November 17, 2021

Chairman Menendez Opening Remarks at Committee Hearing on Lessons Learned from U.S. War in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today convened a full Committee hearing entitled “Afghanistan 2001-2021: U.S. Policy Lessons Learned.” Testifying before the Committee were Ms. Laurel E. Miller, Director of the Asia Program at the International Crisis Group, and the Honorable Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The failure to cement democratic gains in Afghanistan and to prevent the reemergence of a terrorist safe haven is a collective failure. It is a tragedy with many authors and origins. … Only a full accounting of the situation will help us avoid making the same mistakes in the future,” Chairman Menendez said. “We owe it to the American people. We owe it to our troops. We owe it to those in the public and non-profit sectors who dedicated years of their lives to improve Afghan democracy and governance. And we owe it to the people of Afghanistan – women and girls, religious and ethnic minorities – who are most affected by our departure.”

Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s remarks as delivered below.

“Let me thank our witnesses for bearing with us as voting takes place.

In August, just before the fall of Kabul, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a report on the past twenty years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. SIGAR estimated that the war and reconstruction efforts cost American taxpayers more than $2 trillion dollars. The war saw the deaths of nearly 2,500 U.S. servicemen and women and more than 20,000 wounded. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians were killed and countless others were injured.

But despite that high cost in blood and treasure, the United States struggled to enact a coherent strategy that would secure Afghan democracy and build strong governing institutions.

We are here today to examine the missteps and miscalculations over the past 20 years that led to the ultimate failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

The tragic events of this past summer were the culmination of poor decision-making by both Republican and Democratic administrations, going back to 2001. The failure to cement democratic gains in Afghanistan and to prevent the reemergence of a terrorist safe haven is a collective failure. It is a tragedy with many authors and origins.

We’re here today to find out exactly who and what those are.

We have a distinguished panel of witnesses before us today. My hope is that they will help us better understand why successive administrations made so many of the same mistakes repeatedly in Afghanistan.

Before turning to our witnesses, let me share my own views on what those mistakes were.

First, the Bush Administration took its eye off the ball when it invaded Iraq, diverting desperately needed troops, equipment, and humanitarian assistance away from Afghanistan, a war that I voted against. Those resources could have made a difference in preventing the resurgence of the Taliban and building up Afghan governing institutions in their infancy.

Second, the Obama Administration adopted a failed counterinsurgency strategy after taking office. I was skeptical from the very beginning that this strategy would work.

More than 33,000 troops were surged into Afghanistan but given an extremely short time frame, just 18 months, to prepare the Afghan government to take full control. That withdrawal date was repeatedly delayed as the weaknesses of Afghan institutions and security forces became all too clear.

Throughout the war, every administration also unfortunately bought into the fiction that Pakistan would be a partner in peace in Afghanistan. Instead, Islamabad played a double game, continuing to provide shelter to the Taliban even as militants targeted and killed U.S. troops.

Third, the Trump Administration signed a surrender deal with the Taliban that set the stage for our precipitous withdrawal. That deal was built on a set of lies, chief among them that the Taliban would sever their connection with Al Qaeda.

Throughout the negotiations, the Trump Administration excluded the Afghan government and kept secret the details of its agreement from our closest allies, many of whom fought and died on the battlefield alongside us.

President Trump even traded away the release of 5,000 hardened Taliban fighters, boosting the militant group on the battlefield this past summer. The political and security environment for our withdrawal was a direct consequence of Trump’s surrender deal. We should never forget that.

And finally, throughout the entire war, the executive branch failed to keep Congress adequately informed, particularly when the war was going poorly. Officials of both parties either misled or misrepresented the facts to Congress.

They told us that Afghan security forces could assume full responsibility for Afghanistan’s security.

They told us that the Afghan government was taking corruption seriously and gaining legitimacy in the provinces.

And they told us that regional actors like Pakistan were playing a helpful role with respect to the Taliban.

None of that was true.

In closing, we are here to learn what the mistakes were in the course of our 20 year effort in Afghanistan. Only a full accounting of the situation will help us avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

We owe it to the American people.

We owe it to our troops.

We owe it to those in the public and non-profit sectors who dedicated years of their lives to improve Afghan democracy and governance.

And we owe it to the people of Afghanistan – women and girls, religious and ethnic minorities – who are most affected by our departure. 

Let me turn to the distinguished Ranking Member for his opening comments.”

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