House Committees Grill U.S. Envoy Over Taliban Control in Post-U.S. Afghanistan

Congressional lawmakers raised concerns with Washington's special envoy to Afghanistan in hearings this week about the future of the war-torn country with a resurgent Taliban and U.S. troops withdrawn.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) noted the Taliban's strength and questioned its commitment to the agreement it made with the Trump administration during a hearing Tuesday hosted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, according to The Associated Press.

"It seems all but certain the Taliban will try to overrun the country and return it to a pre-9/11 state after we have withdrawn," McCaul said.

Michael McCaul (R-Texas)
"It seems all but certain the Taliban will try to overrun the country and return it to a pre-9/11 state after we have withdrawn," Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Afghanistan in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.. mccaul.house.gov

At a hearing Thursday of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Chairman Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) referenced reports from officials and women's groups on the ground in Afghanistan that he said suggested opportunities for Afghan women were "extremely fragile." He added there was "great fear" in many communities about what the country's future would hold once U.S. and allied troops left.

"I'm trying to get reassurance that we're thinking about—at least acknowledging—the dilemma we face and that we're taking every reasonable precaution to prevent the worst of outcomes from occurring," he said.

President Joe Biden announced last month that U.S. troops would begin departing Afghanistan on May 1. The withdrawal is expected to be completed by September 11.

Though advocates for the Afghan people said the U.S. withdrawal was expected, human rights experts have questioned the lack of requirements the Taliban must meet in order for the troop withdrawal to continue. Plans for the U.S. withdrawal were initially made during former President Donald Trump's administration, which orchestrated an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020.

School bombing Kabul
Onlookers stand next to a pile of backpacks and books of victims following multiple blasts outside a girls' school in Dasht-e-Barchi on the outskirts of Kabul on May 8, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that he did not believe the Taliban bombed a girls' school in Kabul on May 8.

While an expert on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace recently told Newsweek the "entire country" believed the Taliban was responsible for the deadly bombing despite its denials, Khalilzad said he thought the attack was more likely ISIS' doing.

He also expressed doubts about assumptions that the Taliban will restore its power in the region swiftly as U.S. troops leave.

"I personally believe that the predictions that the Afghan forces will collapse right away—they're not right," he said.

During Thursday's hearing, Lynch noted the "duality" of the Taliban's recent assurances that it wants to pursue peace with reports of violence in the region, which escalated after U.S. troops began leaving earlier this month.

Khalilzad told Lynch his "skepticism is justified," but said the Taliban has told him directly that it wants acceptance, normal relations with other countries and assistance as it moves into Afghanistan's next chapter.

"We have to be prepared for decisions that they make," Khalilzad said. "With regard to those choices that they face, we can't be driven by wishful thinking that they will make the right choice that we would like—but at the same time, we shouldn't close the door to that possibility."

Zalmay Khalilzad hearing
Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad testifies during a hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs at Rayburn House Office Building May 18, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Khalilzad acknowledged "the record so far is mixed" regarding the Taliban's commitments to peace-keeping but said the Taliban, told him they "have learned from their mistakes of the past." Before U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, the Taliban was known for its violence against women, who have seen an expansion of social, educational and career opportunities since U.S. and allied troops first arrived in the region.

When Biden made his announcement last month about sticking to Trump's agreement with the Taliban—albeit with a delayed timeline that had the troop withdrawal completed in mid-September rather than by May 1—he said the U.S.-Taliban commitment was "perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself," but said an agreement made by the U.S. "means something."

As U.S. troops began departing and reports of violence escalated in the region, Belquis Ahmadi, a senior program officer with the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Newsweek the U.S. still has leverage with the Taliban and can directly or indirectly use sanctions and other political pressures to help support the Afghan government and protect local women.

"When the political will is combined with the political pressures, as well as the other leverage they have, I think we will see a positive result," she said.

Rep. Stephen Lynch
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) speaks during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing May 12, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images

After the conclusion of Thursday's subcommittee hearing, Lynch said in a statement shared with Newsweek that while he understood the push to pull U.S. troops out of the region, he also recognized the local situation had the potential to sour quickly.

"While I share President Biden's desire to bring a responsible end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, we must remain clear-eyed about the likely consequences of our military withdrawal—not only for our national security interests—but also for the people of Afghanistan," Lynch's statement said.

"I am encouraged that President Biden has made clear that the United States continues to support our Afghan partners through security and civilian assistance," he continued. "But we have twenty years of experience fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda and things could get ugly in a hurry," the statement read.

He added a cautionary note.

"I hope I am proven wrong," Lynch said, "but if the Talibs return to power in any meaningful way, it could have disastrous consequences for the human rights and safety of the Afghan people, especially women and girls, as well as the spread of terrorism throughout the region."