knew exactly who deserved most of the blame.
“We live in a time where every politician and everybody is so tribal that they just try to say our side is not responsible. Both sides in this case are responsible,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. “Republicans and Democrats have failed the American people on this.”
“I’ve called this consistently an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions,” declared Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “[President Biden] will have blood on his hands. People are going to die and they are going to be left behind.”
Most lawmakers left Capitol Hill after Wednesday, Aug. 25. The bombing happened on Thursday, Aug. 26.
But lawmakers from both sides still devoured the Biden administration alive after the missteps.
“The public messaging was all over the map on this,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., to colleague Bret Baier. “We should have gotten the civilians out sooner. We should have started that process in March and April.”
“There’s not going to be any impeachment,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., when speaking to the Rotary Club in Pikeville, Kentucky. “The president’s not going to be removed from office. It’s a Democratic House and a narrowly Democratic Senate. That’s not going to happen.”
Questions about “impeachment” over the Afghanistan debacle may face raised eyebrows in some quarters of Washington. But they may not in Pikeville. McConnell’s right. Impeachment is off the table for the 117th Congress, controlled by Democrats. Republicans believe Democrats lowered the bar for impeachment with the double impeachment of President Trump – especially the first impeachment trial in early 2020. So who knows what happens after the 2022 midterms.
The Taliban is now rolling through Afghanistan. ISIS-K is now on the loose. That’s the situation in Afghanistan. And even though the U.S. withdrew its forces, Afghanistan continues to rent a lot of headspace in Washington, DC.
That’s why Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., tried to go to Afghanistan on his own accord to rescue a woman and four children.
“You just don’t go ‘Rambo’ and decide to break into another country and try to extract somebody. I’ve never heard of somebody doing that. And it can cause a lot of problems,” said former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
In other words, heading to Afghanistan to extract people isn’t the same as a lawmaker calling up the Social Security Administration to help a constituent.
The conversation now turns to what’s ahead for the U.S. and Afghanistan – even though the U.S. is not longer in Afghanistan.
There are serious, behind-the-scenes conversations about how the U.S. could “use” the Taliban as a foil against ISIS-K. Think of the proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And remember that it was Congress which funneled money to the ragtag Mujahedeen in the 1980s to fight the Soviets in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.
In other words, we’ve been there before.
There are other covert operations afoot – linked to Afghanistan. Those may continue for years to come.
Washington and Afghanistan are symbiotically tethered. And even though the U.S. physically left, the United States truly isn’t getting out of Afghanistan any time soon.