Congressional lawmakers lamented on Wednesday they wished they could have done more to save American citizens stranded in Afghanistan two weeks after President Joe Biden’s deadly evacuation.
“It was tough, honestly. I was in communication with probably five to 10 people on the ground in Kabul and that was just emotionally frustrating and demoralizing,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told the Hill.
Swalwell also said his staff was swamped with requests from hostages in Afghanistan due to the State Department’s red tape. “My staff, they were in contact with almost 1,000 times that, so for them it was even worse. We all felt helpless more times than we felt like we were successful,” he explained.
Ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) told the publication he feels some “guilt” for not saving everyone strapped behind enemy lines.
“There’s a bit of … let’s say guilt. We had a big role to play. We did save a lot of lives. But it was very emotionally stressful — when you’re making life and death decisions and pleading with people on the ground at the airport itself to let these people in,” McCaul said. “Because you know if they get in, they will escape. And if they don’t get in, they will die.”
“Our offices were flooded with requests to help people get out” after Biden’s disastrous withdrawal, McCaul bemoaned. The pleas “were coming to us because the State Department failed,” McCall added. He said his office members felt like “kind of mini State Departments.”
Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) described the situation as desperate for those stranded in the collapsed county while suggesting she understands why Americans were in Afghanistan. Families believed “ultimately the window for visiting Afghanistan or their country of origin might be closing but wanted to go back and see family, be part of family celebrations,” explained Spanberger.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL), who described the scene as “very personal” to the Hill, knew many of those trapped were “people I had known or worked with and fought with.”
“We just received a flood of panicked requests. And they weren’t just random requests. These were people I had known or worked with and fought with or tried to improve the country with over time, so it was very personal,” he said.
Waltz added the situation gave him “somewhere on a spectrum between rage and grief,” he added.
Lawmakers were not the only individuals who spoke to the Hill. Congressional aides revealed they had to make decisions because they could not rely on the State Department to save the stranded Americans.
“I had to make the decision to send women and children that I had to prioritize, to the airport, where they — something could happen to them — in order to potentially maybe get them through the gate,” a staffer told the publication.
“And I always really struggled with that,” the aide said about his experience that will live with him for years.
“Are they going to be able to sit there for two or three days, if they need to? Do they have extra cellphones? Do they have food, water? And again, it feels like it didn’t have to be this way,” the aide said. “I’m a caseworker, I’ve done crisis casework before, but it should not be up to us. … I still feel, physically, so frustrated by it.”
It is unknown how many Americans remain hostage to the Taliban. The Secretary of State acknowledged Monday he believes “about 100” Americans and “several thousand” green card holders remain in the country.
“This is a picture that will continue to change over time,” Blinken excused his lack of certainty.
Media reports suggest 100 to 5,000 Americans remain, while 6,000 have been rescued. President Joe Biden said ten percent of Americans originally in the country at the time of its collapse were left behind. The White House said the original number was 11,000.
Meanwhile, stranded Americans and green card holders are currently being blocked from leaving the country due to Taliban control and health concerns. No rescue flights have left the country since last week. And the flights that escaped the Taliban only brought a handful of Americans.
But despite the crisis, Biden claimed the evacuation was a job well done. It was an “extraordinary success,” Biden said.
“We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history,” Biden continued. “No nation has ever done anything like it in all of history; only the United States had the capacity and the will and ability to do it.”
Follow Wendell Husebø on Twitter @WendellHusebø