A panel of veterans on Monday expressed dismay over the handling of the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan and urged Sen. Steve Daines to hold commanders accountable.
They also urged the senator, who spent the afternoon in Missoula, to ensure those left behind are brought home, including the Afghan nationals who served alongside American forces.
“There’s going to be accountability,” Daines told members of the panel. “We’ll find out what decisions were made, why they were made and heads will roll. I’ll demand that.”
Veterans, including several who served in a combat theater over the past 50 years, said they’ve been disheartened by the way the U.S. withdrawal has been handled, along with the Taliban’s march to victory – one that caught officials by surprise with its speed and lack of resistance.
The evacuation and airlift out of Kabul also raised concerns, punctuated by the death of 13 service members last week – the first U.S. deaths in the country since early 2020. The loss of military assets also surfaced as a concern.
“The ripple effect of this has already been recognized,” said veteran Bill Lawson. “I see images of the Taliban walking around with the equipment that got left behind. Not only do they have our equipment, they may also have our technology. They just put us in a pot. Where’s the accountability and where’s the integrity?”
Some believe the fall of Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover will hang as an albatross around the neck of those who served in the war over the last 20 years, unless Congress works to send a proactive message stating otherwise.
John Quintrell, a Vietnam veteran, compared the current situation and its potential effects to Vietnam. He said his network of Vietnam veterans is “sickened” by the way events have played out over the month of August.
“We were all given the impression that we lost the war and were defeated,” he said of Vietnam. “I’m really concerned these guys coming home are going to have the same feeling, asking what it was worth. We have to get them the message. We have to tell them their service was for something – that it meant something. The morale right now is sucking so bad it’s unbelievable.”
Daines and other veterans suggested the U.S. presence in Afghanistan for the past 20 years kept the homeland safe and thwarted any number of terrorist attacks that could have played out on American soil.
The U.S. withdrawal was said to be complete on Monday, concluding the largest non-combatant evacuation in American military history. According to U.S. officials, the military evacuated 79,000 civilians from Hamid Karzai International Airport, including 6,000 Americans and 73,000 nationals.
Still, those same officials said they “did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.”
“We told them we would do something and we should honor that,” said former Marine Sean Smothers. “We question our leadership at this point. It’s disheartening is a nice way to put it, that we’re leaving these people behind.”
Daines met earlier in the day with several Afghan nationals who worked with American forces and arrived in Missoula under the Special Immigrant Visa program. Another national cleared a final Taliban checkpoint with a letter signed by Daines and reportedly arrived safe in Kuwait, the senator said.
While the airlift may be over, Daines said efforts would continue to get people out of the country. Those who remain are in danger, he added.
“The lists are out, the phone calls are being made, the doors are being knocked on,” he said, adding that he sensed relief from the Afghan nationals he met with earlier.
“You could see it in their eyes today. There’s a sense of relief, but there’s also a sense of fear over the uncertainty going forward and being displaced, and the worry they have for friends and family members who remain in Afghanistan at this moment who they believe will be killed.”
Daines said his office was working with the International Rescue Committee, which has a branch in Missoula, to assist in the ongoing efforts to resettle Afghan nationals. Members of the IRC confirmed that on Monday.
“We’re actively resettling three families right now that came to us through Special Forces active duty based in Washington state,” said Eamon Fahey, the IRC deputy director in Missoula. “We’re Montanans. We need to welcome these people into our community and welcome the fact that they’re here now with us. We’re going to continue working with State Department, the senator and our entire organization on this.”