Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — One of the sharpest critics of the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this past summer says the episode left the United States "showered with shame."
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who earlier said he can't think of a bigger "mess up" in his lifetime than the way the Biden administration handled the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan, again criticized the removal in a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
The first-term senator said he wanted to talk about the decisions to go into Afghanistan and what lessons the U.S. might have learned or done differently.
"But I can't move on to that without acknowledging the fact that we have, in many respects, been showered with shame in the way we left," Romney said. "One, I think a disastrous decision by the prior administration to surrender to the talks and the agreement we entered into, and continuation of that decision by the current administration, and then, of course, its fateful execution of the withdrawal."
Former President Donald Trump was wrong to negotiate with the Taliban and set a date for the withdrawal at the beginning of the fighting season, Romney said in August. He said Trump negotiated from a position of weakness and President Joe Biden pulled troops out from a position of weakness as well.
Biden, he said, should have planned the evacuation, including knowing where Americans were living and how to contact them.
"We've left behind thousands. We've broken promises to friends and allies. We've abandoned women and girls there. And, of course, we've put America and our friends and our national interests at much greater risk," Romney said Wednesday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Chaos reigned in Afghanistan as Taliban forces stormed across the country to overtake Kabul amid the U.S. troop withdrawal from the country. Thousands of American citizens and Afghan interpreters and others who helped U.S. forces during the 20-year war are clambering to get out of the capital city.
Romney noted that a poll showed most Americans wanted the U.S military to leave Afghanistan.
"I wish that political people would say, 'Let's point out to the American people — you really want to leave if there's going to be abandonment of our principles, abandonment of girls, and a degradation of our national security?' That, I think, might lead to a different poll answer," he said.
Romney also raised questions about what the U.S. could have done differently after the 9/11 attack, given that the Taliban was responsible for al-Qaeda having a base of operations in Afghanistan.
"It struck me that our mission went from one of securing America from potential future attack, to trying to build a democratic-style country, and that that was just a bridge far too far," he said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said in the hearing that there was no alternative to the approach the Bush administration took in 2001.
"We gave the Taliban an out. We told them to hand over al-Qaeda leadership to us and we will leave you alone. They refused to do that, and I think that refusal left us no choice but to execute the mission as we did," he said.
We've left behind thousands. We've broken promises to friends and allies. We've abandoned women and girls there. And, of course, we've put America and our friends and our national interests at much greater risk.
–Sen. Mitt Romney
Crocker said it would be hard to justify at home or abroad ignoring the Taliban after it refused to give up the murderers of 9/11 and just go after al-Qaeda.
"And when we were done doing that just say, 'Thanks for your hospitality,' and go home ourselves. I don't think that was a viable approach either in national security terms or in political terms," he said.
Romney asked if going from a mission aimed at taking out the Taliban and removing al-Qaeda to trying to create a democratic nation in Afghanistan was doomed from the outset.
Crocker said he didn't think so, saying the international community came together under United Nations auspices to set the stage for a new Afghanistan.
"I don't think it would have been possible or conceivable for us to say we don't want to do that. 'We're just going to go after the bad guys, forget all the rest of this stuff.' To me, that exists in some realm of science fiction, frankly," Crocker said.
Despite U.S. efforts to prop up the Afghan military, it fell easily to the Taliban amid the troop withdrawal, throwing the country into violent chaos.
Images of Afghans trying to escape the country, clinging to an Air Force cargo plane, drew comparisons to the evacuation of Saigon after the city fell to the North Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians scrambled for seats on what became the largest helicopter evacuation in history.
Romney said there was time in Vietnam to get people out, and Americans weren't left behind like they were in Afghanistan.
"I can't think of a bigger mess up, at least during my life, and one which has led to a humanitarian disaster, which has led to the loss of credibility for America around the world, and other nations that depend on America," Romney told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards in August.
The U.S., he said, might never regain the confidence of its allies around the world or fully regain the credibility lost in the debacle.