Senators Fear Repercussions of Pulling Troops Out of Afghanistan

A hearing with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad showed just how nervous lawmakers are about Biden’s plan to reduce U.S. presence in the region. 

Zalmay Khalilzad, special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation at the State Department, testifies in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on U.S. policy in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden’s announcement two weeks ago that he would pull all remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021 — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — has left many concerned about a potentially dangerous power vacuum they’ll leave behind.

Lawmakers in the U.S., Afghan politicians and citizens of the region alike have expressed concerns that the Taliban might take over the Afghan government without U.S. and NATO presence or that the country will become vulnerable to other terrorist actors or foreign influence.

On Tuesday, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the administration’s policy on Afghanistan, where they peppered U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with questions about the stability of the country as U.S. forces withdraw.

Ambassador Khalilzad, testifying on behalf of the Biden administration, said the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan wasn’t made lightly.

“This decision was reached by extensive review and clear-eyed focus on the ground,” he said.   

He testified that the administration used “four judgments” when deciding on withdrawal: Al-Qaida had been rooted out, Osama Bin-Laden had been brought to justice, the world had changed since 2001 and the terrorist threat today is dispersed throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. 

“As the president has said, we must fight the battles of the next 20 years,” Khalilzad said. “Not the past 20.” 

The U.S. entered into an agreement with the Taliban last year, under which forces were supposed to withdraw by May 1, 2021. And the U.S. and Afghanistan signed a treaty last February declaring that Afghanistan would cooperate with ongoing peacekeeping efforts, uphold the social and economic gains for its citizens, and prohibit terrorist groups from recruiting or training new members on Afghan soil.

But many senators on the committee weren’t convinced that the Afghan government would — or could — keep their word.  

Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, asked the ambassador about the potential for an “imminent collapse” of diplomatic relations and political stability in the country. “Are you satisfied with the negotiation process that was carried out between yourself and the Taliban?” he said. 

Yes, Khalilzad replied, saying they have little recourse otherwise.

“I believe the choice that the Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war,” he said.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, pointed out that taking action against the Afghan government when it violated norms was “easier said than done,” and asked Khalilzad what he believed would put Congress in the “strongest possible position” to uphold their commitments to human rights. 

Khalilzad argued that the government should be incentivized from afar by making international aid conditional. The two issues paramount to the U.S.’s policy are threats to national security and human rights, he said. “We need to make it clear that both are important.” 

But Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that intelligence on the ground showed that “we are moving backwards, not forwards” on both fronts. 

Several senators expressed concern over the plight of women and girls in the region, especially if the Taliban succeeded in taking over the government.  

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and a staunch critic of Biden’s withdrawal plan, presented the committee with large, blown-up photos of seven Afghan women who had been killed by the Taliban. 

Each of the women posthumously won the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award, including: General Sharmila Frough, head of the Gender Unit in the National Directorate of Security, who was assassinated by an IED explosion in Kabul; Malalai Maiwand, a reporter who was shot and killed in her vehicle in December 2020; and Maryam Noorzad, a midwife who was killed by three gunmen while delivering a baby in Kabul. 

“They killed the woman and they killed the baby,” Shaheen stressed. “We owe it to the women and girls that their hard-fought rights are preserved.” 

Generally, Khalilzad stuck to President Biden’s line: Withdrawing from the region, he said, is the best path forward to progress. When Senator Todd Young, R-Ind., asked whether there’d be a spike in violence targeting U.S. forces and other Americans in Afghanistan if they stayed, Khalilzad agreed. “The president made that clear, yes.”

We’d likely be back at war with the Taliban, he said. 

“So this was the decision,” Young said, “whether we go back to war.” 

The committee hearing was held as the State Department issued a travel advisory mentioning that it had ordered staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul whose “functions can be performed elsewhere” to leave the country. The advisory also said that U.S. citizens who want to leave Afghanistan should do so “as soon as possible on available commercial flights.”

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