“We need to stop overthinking this,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine Corps veteran who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. “Cut the bureaucratic b.s. Put people on planes, land them at bases and deal with the paperwork later.”
Rep. Jason Crow, an Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, organized a press call Monday to publicly pressure the White House to secure the airfield as quickly as possible. The Colorado Democrat has been critical of Biden’s withdrawal, and said evacuations should have begun months ago.
“Keep Kabul airport open,” Crow said on the call, which included exasperated lawmakers from both parties as well as former diplomats such as Madeleine Albright. “Keep it open as long as we possibly can.”
As the situation spun out of control Monday, Director of Defense Intelligence Garry Reid said the administration was preparing at least two locations to temporarily house potentially thousands of at-risk Afghans in the coming days: Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss in Texas. Biden, after days of silence, delivered remarks from the White House on Monday afternoon that acknowledged the crisis escalated more quickly than expected.
“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces,” Biden said. “But the truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.”
In his speech, Biden vowed that the U.S. military would help to transport thousands of American citizens and other allies out of Afghanistan in the coming days. He said the White House would also expand refugee access to cover “other vulnerable Afghans” who worked for nongovernmental organizations or news outlets. But he did not provide details about how exactly those trapped would get out.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who represents the Fort McCoy base, said in a statement that he is awaiting further details but has “full confidence in our outstanding service members at Fort McCoy and stand ready to work with local, state, and federal leaders to assist however possible.”
In the meantime, lawmakers and aides said they feel helpless as they struggle to reach government agencies to try to coordinate evacuations from the war-torn nation, where the Taliban have cut off phone and Internet access. After a tense call between lawmakers and administration officials Sunday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office sent around a State Department email address for members to use as a point of contact for desperate constituents.
Adding to the situation, Biden administration officials informed members of Congress on a call Sunday that they had planned for a number of contingencies, including a rapid collapse of the government in Afghanistan, according to Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) and other listeners. This point was echoed in White House talking points on Afghanistan that Pelosi’s office subsequently circulated a day after the call, first reported by the Washington Post.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) said in a phone interview she was trying to prioritize all of her constituents’ needs as they tried to leave Afghanistan. One student, she said, had gone back to Afghanistan to attend her mother’s funeral but was now “stuck there” without any other relatives to help. Another woman was still in Afghanistan with her child but could not leave because her husband was not yet cleared to leave.
“People are literally fleeing for their lives with their belongings on their back, and we need to make sure that we are being accommodating to their situation,” Meng said.
She said the State Department had been “responsive” through the point of contact email circulated among congressional staff and that her office had been in touch with Department staff as well.
“I think it’s important not to spend time right now pointing fingers but to be doing everything we can, within our power to evacuate people,” she said.
But other Democratic members and staff said Monday the system was inundated with requests and they were struggling to get through. Some of those Democrats even shared with POLITICO messages and images they were receiving from terrified Afghans stuck in the country and fearing death at the hands of the Taliban.
With an overloaded State Department, some lawmakers attempted to take matters into their own hands. Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who served in Afghanistan as a civilian official at the State Department, used Twitter to crowdsource names of trapped evacuees that he said he would use to push for a swift rescue.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, also threw out a similar lifeline to his constituents on Twitter Sunday night and told Fox News Monday that his office has had between 400 and 500 people “pleading for assistance” for getting to the airport and out of Afghanistan.
It’s not unusual for congressional offices to help constituents deal with bureaucratic hurdles across a web of federal agencies. But this type of casework has taken on far more urgency — and more uncertainty — with hundreds of Americans and allies now stranded in Taliban-controlled territory after the sudden collapse of the U.S.-backed government.
“I am focused now on the practical operational challenge of getting people out,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who previously served in a top State Department role where he pushed for human rights overseas. “We’ll have the bigger debate later.”
Malinowski said it was unclear exactly how much Congress could do as chaos unfolded in Afghanistan, apart from keeping pressure on the Biden administration “to meet its responsibilities” and ensuring every person who is on the U.S. list is pulled out.
But he said if the evacuation succeeds, lawmakers may have a short-term role in ensuring food and housing for the evacuees.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who served in the Air Force for more than a decade, said two staffers in his office — a retired colonel who was a provincial reconstruction team commander in Afghanistan and another staffer who used to work with the country’s first lady’s office — have both been hearing frantic pleas for help.
“Pictures of a dozen or so Afghans holding on for dear life [to] a taxiing aircraft does not instill confidence … and seeing people falling off airborne aircraft is absolutely terrible,” Bacon said, noting that “heads need to roll” at the Pentagon and State Department.
Several House offices said they were directly hearing from contacts in Afghanistan — including the office of Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), who conducted combat missions in Afghanistan — who said they are directly engaged with dozens of Afghans. Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), also a veteran, said his office is receiving “tons” of calls.
Waltz, a Green Beret, spoke on the bipartisan press call on Monday to urge Biden officials to drop the fight over paperwork.
“The State Department cannot give people a death sentence over typos and the wrong forms,” Waltz said.
It’s not just House offices. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at an event in Kentucky Monday that his office was also getting calls “from people who have family over there who are worried about them getting out.”
“I hope the president will put in enough troops to get out as many people as possible, not only all the Americans obviously but those who worked with us, who depended on us,” McConnell added.
A spokesperson for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said her office is collecting the names of vulnerable individuals and giving them to the State Department. Last month, the Senate passed a security supplemental that included a provision from Shaheen and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) that increased the number of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent a letter to Pelosi calling for the House to immediately return for “emergency oversight briefings” from Biden administration officials about intelligence failures that vastly underestimated the Taliban’s ability to quickly overrun the country.
The House will be back in D.C. next week, with members set to receive a classified briefing on Afghanistan. But so far, neither the House nor the Senate have plans to return early, according to leadership aides in both chambers.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.