NEW YORK NOW – On the day of President Biden’s deadline to leave Afghanistan, Rep. Lee Zeldin, the presumptive Republican nominee for governor who served in Iraq, said the U.S. military’s exit from the country was poorly executed.
“My first thought is with the 13 Gold Star families who are mourning the loss of their loved one,” Zeldin said. “We have an unknown number of Americans who are currently in Afghanistan. They are without a U.S. government presence anymore, and that weighs heavily on myself.”
That was in reference to the 13 U.S. service members who died in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport last Thursday. Nearly 200 others were killed or injured, according to reports.
Tuesday marked the end of a 20-year presence in Afghanistan, which started after the attacks on 9/11.
Earlier this year, President Biden ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by Aug. 31, but Zeldin, an Army reservist who was previously deployed to Iraq in 2016, says things were done the wrong way.
“You don’t collapse Bagram (Air Base) first. You don’t empty out the prison that’s there, where there are hardened Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban fighters, who are re-entering what is a military conflict … while you still have this mission to evacuate. You don’t use the Taliban for the security checkpoints,” Zeldin said.
“You don’t set an arbitrary Aug. 31 deadline. Our mission is done when we have all of our Americans out.”
Biden spoke on the situation Tuesday, saying there were unforeseen difficulties.
“The assumption was the more than 300,000 Afghan national security forces that we had trained over the past two decades, and equipped, would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban,” Biden said.
“That assumption, that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time beyond military drawdown, turned out not to be accurate.”
Biden had said the U.S. will work to evacuate every American and ally from Afghanistan by Tuesday, but people in both groups remain in the country. Despite that fact, Biden seemed to suggest the evacuation went as planned.
“As General McKenzie said, this is the way the mission was designed. It was designed to operate under severe stress and attack, and that’s what it did,” he said.
“Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan. After we started the evacuation 17 days ago, we did initial outreach and analysis, and identified around 5,000 Americans who had decided earlier to stay in Afghanistan but now wanted to leave.”
Biden said “Operation Allied Rescue,” targeted at U.S. citizens and their families evacuated more than 5,500 people.
Zeldin also took issue with the president’s hard deadline on that front.
“When the president of the United States on July 8 says that it’s highly unlikely that the Taliban will take over the country, but your intelligence community and your defense department are telling you the opposite, don’t mislead the American public,” Zeldin said.
“We also don’t leave behind $85 billion worth of U.S. weapons and equipment. There is a lot of very useful equipment now in the hands of the Taliban that should have been destroyed.”
On the war overall, Zeldin did not give a clear answer about whether or not it was successful.
“For many years, Americans have wanted to end the conflict. The first thing that has been an issue for a long time, is that we’ve never successfully defined what ‘winning’ is in Afghanistan,” Zeldin said.
“In my opinion, if you define victory as taking out Osama bin Laden, fighting the enemy over there as opposed to over here, dismantling the command and control nodes… if you define victory based off of success in that mission, then you’re able to say we’ve achieved our objectives and we can go.”
He said the country never defined the terms of victory for the mission, which led to the troops spending additional time in Afghanistan. Despite his criticism of how the withdrawal was handled, Zeldin said he agrees with the concept of reducing the military’s footprint when appropriate.
“We’ve been there for 20 years, we can’t stay there forever. I strongly support the idea of figuring out how to successfully end any military conflict,” he said.
“From the first moment that you enter a military conflict, you should be highly motivated on figuring out what victory is, and how you are going to leave so you don’t get stuck there forever.”
As things currently stand, it is not clear exactly how many Americans and U.S. allies are unable to leave Afghanistan, but Biden said Tuesday that between one and two-hundred Americans remain.
“Most of those who remain are dual citizens. Longtime residents who had earlier decided to stay, because of their family roots in Afghanistan. The bottom line- 90 percent of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave, were able to leave,” he said.
“And for those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to getting them out if they want to get out.”