GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — After landing back in the U.S. following an unauthorized trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, Congressman Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) turned his phone off airplane mode and got two notifications.
The first text message he received was from a person he helped get to a safe location in Kabul’s airport, notifying Meijer he had been rescued and was leaving the country.
The second was a message that 13 American service members were killed at an entrance to that same airport in a suicide bombing attack.
“It was immediate sense of relief and then sense of just absolute crushing, heartbreaking grief,” said Meijer, who knew the unit killed in the attack. "They had worked tirelessly to keep that gate open, knowing that they were putting themselves at risk, knowing that the danger was out there. But also knowing that every minute they kept that gate open, while exposing themselves to risk, was also saving the lives of individuals who needed to get through. It was just the most tremendous act of selfless service I think I've ever seen."
Meijer spoke with FOX 17’s Aaron Parseghian on Friday about his controversial trip to Kabul and the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan:
Parseghian: Let’s talk about your trip. How did that all come about? You and Congressman [Seth] Moulton (D-Mass.) deciding, ‘hey we’re going to head to a very dangerous situation, and not really tell anyone about it,’ not get clearance ahead of time. How did that all come together?
Meijer: We had been working on the Special Immigrant Visa issue for months, going back to April, urging the [Biden] administration while they still had time to evacuate our allies to speed up that process. The administration had dragged their feet, they had been deceptive on what the holdups were. They had been, you know, especially in the past few weeks, they had lied to us about what the situation on the ground was, we couldn't get any answers, we'd have briefings, and I would walk away not having learned anything I didn't already read on Twitter hours or days before. So we realized that we could not rely on this administration to tell us what was going on to share the truth.
We had, as many congressional offices had been, receiving hundreds or thousands of requests for individuals to evacuate, we have been more directly plugged in because this is an effort we've been involved in from the beginning. And we actually even brought on someone who was helping coordinate externally brought them onto our staff in Washington, so that we can be plugged in but realized, given the short amount of time and the incredible volume of people we needed to coordinate that we had to be able to get on the ground, we had to be able to talk directly figure out the most efficient way of getting those requests in so that we could rescue the most people in the shortest amount of time. We intentionally tried to do it very light footprint, very quiet. Our goal was that nobody would know ahead of time, especially publicly it would not be released. We intended only to use non military assets with our connections in the area. So that we would be not a burden on forces there at all. I think the extent of the resources we we ended up using we brought our own food, we brought our own water, I had a cup of coffee. So that I didn't bring in but apart from that we tried to be as light as possible, as quickly as possible, get the ground truth so we can report it out. Share it with other members of Congress, I have a briefing club with several this afternoon, to share what we have learned, but also to be able to share with the American people so we can explain the incredible work that's being done, the challenges that they're facing, and then in how we get to the point where we never put our soldiers, our Marines, our airmen and our sailors and diplomats in the impossible position that this botched withdrawal has put them.
Parseghian: How did you guys get to Kabul? You’re not hopping on a Delta flight. How is it even possible to make this trip?
Meijer: We flew into the region, paying for the tickets ourselves and then we worked with our allies to get on the ground in Kabul, you know, taking empty seats where they were available. We had we've coordinated to have civilian support at the airport, so that we didn't use any military personnel. We ended up at the insistence of the general taking one of his vehicles and a driver that was off for the afternoon because he wasn't planning any movements. And frankly, that would have been the least burdensome because if we would have said no, thank you, we probably would have had that car following us anyways. But our goal was to again, not be a burden on those operations to the fullest extent possible, while at the same time being able to report back what was going on, and also work to improve some of those connections with the people doing the rescues and the evacuations, because they were getting overwhelmed and swamped with requests. And we knew we had to work to be able to get that information to them as efficiently and as effectively as possible. So we're literally sitting in there getting text messages, relaying them, at the time we're receiving them, you know, ensuring that we were answering any follow ups getting that information in there, because those folks there are doing the most incredible work I've ever seen. But some of them have been working 20-22 hour days for the past two weeks. I mean, they are overwhelmed. They are doing heroic, selfless work, but it is an insurmountable challenge that's been handed to them.
Parseghian: Here in the states, we’ve seen the desperation for some of the Afghans trying to get to a better place. We’ve seen some of chaotic images, especially in the early days when this evacuation really started ramping up. What exactly did you see when you got on the ground there?
Meijer: We had seen a lot of the crowds within the airport had been evacuated. So I think there were 18,000 24 hours before we were there, that was down to a few hundred. So they really sped up that process. We were at one of the gates that was bombed on Thursday, a few days before there was an American permanent resident who had been pulled out to the crowd and was was waiting for someone to escort them. Somebody that we were with was able to, you know, identify that, vet them, bring them to be processed. Later that afternoon, we saw them waiting for a plane and then the next day, we ran into that same family in Kuwait. So they have really sped up that process. And I want to make clear to the to the audience. There is strong vetting going on, the goal is to get people out of Kabul as quickly as possible, who qualify. And then at these honored locations, whether in Kuwait or in Qatar, both of which we visited after, or in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere. That's where they have the biometrics processing. That's where the consular officials are going through and making sure people really do qualify, making sure there's no security risks there before those who qualify are brought to the U.S. So it is chaos at the airport, and then an attempt to get the organization in the processing when folks are out of the country, but before they come to the United States.
Parseghian: You were there [in Kabul] for a couple hours. You head back home and then the news of your visit with Congressman Moulton breaks out, immediately you see a blowback of criticism. Did you anticipate some of that? What's your response to some of the criticism you’ve seen from other lawmakers as well as the Biden administration from deciding to take a trip for yourself?
