Vermont’s three congressional delegates continued to support President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan on Monday despite a swift collapse of the government and takeover by the Taliban.
At the same time, U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., expressed dismay at the unfolding crisis there and urged the president to do everything possible to save allies still trapped in the country.
The Taliban’s remarkable advance was capped Sunday when the American-backed government in Afghanistan collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country — just a few months after Biden announced his decision to withdraw troops after 20 years of American presence in the country.
Droves of civilians flocked to the airport, some of them hanging on to American military jets, desperate to escape Taliban rule.
All three members of Congress from Vermont backed Biden when he first announced in April that he would be withdrawing troops and ending the American occupation of Afghanistan, including Welch calling the decision “long overdue” and Sanders calling it “brave and right.”
In an interview on Monday, Welch said he still supported the decision but suggested the “execution is a catastrophe.”
He said the U.S. should have never been “engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan” to begin with, calling it “a decision based on hubris.”
While Welch said he supports the actions Biden is taking to secure the airport in Kabul, he expressed concern for the many interpreters, women and American allies who live far from the capital and likely will not be able to make safe passage to the airport.
“How can folks in rural parts of Afghanistan get to the airport? It’s heartbreaking,” he said, recalling four trips he had taken to the country.
Leahy echoed Welch on both counts. He said he supported Biden’s decision — calling it “long overdue” — but believed it was executed poorly due to “bad intelligence,” a phrase that was also used by Welch.
“The counterinsurgency war was unwinnable, and the Afghan government was never a credible partner,” Leahy said in a written statement provided to VTDigger. “The withdrawal was poorly planned due to a glaring failure of intelligence about the resilience of the Afghan army.”
Sanders tweeted on Sunday night that “after 20 years of U.S. effort, the loss of 2,448 soldiers and a trillion spent, Afghanistan was left with a corrupt government and an ineffectual military.”
His office did not respond to a request for comment.
“We must do everything we can to evacuate our allies and open our doors to refugees,” Sanders wrote in the tweet.
Biden addressed the nation from the East Room of the White House on Monday afternoon, where he fervently stood by his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
“There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our sources,” the president said, referring to a deal the Trump administration made with the Taliban to withdraw troops by May 2021 in exchange for a ceasefire, “or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan and lurching into the third decade of conflict. I stand squarely behind my decision.”
He conceded that the Taliban’s takeover “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”
Biden revealed he had authorized the deployment of 6,000 U.S. troops to the airport in Kabul, where he said they would “assist in the departure of U.S. and allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan” and “evacuate Afghan allies to safety outside of Afghanistan.”
Welch and Leahy argued the Biden administration should have made better arrangements in advance to get allies out of the country before “total breakdown,” noting that many American allies, including women, judges, journalists and interpreters would likely face retaliation from the Taliban.
As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy secured a deal in July that would provide $1.125 billion of emergency security money to Afghan refugee assistance in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal from the region. The package also included $600 million for humanitarian aid for Afghan refugees and 8,000 new Afghan special immigration visas. Biden signed the bill into law early this month.
The funds were initially opposed by Republicans and “are obviously needed today,” Leahy said.
He also said the United States should take in more Afghan refugees. “I know in Vermont there are communities ready and willing to welcome Afghans, and that is true of communities in many states,” Leahy wrote.
“We should be doing everything we can to help those who helped us in getting out of Afghanistan,” Welch said. “We should be very generous with refugee visas for those folks. That's the bare minimum.”
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