This past week, I was lucky enough to sit down with Michigan Congressman and Grand Rapids native Peter Meijer, representative for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to discuss the hottest topic in the news this past month: the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Interviewer: One of the ideas that you ran on was ending long conflicts like the war in Afghanistan. Yet you called the evacuation that the Biden administration conducted haphazard, saying that this conflict was never going to end positively through military engagement and that a negotiated political settlement was necessary. How would you have handled the conflict and evacuation through negotiation? What would that have looked like?
Congressman Meijer: That’s an important distinction. The President often defends his decision to withdraw rather than the way the withdrawal was executed. Again I agree with the decision to withdraw. I agreed when Donald Trump made the decision to withdraw. Part of that was predicated on the negotiations taking place in Doha and the understanding that there was a power sharing agreement that had been reached, and that we would [share power], as the Taliban basically had the same leverage and the US would not just blindly withdraw our leverage so that there would be a push towards an actual political settlement. What we saw during the withdrawal was a unilateral approach, we’re going to be out by August 31st no matter what the situation on the ground.
This is why I also think it’s very very stupid to give a defined time, but everyone does it, I get it. The challenge was we kept withdrawing our forces on the ground, which was the leverage that we had, with the assumption that we would maintain leverage through the legitimacy or remaining legitimacy of the Afghan Government and the remaining repellent force of the Afghan security forces. As the government crumbled, as the security forces crumbled, we did nothing to shore them up and we essentially let them. We let that last remaining leverage just vanish into thin air and turn to dust. That’s how we found ourselves in a scenario where our forces at Kabul airport were entirely dependent on the Taliban for security. We were entirely dependent on the Taliban letting people through their checkpoints to get to our checkpoints to get to safety, and we found ourselves [going from] operating from a position of strength to being entirely dependent on a group that we had been fighting just weeks before.
Interviewer: After your own service in Afghanistan, how did you personally envision the war ending?
Congressman Meijer: The operating assumption I had was that we would have some of the more southern provinces, the more far flung areas, under complete Taliban control. The central government maintains control of Kabul, probably Jalalabad [and] the more central economic parts of the country. There wouldn’t necessarily be a fighting line between the two but it would be, ‘Okay here’s where we are, here’s where you are. How do we create a government that’s a bit more reflective of the underlying power groups and most likely one that’s less centrally managed?’ Afghanistan is a decently large country, but also one where the connections between Kabul the capital and many of the provincial capitals are pretty tenuous. There are flights [but] the overland travel has never really been that safe. It’s a hard country to secure, it would make a lot more sense for those provinces to have a bit more autonomy, to be a little bit more regionally autonomous, and [to have] more of a confederation of provinces and regions than a pure top down form of government.
Interviewer: You said in an interview with The Washington Examiner that there will be three crises due to the evacuation: veterans’ mental health, diminished U.S. standing with our Allies, and the rise of new extremists emboldened by our exit. Can you elaborate a bit on each of these? Is there anything we can do to prevent them from occurring?
Congressman Meijer: [On the] veterans’ mental health side, you know it’s one thing to feel like there was futility to the mission you undertook. It’s another thing to not only feel like nothing was accomplished, [but also] that the people you helped that you supported are now being abandoned and left behind. That’s the issue with a lot of the special immigrant visas eligible individuals, the interpreters, the translators, and others that helped us out. So it’s not just that what you did amounted to nothing. It’s that what you did amounted to a negative consequence, in that you left people behind to die. So that’s something that we have to be incredibly mindful of.
I mean, I’m a veteran, I spend a lot of time in the veterans community, I’m the chairman of the board for student veterans of America, this is my social network. The first question is: How are you doing? How are you holding up? Because this has been a gut punch, seeing how quickly things fell apart. Then number two is: Who are you trying to get out? I think that there’s a lot of folks still holding out hope that the people that they’re talking to, that are moving from house to house every night to stay safe, that we can still do something to get them to safety.
I think that we need to work on that closely, [because] if that hope dies then I think it will be bad. [As for] our standing in the world, I have talked to countless representatives of our allies that are deeply disillusioned and frustrated. Especially NATO allies. I think Americans tend to forget that this was a NATO mission in Afghanistan, we may have supplied the majority of the forces and took the most casualties, over 2400 U.S service members lost their lives, but over 1100 NATO service members did too, and for some of these smaller countries these are their first combat fatalities since World War II. It’s the only time that Article V, [the] self-defense provision of the NATO charter, has been invoked.
Some of them had already left the country, their militaries had already left the country by April when President Biden announced the withdrawal, but most of them still had diplomatic missions; diplomatic presence, development missions, and development presence, and I know they found out about the withdrawal date from the news.
