WASHINGTON — A Marine sergeant who was nearly killed in the deadly terrorist attack during the chaotic 2021 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan gave powerful, emotional testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday as Republicans kicked off their first hearing on the subject since winning back the majority.
“I opened my eyes to Marines dead or unconscious lying around me. … My body was overwhelmed from the trauma of the blast. My abdomen had been ripped open, every inch of my exposed body except for my face took ball bearings and shrapnel,” said Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, 25, who choked up and spent several minutes trying to compose himself as he recounted the bombing at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate on Aug. 26, 2021.
Thirteen U.S. service members were killed in the blast, which also claimed the lives of another 170 Afghan civilians.
Vargas-Andrews, whose sniper team was assisting the evacuation at the airport, was one of 45 U.S. service members injured that day. He lost multiple organs and two limbs, and he has had 44 operations since.
“Our military members and veterans deserve our best because that is what we give to America. The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion, and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence," Vargas-Andrews said. "The 11 Marines, one sailor and one soldier that were murdered that day have not been answered for.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, heard powerful testimony from Vargas-Andrews and other veterans of the Afghanistan war, who were either serving on the ground during the disastrous evacuation or trying to help Americans and Afghan allies flee the war-torn nation.
An extensive 2022 CENTCOM investigation found that the Abbey Gate attack — carried out by a lone suicide bomber — "was not preventable at the tactical level without degrading the mission to maximize the number of evacuees" and "was not the result of any act of omission or commission by forces on the ground.”
But in a 115-page interim report released last fall, McCaul blamed President Joe Biden's administration for the chaos at the airport, saying it had failed to properly plan for the fallout of the withdrawal.
“What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level — and a stunning, stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration,” McCaul said in his opening remarks, adding that more than 1,000 American citizens and an estimated 200,000 Afghan allies and partners were left behind.
"This was an abdication of the most basic duties of the United States government to protect Americans and leave no one behind," McCaul continued. "I want every gold and blue star family member and every veteran out there watching this today to know that I will not rest and this committee will not rest until we determine how this happened, and hold those responsible for it accountable."
The U.S. left behind an estimated 78,000 Afghan allies who had worked for the U.S. government and applied for special visas, according to a report last year from the Association of Wartime Allies, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization.
As they fought to get Americans and allies out of Afghanistan in the scramble, some congressional offices became "mini State departments" and teamed with veterans and nonprofit groups, McCaul said.
"It was often referred to, like, 'Schindler's List' — if you're on the list, you made it out alive. If you weren't, you didn't," McCaul said.
Several GOP-led committees, including the House Armed Services and Oversight panels, are investigating the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. But in inviting veterans to testify Wednesday, the Foreign Affairs Committee aimed to draw attention to the human toll of the chaotic withdrawal.
At the start of the hearing, McCaul read aloud the names of the 13 service members killed in the attack and held a moment of silence in their honor.
Others who appeared before the panel Wednesday included Scott Mann, a former Green Beret who served multiple tours in Afghanistan and founded Task Force Pineapple, which helped evacuate roughly 1,000 Afghan allies from the country, and Aiden Gunderson, a former Army combat medic who was deployed twice to Afghanistan and assisted with the evacuation.
Gunderson called the withdrawal "disastrous."
"I want Americans to know the truth: that the Afghanistan withdrawal was an organizational failure at multiple levels," said Gunderson, who described coming upon the Kabul airport tarmac where desperate Afghans, clinging to planes' landing gears, had fallen hundreds of feet to their deaths.
"We came to the middle of the runway where there were blood-saturated, dusty clothing and headscarves smoldered on the ground," he continued. "At this moment, I truly understood that the Afghans were risking everything, even death, to escape the Taliban."
After the deadly attack, Biden argued that he inherited the deal his predecessor, Donald Trump, cut with the Taliban for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021. Biden said it was the right decision to carry out the exit plan and end the two-decade war, saving American lives and billions of dollars a year.
"I stand squarely behind my decision," Biden said in a speech after the attack. "After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces."
Democrats defended Biden's decision to follow through with the withdrawal and said the aim of Wednesday’s hearing should not be about scoring “political points.”
New York Rep. Greg Meeks, the panel’s top Democrat, said he has spoken to countless Goldstar families who’ve lost loved ones, as well as veterans who are still dealing with the impacts of the war.
“It underscores to me that the president of the United States made the right decision to bring all our troops home,” Meeks said, “because I can’t in good conscience imagine sending more American men and women to fight in Afghanistan.”