Meijer: We actually had to cut the trip short, because someone in the Biden administration leaked to the Washington Post that we were there. So we had to move up our timeline, but waited until there was a plane that was leaving with empty jump seats, so that we didn't take any seats that were going to go to somebody else. That was one of our baseline conditions, as we didn't want to be adding a burden, we didn't want to be taking a seat that someone else needed. I was not surprised that individuals were frustrated. I mean, this [evacuation crisis] was obviously an embarrassment. And they did not want to see us on the ground and talking to individuals at the low level. They want to control this information as much as possible, but I have a responsibility to execute oversight. Both Congressman Moulton and I wanted to make it bipartisan, so this would not be a partisan endeavor. We also wanted to make it as light as possible and have the individuals who are there be as self sufficient as possible. We both served with the military in Iraq and we both also spent time in Afghanistan as civilians. So we were uniquely well positioned to be able to report back on what was going on. I think it's no surprise that a Congress that has washed its hands of its war powers for two decades, does not want to be dragged back into having to make those difficult decisions. And you have an administration that has botched this withdrawal egregiously, and is trying to avoid that accountability. I will say I expected individuals to be angry, I did not expect the amount of deception and outright lies that have been thrown our way. That honestly did take me by surprise, but I guess I shouldn't have expected anything else.
Parseghian: We're hearing from the Biden administration, the plan is full withdrawal and they're sticking to this Aug. 31 deadline. You said based on your visit, you kind of changed your outlook on that whole situation. So tell me, where do we go from here? Where do you think we should go from here? Obviously, there's still American citizens and also some allies that are still waiting to leave Afghanistan and likely won't be able to by this deadline.
Meijer: We obviously need to continue to have plans to get those folks out, if we can't get them out within Afghanistan, then planning ways to get them to a bordering country so that they can be evacuated and resettled, we must keep doing that. Going in, we had wanted to extend that deadline. Remember, Sept. 11, was the deadline that President Biden had initially set out and the Taliban, essentially agreed to it and then when he realized the optics were bad, he moved it up to Aug. 31, and the Taliban said, okay, that's the new deadline. So this is an artificial deadline of the president's creation, that in effect nearly cut in half the amount of time we had to evacuate people. But again, right now, the only way people are getting to that airport and getting out is by and large with the cooperation, the security cooperation of the Taliban. That is absurd. It is bizarre, it is shameful. We're in the situation but the alternative is open conflict, urban conflict with the Taliban, when our American forces that are there are incredibly vulnerable. The alternative is dozens, potentially hundreds of American servicemembers killed. We have the ability to go after the Taliban, but in that urban environment, there are going to be thousands of individuals who are vulnerable, who need to be evacuated that will be caught in the crossfire. The only way we're able to continue to get those out as just upside down and bizarre as it sounds, is with working with the Taliban. I wish that was not the case. This is not an option where we have a good choice and a bad choice. We are in the realm of the least worst and the least worst is still shameful, and embarrassing, and we shouldn't be here. But that is where we are today.
Parseghian: I think for the average American citizen, that's kind of a hard concept to grasp. I mean we always view the Taliban as dangerous people—-
Meijer: Aaron, if you think it's a hard thing to grasp for the average American, imagine being a member of the military that up until a few weeks ago, this was your sworn adversary you were going after hunting down to kill or capture. I mean this the bizarreness, the other worldliness, the absolute, just confusing, staggering, absurd reality is not lost on the people who were there. I mean, members of the military have a dark sense of humor, but this is just insane. But this is the scenario that we're at and right now the individuals most likely responsible for that attack on the gate, the Islamic State affiliate who were there, the U.S. and the Taliban have actually been working together to go after this group for a couple of years now, usually very quietly. But this is an enemy of my enemy type of dynamic and again, it is utterly bizarre. We should not be in the situation, but the reality is that we are.
Parseghian: Now that you're back here stateside, you said you're going to be briefing some of your colleagues in Congress. Where do we go from here? Policy wise? Do you think investigations or congressional probes are necessary into the handling of this evacuation process? We've seen some of your Republican colleagues call for the resignation of Secretary of State [Anthony] Blinken, some going as far as the president.
Meijer: I’ll be very clear, we are still in the middle of this emergency right now. All throughout the day, I've still been fielding text messages and phone calls and emails and getting them to people on the ground who can do something about it. We need to make sure that we continue those evacuation efforts as we can with the logistical constraints that we will have after Aug. 31 and save those lives. Because right now, that is the first and foremost priority is saving those lives.
When we've reached some sense of a conclusion here, we need to have unsparing accountability for how this withdrawal was so catastrophically mismanaged and then we also need to have unsparing accountability for the entirety of this failed conflict over four administrations. This is a failure that has 1,000 fathers and that's everything from presidential mismanagement, to congressional inaction and delegation of our responsibilities in the area of war powers. This is something we've talked about before those Authorizations for the Use of Military Force. Imagine how different the scenario would be today, if every two years Congress had to affirmatively say, yes, send our men and women back into Afghanistan, because we believe in this mission, imagine how different it would be if all of those arms sales to the Afghan government, all of those weapons that are now in The hands of the Taliban, if Congress had to affirmatively say, Yes, we agree, and we support you selling these weapons, right? Imagine how much harder the administration would have had to justify what they were doing any administration would have to justify what they were doing if Congress felt that burden of responsibility for sending men and women into harm's way, for sending our dollars into this country to justify that mission? I think we'd be in a very different place.
We need full-scale reform in that national security and war-making arena when it comes to arms exports, when it comes to authorizations of military force, when it comes to the way in which we engage our international allies, and the way in which we project ourselves in the world. We owe it to the lives that were lost in this conflict, we owe it to the servicemembers who sacrifice themselves for this mission,. We owe it to the American people to have every measure of accountability so that there isn't a single lesson learned that is not applied and remembered. So this never happens again.