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Veterans give scathing testimony on US withdrawal from Afghanistan at hearing | Afghanistan

Servicemen and veterans of the Afghan war offered harrowing eyewitness accounts of the chaotic and deadly withdrawal of US troops from the country’s longest conflict, during an hour-long congressional hearing on Wednesday. They implored lawmakers that it was not too late to help Afghan allies left behind when the Taliban took over.

Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, several witnesses recounted in vivid, sometimes graphic detail, their experiences as active-duty military personnel sent to assist in the withdrawal as Kabul fell to the Taliban.

“The pullout was a disaster in my opinion and there was an inexcusable lack of responsibility and negligence,” said Marine Sergeant Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was seriously injured in the suicide bombing at the outside Kabul airport that killed 13 US servicemen and about 170 Afghans. .

In tearful testimony, Vargas-Andrews recalled scenes of despair as parents handed over their children to strangers in hopes they would be rescued while others unable to leave chose to kill themselves rather than go. face the brutality of the Taliban.

“Thoughts of those two weeks have plagued my mind since I got home,” said Aidan Gunderson, a former army specialist who left active duty in July. “I see the faces of all the people we couldn’t save, of all the people we left behind.”

The hearing was the first in what is expected to be a multi-part Republican-led inquiry into the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan in August 2021. After the president’s decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. forces , which followed Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban that required U.S. forces to leave the country by May 2021, the Afghan government and military have collapsed much faster than security services had anticipated. American intelligence.

For two weeks, the world watched harrowing scenes unfold live on television – including desperate Afghans clinging to a US transport plane before takeoff.

“What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at all levels,” Congressman Michael McCaul, Republican chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks, pledging to stand responsible for all administration officials responsible for what he said was the “abdication of the United States government’s most basic duties to protect Americans and leave no one behind.”

In the chaos, McCaul said the United States left more than “1,000 American citizens” in Afghanistan as well as “nearly 200,000” Afghan allies. To those “left behind”, the Republican president said he was committed to getting them “out of there”.

Afghans struggle to enter Kabul airport in 2021 as US forces prepare to leave. Photograph: Akhter Gulfam/EPA

Speaking under oath in a personal capacity, Vargas-Andrews told the panel that he and others serving alongside him had identified two men who fit the description of two people who were plotting an attack on the mob of Afghans trying to enter Kabul airport. But Vargas-Andrews said he and his fellow soldiers were not authorized by their commander to shoot the suspects.

“The 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier who were murdered that day remain unanswered,” said Vargas-Andrews, who has since undergone 44 surgeries for injuries sustained in the attack.

The Biden administration has defended its handling of the withdrawal, arguing it was a difficult but effective end to the US presence in Afghanistan.

Ranking Democrat on the committee, Gregory Meeks of New York, said Biden had made the “right decision” to end the decades-long war in Afghanistan, which he said “began as an effort to decimate al-Qaeda” and “turned into a balloon”. nation-building exercise that spanned four administrations and saw more than 800,000 American military personnel deploy, and, yes, the tragic deaths of more than 2,461 Americans, including the 13 killed in the operation evacuation”.

He acknowledged that these were “mistakes made” during the evacuation that deserved to be addressed, but urged the panel to use the opportunity to help improve the situation for Afghans still stuck in their homes. countries and those who remain in legal limbo in the United States.

The witnesses all urged members of Congress to take action to help Afghans and their families who risked their lives to help US troops during the 20-year war. Those who remain in Afghanistan face retaliation from the Taliban, while many of those evacuated face uncertainty over their legal status.

“If I leave this committee with one thought, it’s this: It’s not too late,” said Peter Lucier, a Navy veteran who helped relocate allied Afghans with Team America Relief, in his address to the panel.

“This is not the story of a Biden failure or a Trump failure. This is the story of an American failure and the effect it has had and continues to have on the Afghans who served alongside me and so many others,” he continued. “The failures that got to this point are owned and shared by four administrations, by Congress, and by 320 million Americans. It was our war.

The testimonies revealed the mental and physical wounds carried by those who aided in the withdrawal, and their accounts brought tears to witnesses, lawmakers and onlookers.

In another gripping tale, Vargas-Andrews recalls reuniting a family as he helped control the crowds gathered outside the airport gate. He said he noticed a little girl, about seven or eight years old, who had managed to sneak out, holding her younger brother’s hand and a baby in her arms.

When he reached the children, he noticed the baby’s face was blue and didn’t seem to be breathing. Unsure if the baby was alive, he frantically sought a doctor who then successfully administered help. The little girl began to sob pulling on her uniform and pleading abbahis father.

Vargas-Andrews said he climbed into an SUV overhanging the barbed wire fence erected around the airport and hoisted the girl into the air. She pointed to one man among the hundreds of people, hands on his head, staring at her, tears streaming down his face.

The family embraced and, waving the papers that would allow them to leave the country, the father led his children to a “life of freedom and opportunity”, Vargas-Andrews said.

“For me,” he said, “it was a time when my injury was worth it.”

theguardian Gt

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