WASHINGTON — After spending a whirlwind 12 hours in Kabul, much to the chagrin of congressional leadership and Biden administration officials, U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., says he’s come home both livid and heartbroken over the “botched” withdrawal from the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan.
As some of his peers call for President Joe Biden to be impeached, the freshman lawmaker from Grand Rapids Township isn’t ruling it out.
“I totally support strong and unsparing accountability,” Meijer said in a Friday interview with The Detroit News. “At this point, right now is the time to be responding to the emergency. There will be a time for accountability soon, but we need to get as many people to safety as quickly as possible before that.”
The freshman lawmaker made news in January by joining nine other Republicans and all House Democrats in impeaching then President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The GOP-controlled Senate subsequently voted to keep Trump in office.
The rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban before the Biden administration could complete its withdrawal has led to similar demands against Biden, a Democrat.
Meijer and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., secretly took a commercial flight to the Middle East on Sunday night and used “non-U.S. connections” to fly into Kabul, Meijer said. He declined to say which city they flew to or who helped them get into the airport they found in “chaos.”
Meijer said he and Moulton hopped a military flight from Kabul to the Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait and the Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar, where those being evacuated from Afghanistan wait to be relocated to the U.S. and other countries. The Pentagon has acknowledged refugees have faced “terrible conditions” at Al Udeid, and Meijer said “there are still risks that are very present and concerning” for those who make it out of Afghanistan.
Unnamed U.S. officials contended Meijer and Moulton had taken a chartered aircraft to Kabul.
The two lawmakers traveled to the United Arab Emirates on a flight they purchased personally, then caught a military flight to Kabul that had available seats, Meijer spokeswoman Emily Taylor told The Detroit News early Wednesday. They insisted on departing on a military flight that had empty seats and sat in crew-only seats, Taylor said.
The pair of lawmakers and veterans had hoped to push Biden to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to evacuate Americans and allies from the country — an opinion they abandoned after seeing the situation on the ground at the airport in Kabul.
“We saw just the incredibly difficult circumstance that President Biden’s failure of a withdrawal has created,” Meijer said. He said he spoke with people attempting to leave the city whose emails to the State Department were bouncing back from a full inbox, saw Marines working around the clock to keep the airport gates open to ferry people to safety and spoke with commanders on the ground.
“We were convinced by those forces that we had to leave with the timeline that we had,” Meijer said, adding that staying longer would put more American lives at risk and fail to evacuate more people.
He said he felt assured beforehand that the Biden administration understood the pitfalls and would take appropriate action ahead of the withdrawal.
“That is one of the reasons why I feel betrayed at the way that this has gone out,” Meijer said. “I am deeply frustrated at the botched execution of this, and I resolve to get to the bottom of where that disconnect was.”
Before leaving office, Trump struck a deal with the Taliban that the United States would leave Afghanistan by May. When Biden took over, he planned to follow through but moved the deadline to Sept. 11. He later changed the date again to Aug. 31.
But as U.S. troops began withdrawing, the Taliban quickly began taking over parts of the country from the Afghan government and seized the capital, Kabul, months faster than the administration expected. It left the remaining military scrambling to evacuate Americans still in the country and Afghan allies who had helped U.S. forces over the past two decades.
The U.S. has evacuated around 109,200 people since Aug. 14, according to a White House Friday afternoon statement.
In the nearly two weeks since Kabul fell to the Taliban, Biden has acknowledged that officials were surprised by the speed of the Taliban takeover but has stood by the decision to withdraw from the conflict.
Republicans, meanwhile, have called for Biden to step down or for Congress to kick him out of office. Meijer was one of 10 House Republicans to join Democrats in voting to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection one week after a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol building.
Republicans remain in the minority in both chambers of Congress, though they are evenly split in the Senate with Democrats, who control the chamber because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast tie-breaking votes. This situation makes their impeachment threats empty.
But if they win back the House in 2022 — and a new president’s party rarely does well in the next midterm elections — impeachment over Afghanistan is much more likely.
“We need a full accounting of who knew what, when and how they responded” to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, Meijer told The Detroit News. “This is not a simple thing that can be done overnight, but I think we need to really remember and then focus on what happened, the sacrifices that were made, the lives that were lost, and really commit to ensuring that we never will allow anything like this to happen again.”
Meijer’s covert flight to Afghanistan was met with fury from administration officials and from Democratic leaders in Congress, who accused them of diverting resources amid a critical mission. Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy said he understands their frustration but that he also cautioned them not to go.
Meijer argued the trip was necessary to provide congressional oversight of the evacuation and said the pair took every precaution not to distract from the military’s efforts. They timed the visit “during the low point in activity,” spoke for around 15 minutes with one of the generals and took a member of his detail who wasn’t needed for the rest of the day, he said.
“But that was the extent. This was not something that required a tremendous amount of support,” Meijer said. They took jump seats near the cockpit on a military plane that Meijer said are not usually used, even in an emergency situation like what’s unfolding in Kabul.
Both Meijer and Moulton voted by proxy Tuesday, when the U.S. House convened to kick off the process for writing a social spending bill supported by Democrats and setting a deadline to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package. Voting by proxy requires attesting to absence “due to the public health emergency” of COVID-19.
Moulton served in the Marine Corps and Meijer served in Iraq with the U.S. Army. After serving in Iraq, Meijer advised humanitarian groups in Afghanistan. He ran for Congress in 2020 on a platform of withdrawing from Afghanistan after former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township decided not to run for re-election.
Meijer’s trip was just two days before an ISIS affiliate bombing at the Kabul airport killed at least 13 American service members and injured 18 more. It was one of the highest single-day death tolls for the U.S. military throughout the war.
Biden pledged to the attackers that the U.S. “will hunt you down and make you pay,” and spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it was “maybe the worst day” of Biden’s presidency.
Meijer turned his phone on when he landed in the U.S. on Thursday. The first message he received, he said, was that a family he had been working to get through the gates were safe and being transported out of the country. The second was the news of the deadly attack.
“Talk about bouncing from relief to crushing grief in a heartbeat,” he said Friday. “I’m not at the point of introspection. I’m at the point of action and trying to do everything we can in the hours remaining to get as many people out as possible.”
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