Bronze Star recipient watches Afghanistan fall from Congress – and wants answers

Representative Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., Speaking at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in 2018, is a former Navy intelligence officer. (Win McNamee, Getty Images / TNS)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) – Jimmy Panetta keeps thinking about the narrow streets leading to Kabul Airport.

The former Navy intelligence officer recalls how grunting traffic, poor roads and crowds of pedestrians made accessing the airport such a challenge during his tour of duty in 2007 and 2008 , and again on his return trips as a member of Congress.

Add to that the brutal US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taliban checkpoints now dot the airport road, and thousands of desperate people – many of them US citizens – are rushing to Hamid Karzai International Airport. to flee the country, and the recipient of the Bronze Star gets angry.

“Damn, where are the contingency plans?” Said Panetta, a Democratic congressman from Carmel, Calif.

How, he wonders, did the Biden administration not have a plan for the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, trapping tens of thousands of US citizens and allies? Afghans, who helped the army and with their families promised a sanctuary?

“It’s just very shocking,” said Panetta.

Panetta is now able not only to ask questions, but also to wait for answers.

He is one of 34 members of Congress who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, including nine Democrats and 25 Republicans.

In the House last year, some of them formed the For Country Caucus, a bipartisan version of the Congress of Foreign War Veterans, to work on legislation where they have common ground. Caucus members pledge to put their military connection above partisan politics by agreeing not to campaign against their colleagues at election time.

The group feels a personal connection to Afghanistan and a moral obligation to find out what went wrong in a conflict that claimed the lives of so many soldiers. Despite disagreements over whether the United States should have left, so far there has been broad bipartisan agreement within caucus that the Biden administration’s withdrawal was deeply flawed.

“The point is, we have to make sure that we hold this administration accountable for meeting that top priority of not leaving any Americans behind out there, getting out of there the people we made promises to, but at the same time getting out of there. know that our reputation is on the move. the line, ”said Panetta, who spent the majority of his deployment in a bunker, following al Qaeda targets of high value to US special forces.

“It’s a personal question because I served there,” he said. “But it’s also a very professional matter as a representative.

Several of the lawmakers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq said the Defense Department, State Department and White House had ignored months of warnings that evacuations were taking too long, the process of visa application was too onerous and many people would be left behind.

Lawmakers remain appalled at the administration’s response. The State Department gave all 435 Representatives and 100 Senators the same email address to contact for voter assistance. Some lawmakers’ offices received hundreds of requests per day.

“These numbers have names and faces to us,” said Colorado Democratic Representative Jason Crow, a former military ranger who toured Iraq and Afghanistan three times from 2002 to 2006 and was awarded a star. of bronze for his actions in Iraq. “They are our friends. They are our allies. These are the people we fought with and worked with. We made promises.

Veterans watched in horror at scenes from the airport: thousands trying to flee the country, a baby pushed over barbed wire into the hands of a Marine, young men and boys who clung to the side of an overloaded C-17 and fell to death after takeoff.

Hawaii Democratic Representative Kaiali’i Kahele, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, said he saw himself in the airmen boarding people in the C-17s. Michigan Republican Representative Peter Meijer, a former military intelligence officer who focused on conflict analysis, sympathizes with those trying to manage crowds. Crow represents himself in his former unit, the 82nd Airborne, which is witnessing the withdrawal.

“You don’t have to be a military strategist to recognize that when you first withdraw the military, then leave your civilians, your contractors, your special immigrant visa applicants behind … it ends badly, ”said Rep. Mike. Garcia, R-Calif., A former Navy pilot who carried out bombings in Iraq. “It wasn’t a lack of intelligence. It wasn’t a lack of forethought. It was outright negligence.

Historically, it is rare that so many lawmakers now find themselves tasked with overseeing the end of a military conflict in which they have personally fought. As a rule, there is more distance between military and political careers. This reflects both the unprecedented length of US action in Afghanistan – 20 years – and the growing interest on both sides in nominating young Congressional candidates with military service.

David Gergen, who has advised Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, predicted that the voices of these former troops in Congress will be amplified in the weeks to come and will be an integral part of congressional inquiries.

“Your pressure and your kind of moral persuasion exceeds that of anyone else in this conversation, the national conversation, and that’s why it’s so important that you keep talking,” he told the lawmakers at an event Friday.

Notably, the Democrats in the caucus are not lenient with the president simply because he is the leader of their party.

“President Biden has and will own this personally, politically and politically,” Panetta said. “This is his administration, and it was his ultimate decision to make at this point.”

Veterinarians on both sides also note that several former presidents – especially Trump, who negotiated the pullout with the Taliban – bear responsibility for America’s longest war.

“There must be an analysis of the negotiations that took place with the ex-president, what happened there. But not just with Donald Trump. Let’s look at what President Obama has done, and look at what President Bush has also done in terms of our involvement and our strategy, ”said Panetta.

To question Obama’s decisions is also potentially to question the decisions made by Panetta’s father, Leon Panetta, who was Obama’s Secretary of Defense and director of the CIA. The former Obama official has criticized the pullout in recent days, comparing it to the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.

“We have to be ruthless and unrestrained,” Meijer said. “It’s not just the botched withdrawal and chaos that we’ve seen unfold. Really, this puts a sore spot on our entire conflict in Afghanistan and, in many ways, also encompasses some of the challenges that we have seen on the failures of our conflict in Iraq.

Panetta said he’s not worried that upcoming surveillance investigations and predictable partisan fire will divide or fracture the caucus – as the shared military experience of field service has left such an impression.

“I think they feel the same way,” he said of his caucus colleagues. “That it’s not a political issue. It is a matter of policy. We need to find out the truth about what happened so that we can hopefully learn from these lessons. “

© 2021 Los Angeles Times.

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