Some Republicans see the fallout over the US exit from Afghanistan as their new Benghazi – a foreign policy blunder ripe for investigation that could provide just the political ammunition they need to dent a popular Democratic President.
Amid scenes of a chaotic and rushed evacuation from Afghanistan, multiple House Republicans are vowing to launch congressional investigations into the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal if they win back the chamber next year, with some specifically calling for an “Afghanistan Select Committee.”
“This makes Benghazi look like a much smaller issue,” Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, a member of GOP leadership who sits on the Armed Services Committee, told CNN. “This may be one of the worst and most consequential foreign policy and national security disasters in our history. There will be a lot of answers to seek and questions to be answered, and I think it will be a top priority.”
Many of Biden’s harshest GOP critics had scant criticism for former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would have seen an even more rapid timeline for withdrawal. Nevertheless, some have started reviving attacks on President Joe Biden’s mental capacity and questioning his fitness to serve as the commander in chief, with some even calling for Biden to be impeached or to resign over the Afghanistan debacle.
“After the disastrous events in Afghanistan, we must confront a serious question: Is Joe Biden capable of discharging the duties of his office or has time come to exercise the provisions of the 25th Amendment?” tweeted Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the campaign arm for the Senate GOP.
While Republicans had so far struggled to dent Biden’s popularity, privately many of them see the last week as a turning point and one that has the ability to rally and animate their base – not unlike when they used a congressional probe into the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to hammer 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack.
“I think this is way worse than Benghazi. Without a doubt,” Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican facing reelection next year, told CNN.
The Biden administration has defended its decision to pull out of Afghanistan and pointed out that Trump would have done it even more quickly. And the White House is calculating that ultimately the majority of the public is on its side when it comes to bringing the troops home and ending the war. But given how it was executed, the GOP is betting otherwise – and thinks Biden’s approval ratings, and support for the withdrawal, will ultimately dip.
GOP lawmakers, however, insist it’s not about politics. They say it’s about getting to the bottom of Biden’s decision making, which they warn could have long-lasting reverberations for the homeland and all around the world.
“We need to get to the bottom of what happened and how it happened,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and Green Beret who sits on the Armed Services Committee.
Glimmer of bipartisanship in the Senate
In the Senate, there is a slightly different tone coming from some key Republicans, with flickers of bipartisanship so far.
Calls for action are coming from both sides of the aisle, with a group of more than 50 lawmakers sending a letter to the Biden administration Thursday urging expedited processing of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans even as some on the far right have begun waging nativist attacks against refugees and questioning the merits of extracting vulnerable Afghans from the country.
Republicans in the Senate have vowed rigorous oversight and haven’t been afraid to criticize Biden’s administration for the fallout in Afghanistan, but GOP lawmakers have also been focused and resolute on the issue at hand. Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa and combat veteran, told CNN in an interview Thursday night that while she has serious concerns about whether there were intelligence or information sharing failures that contributed to the rapid fall of Kabul, there would be plenty of time to figure out “what happened” and “what went wrong” in the near future.
“What we need to focus on right now is the SIV effort and how we get Americans safely out of the country,” Ernst said. “I have members of the military and former members of the military texting me directly asking for assistance with their interpreters. We need to have a process.”
Behind the scenes, aides and members tell CNN that the frustration and heartbreak at what is playing out in Afghanistan have been bipartisan, fostering an environment that – while it may be short-lived – is at least bringing members together to craft the best strategy to get answers from an administration that has been less than forthcoming at times about its exit plans.
“I do think there is a bipartisan desire to make sure that human rights are being respected in Afghanistan. Now, of course, I cannot imagine my Democratic colleagues will be overly critical about the administration, but I can tell you they are very upset by what they see,” Ernst said. “I do think there is potentially a shelf life here, especially as we roll into an election.”
One Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, agreed that investigations into the intelligence and security failures would likely need to come later.
“We need to put the fire out before we ask the firefighters why it took them so long to respond,” Meijer told CNN in an interview Thursday. “They should brief us. That I am unequivocally in support of, but the time to start up the commission is after we have gotten our American citizens out of harm’s way.”
House subpoena power
In the House, though, tensions between the two parties reached an all-time high in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, and that could trickle into the debate over Afghanistan.
After Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s picks for a select committee to investigate the deadly riot, the California Republican yanked all his selections from the panel and accused Democrats of trying to use the probe to damage Trump’s political prospects.
Now, if the GOP seizes back power in 2022, it looks like House Republicans might create a select committee of their own: Multiple Republican lawmakers and aides said it’s almost certain that the GOP will launch probes into Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. And with control of the House comes subpoena power, meaning Republicans could force Biden officials to testify in hearings and to hand over documents – all in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.
“Is it too soon for us to start discussing an Afghanistan Select Committee to investigate exactly what happened and when?” tweeted Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Republican who represents a swing district in New York. “I’d like to hear from the Americans that were on the ground about their experiences and get the questions answered about how this went so wrong, so fast.”
Republicans – who have only been able to fire off letters to the White House – want to know whether intelligence failures or poor policy decisions led to the botched withdrawal, how the administration plans to ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorism, whether the White House ignored warnings about how dire the situation was on the ground and what happened to the United States’ military aircraft and weapons left in the Taliban’s possession, among other things.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who was one of the GOP members on the House’s Benghazi select committee as a representative from Kansas – addressed the House Republican conference on Thursday morning. Pompeo, a potential 2024 contender, explained how the Trump administration would have approached the withdrawal from Afghanistan, arguing that its evacuation would not have seen the same chaos that is unfolding on Biden’s watch and would have made getting Americans out of the country a top priority, according to sources on the call.
While Republicans did not raise the idea of an Afghanistan select committee during the call, several have publicly floated the idea – including Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, who chairs the largest conservative caucus in the House.
“More than a few are wondering about his competency. Republicans will be looking to investigate every aspect of how this withdrawal was botched and who is ultimately responsible,” said Banks, who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Some Republicans on the far right have gone even further and called for Biden’s impeachment – which the GOP would have the power to do if it controlled the House, though top Republicans have stopped short of endorsing the idea.
“What did Joe Biden know and when did he know it?” tweeted controversial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. “#ImpeachBiden.”
Even Republicans who haven’t gone that far think Biden has dinged his political capital.
“It’s going to make it very, very difficult for any domestic or certainly foreign policy agenda that he may have to be successful. And of course, from our perspective, I think that’s a good thing for America,” said Johnson, the Louisiana Republican. “But certainly I think it has been a significant moment in his presidency, and I don’t think he’ll recover from it.”