They weren’t kept in the loop on that, and that to me was a tremendous misstep and showed a disregard for our allies. The fact that on 9/11 2021 the Taliban control more parts of Afghanistan than they did on 9/11 2001 is unbelievably depressing, and then you add in, if you’re Russia or China looking at the US, just how dismally this withdrawal was executed and how quickly it fell apart, you not only see a country that is not willing to stay through even as conditions change, is willing to turn their back on folks they said they would support, but also a country that just cannot execute military strategy well.
That will be the longest impact, both the US being incredibly hesitant, and again I’m not a fan of us pushing forward with interventionist foreign policy, but I also don’t think we should shut ourselves off from the world. There’s a way you can be engaged through diplomacy through intelligence collection, holding out military engagement as the last option whenever everything else has been exhausted. If this causes us to completely shut down and hide from the world, others will fill that vacuum. We’re already starting to see that. I guarantee you that after what’s happened, Russia and China are looking at this and saying ‘this affirms a lot of our suspicions’.
Interviewer: You have said that Congress is outsourcing all its war power authority to the Executive Branch, in this instance and others. Could you provide examples of this in history and what the impact of it is? What do you plan on doing to change it?
Congressman Meijer: Obviously under Article I powers, Congress declares war. We are the power that gives the President the authority to engage in conflict. That can be through a declaration of war, which we haven’t done since WWII, or through Authorization for the Use of Military Force. So you’re not declaring war, just authorizing use. We haven’t passed an authorization since 2002, when we passed an authorization to go to war in Iraq for the second time, [and] except for the conflict in Iraq from 2003-2011 all of the engagements we’ve been involved with in the past two decades have been justified under the post 9/11 AUMF.
This was to go after Al-Qaeda and associative forces, initially Al-Qaeda and associated forces in Afghanistan, but it didn’t have geographic limit. What was meant to go after folks in Afghanistan and Pakistan ended up being applied to 19 countries. Fighting in 19 different countries. The associated forces have grown to include groups that didn’t exist on 9/11, and groups that have actively been fighting Al-Qaeda when we went after them. Again, no one’s saying that ISIS aren’t bad guys, but to use [the AUMF] when they’re actively fighting Al-Qaeda, and we’re using the same authorization we use to go after Al-Qaeda, it becomes a pretty loose definition, and no member in Congress has had to reaffirm that authorization for the use of military force since it was passed in 2001.
The big challenge there is that Presidents have basically been given a blank check to do whatever they want on this issue. And that has led to very little scrutiny and very little oversight. If we had to authorize an AUMF every two years, then every member of Congress would have to vote yes or no on whether to continue that, [and] the American public would have a better say on whether or not we should be engaged in a place like Yemen or Somalia. It wouldn’t be a unilateral decision by an executive, and even if Congress isn’t asking the right questions, forcing us to do our jobs will also force the President and his/her administration to articulate why we’re still fighting. To share what the strategy is and what we hope to achieve. It’s really about renewing the separation of powers and those checks and balances, taking back authorities that were granted to Congress by the framers, and making sure that we have a system that has accountability. Not just one where we say Mr. or Madam President whatever you want to do go for it.
Interviewer: You recently traveled to Afghanistan, which raised criticism from the State Department, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).Do you believe that your trip was necessary? What did you see and what did you learn on your trip?
Congressman Meijer: I do, I do believe that it was necessary. It’s not surprising that a lot of anonymous political appointees were very angry and outraged. They wanted us to focus elsewhere. I think President Biden has consistently tried to distract attention from what is happening in Afghanistan, he wants to focus on his domestic priorities. He just wants to be rid of this issue. Again it is something that we have an obligation and a commitment to, and it’s not something that we can just turn our backs on. Both Congressman Moulton and I reached a point where we said we have no idea what is going on at the ground at Kabul airport, and this is the most important place in the world right now.
What we do in these next two weeks, week and half, ten days, what we do in that time period will have far lasting impacts. We’re going to have committee hearings on this, probably Congressional investigations on this, we may even have an independent commission on this. We also went in thinking we need to make the case to push the August 31st deadline. It wasn’t until we got there that we saw how utterly dependent our forces on the ground were on the Taliban letting them stay. The Taliban did not attack us when they could, we were there working alongside them. And that was an entirely bizarre scenario, we did not have leverage. So we were not only asking at every corner, what resources can we get you? How can we speed this up? [We] also came out with more prioritized ways of getting [help to] people that need to be rescued, getting that info into the right hands, and just came away with an understanding of the reality we were looking at.