Floor Remarks on Afghanistan

September 23, 2021

Mr. President,

George Washington, in his farewell address, warned us against foreign entanglements and costly wars. He and the other Founders knew firsthand the danger that enduring engagement abroad posed to our republic and our freedom. Despite those warnings, we, the United States have been embroiled in a directionless, trillion-dollar, war in Afghanistan for the past twenty years.

And, after all of that investment – the American blood and treasure poured into that cause – Americans watched in horror as any semblance of the so called “progress” and “investment” in a democratic Afghanistan crumbled in a matter of weeks. Haunting images demonstrating this failure tragically played out before us. Americans hadn’t seen tragedy of this type since the fall of Saigon.

The Cost of War Project at Brown University estimates that the total monetary cost of the war in Afghanistan amounts to $2.3 trillion, counting US military spending, both on and off budget. US manpower, resources, and expertise were dedicated for decades to the war in Afghanistan, so we must ask ourselves, what went wrong?

Mr. President, I rise today to explain how the erosion of Congress’s Constitutional war-making role permitted and enabled these failures.

In the early years of the war, Congress shrugged as the President transformed the mission in Afghanistan. President Bush addressed the nation and the servicemembers going to war in October of 2001, promising “To all the men and women in our military -- every sailor, every soldier, every airman, every coastguardsman, every Marine -- I say this: Your mission is defined; your objectives are clear; your goal is just.”

At the time, the mission was clear. The goals were to capture the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks, neutralize the threat posed by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and ensure the Taliban was not strong enough to provide a safe harbor to Al Qaeda.

In 2003 we had substantively accomplished each of those goals. Though killing Osama Bin Laden would take until May of 2011, the Taliban had fallen and the leaders of Al Qaeda went into hiding outside of Afghanistan.

Yet, despite this reality, the Bush administration shifted the mission to physically rebuilding Afghanistan and reshaping the country’s government and culture to mirror our own.

Even as the mission in Afghanistan was changed dramatically, Congress did not repeal, replace, or amend the 2001 AUMF. The Constitution charges the legislative branch to not only fund but declare and oversee wars. And yet, it seemed unaffected by the change in mission and strategy.

As a result, the war continued for longer than it should have. And the United States continued to lose tax dollars, lives, and any attachment to the original goals.

As building a democratic Afghanistan became the new mission, Presidents of both parties and the interagency apparatus ignored explicit evidence of failure and doubled-down on American investment and involvement.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction – created by Congress to oversee and audit funds used for nation building in Afghanistan – has delivered 427 audits and more than 250 reports to Congress since 2008, detailing risks, waste, and mismanagement in the US mission. Many of these reports pointed out the contradictions of our aims, and explained the waste, fraud, and abuse plaguing the funds Congress appropriated for “reconstruction” projects of all sorts.

Thanks to the investigative journalism of Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, the “Afghanistan Papers” added another layer to the Inspector General’s reports, revealing evidence that high-ranking officials in the Department of Defense, State Department, and White House knew the U.S. mission had no focus, no metrics, no clear coordination, and no defined enemy. Douglas Lute, a three-star Army General who served as the Afghanistan “War Czar” under Bush and Obama, is quoted in the published interviews saying “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.”

While I share the view with the majority of Americans that withdrawing forces from Afghanistan was the right choice, the Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal was the culmination of American failure in Afghanistan.

Kabul fell to lawlessness and mass panic. Afghan Security Forces laid down arms to the Taliban. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled his nation. And the evacuation was so poorly directed that potential terrorists and men with child brides secured seats on U.S. evacuation flights while American citizens were left behind enemy lines. Our nation lost thirteen servicemembers, with many more seriously wounded, to a terrorist attack, and the Administration ineptly responded by killing ten innocent civilians including seven children. President Biden’s closing of the war in Afghanistan has been riddled with avoidable mistakes resulting in both tragedy and embarrassment of historic magnitude.

The President and other high-ranking officials must be held accountable for this failure.

Throughout twenty years of engagement, Congress failed to respond to an Executive branch plundering powers that constitutionally belong to Congress. Its time for Congress to do its job. Its time to ensure that such a grave mistake that cost us so much in American taxpayer resources, but most importantly in American blood, will never again happen.

Some of my colleagues and I may disagree on when and how to use military force, but we should debate those matters in the light of day for the American people to view and influence. U.S. engagement in Afghanistan over the last decade, and the recent blundered withdrawal, demand that we prioritize such a debate. It’s long-overdue.

I, with my colleagues across the aisle, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the National Security Powers Act, which would restore Congress’ role in national security decision-making. This is an opportunity to protect our constitutional order. American citizens – and especially those who serve in our military – deserve nothing less.

Despite our political differences, as members of the branch of government most accountable to the people, we feel the weight of American blood and treasure sacrificed in our nation’s wars. We may not have all the answers, I certainly do not claim to. But we have put forth a thorough, much needed set of reforms to ensure America is not thrown into another endless war without continual Congressional input.

In this republic, Congress can no longer sit idle while the Executive alone decides the fate of our nation’s wars.
While we cannot change history, we can live up to the ideals of our Constitution. I pray, Mr. President, that we will.