Kilmer roundtable: The Afghanistan upheaval and tragedy

Congressman condemns Afghan suicide bombing, asks for support for U.S. troops

By Mike De Felice

Special to Kitsap Daily News

PORT ORCHARD – U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Democrat representing the 6th Congressional District in Congress, participated in a roundtable with Kitsap Daily News reporters on Aug. 20. The session resulted in a two-part series appearing in KDN and the Port Orchard Independent.

Part one, which ran Friday in KDN and POI, covered Kilmer’s take on a series of local issues, including finding an answer to the Gorst traffic bottleneck. This week, in the conclusion of the series, the lawmaker provides his views on national and international issues – namely his take on the problematic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and his account of the after-effects of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The situation in Afghanistan has been in a constant state of flux since the start of the U.S. withdrawal operation. A week after Kilmer’s roundtable with Kitsap Daily News reporters, an attack by a suicide bomber just outside the Kabul airport on Thursday resulted in 140 people being wounded and left at least 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members dead. Following the attack, Kilmer provided KDN with a written statement supplementing his earlier comments about Afghanistan. His statement read, in part:

“On August 26, we learned the devastating, and heartbreaking news, that at least 13 U.S. service members were killed in terrorist attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan, with others wounded. Our service members in Afghanistan are doing courageous and important work — helping get Americans home and helping vulnerable people get to safety. I vehemently and wholeheartedly condemn the horrific attacks that occurred, and I am praying for those who were lost and wounded. We owe all service members our full support as they complete their mission in Afghanistan as safely as possible.

The attacks of August 26 are a heartbreaking reminder of how perilous this mission is – and of the extraordinary job done by our service members. The fact that – since August 14 – the U.S. has facilitated the evacuation of over 100,000 people on U.S. military and coalition flights is remarkable. As the President has said – we can, and we must, complete this mission.

Currently, my casework team is doing all they can for American citizens, our Afghan allies and their families who are stuck in Afghanistan. If you, or someone you know, needs assistance, please contact Cheri Williams in my Bremerton office at 360-373-9725 x301.”

Heartbreaking Afghanistan

After the start of the Afghanistan evacuation of U.S. troops and America’s Afghan partners, President Biden insisted no mistakes were made regarding the withdrawal. His position drew widespread criticism as harrowing images were splashed across television screens of an American military C-17 cargo plane lumbering down the Kabul airport tarmac with people desperately clinging to the aircraft. At least two people died after falling from the plane once it was airborne.

Kilmer was asked if he agreed with the president’s stance that no mistakes were made in the Afghan withdrawal:

“I think it’s very important to look in the windshield, not just in the rear-view mirror. Right now, the appropriate focus to make sure that all Americans there and our Afghan partners and their families are getting out of harm’s way,” he said, sidestepping any direct criticism of Biden.

“It’s been heartbreaking to see some of the scenes from Afghanistan. I think like many Americans, it’s been hard to watch.”

Congress, in its oversight capacity, will need to review the actions over the last weeks and the last 20 years of America’s involvement in the country, Kilmer added.

The congressman pointed out that last week he joined 70 members of Congress in writing a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas with specific requests about making sure the U.S is addressing the ability of the Afghan partners to get out of harm’s way.

Kilmer said his office was taking action to help Afghans who assisted U.S. operations to safely get out of Afghanistan.

“We have a caseworker who is dedicated on this issue. We are getting calls from veterans who had interpreters they worked with when they were overseas, saying ‘Hey, this is a person who needs some help,’ and we are engaging with the State Department on that.”

Kilmer indicated he was surprised by the sudden surrender of Afghan forces after U.S. soldiers started to leave, which enabled the Taliban to swiftly take over Afghanistan in a matter of days. The lawmaker recounted he had visited the country a few years ago and was left with the impression that the U.S.-trained Afghan military would be able to stand up against Taliban forces.

“We met with Afghan national security forces. I still remember meeting with a guy who showed me bullet holes in his body because of the Taliban and a guy who told us a story about his sister walking through their village — she slipped and fell, and part of her garment flipped up and so part of her bare leg was showing. The Taliban beat her mercilessly. [The man] said, ‘I will fight to my last dying breath to prevent the Taliban from ever ruling this country.’ So, it’s been hard to see what played out and square that with what I heard when I was there.”

Breeding ground for terrorists

Kilmer was also asked how confident he was the Taliban would be able to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists to plan future attacks on the United States.

“I think we have to be very vigilant to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a breeding ground for terrorism. Frankly, I think it’s very important that we are vigilant in ensuring that no nation becomes a breeding ground for terrorists.

“That’s why you have seen the U.S. engaging with our allies in Europe and throughout the world to exert some pressure around even recognizing the [Taliban] government. It goes beyond issues of terrorism to basic recognition of basic human rights. That’s a sharp line for America and its allies.

“It’s abhorrent to me that the Taliban would control Afghanistan, given its history.”

Even though the U.S. is removing troops, the military will still have the means to keep tabs on nefarious actors within the country, Kilmer said.

“The Biden administration has already invested in and developed over the horizon surveillance and counter-terrorism efforts with regard to Afghanistan. We have substantial counter-terrorism efforts in a lot of countries where we don’t have a military presence. So, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are still actions we can take to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorism even without having thousands of troops on the ground.

“I know that the administration’s intent,” he said.

Influence on mid-term elections

The withdrawal has been roundly criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and some world leaders. This heightens the possibility that Democrats could suffer political fallout for what has been described as a botched operation. The political cost is particularly important given the 2022 mid-term elections, which will determine which party will control the U.S. House and Senate, are just one year away.

Asked if Biden’s handling of the Afghan pullout could harm his party in the upcoming elections, Kilmer pivoted from the specter of politics to national security.

“I don’t really see this through a political lens. I discourage people from thinking about foreign policy through the lens of politics because decisions have to be made in the interest of America’s national security, not based on politics,” he said.

Impacts of Jan. 6 insurgency

The after-effects of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol are still being felt. The riot that day, which followed a “Stop the Steal” rally led by former President Trump, left more than 100 police officers injured and five people dead. The congressman recalled that day with regret.

One of the most difficult things about Jan. 6, he noted, actually happened post-attack and after the Capitol Building was cleared of rioters – it was when lawmakers returned to the chambers to certify the electoral college vote.

“It was hard to see 139 of my Republican colleagues walk through a crime scene, walk onto the House floor and vote against the certification of the electoral college, and perpetuate the big lie that somehow this election was stolen — which 60 courts and nearly every independent observer including most in [the media] had found to be untrue.”

Since the failed insurrection, a number of Republicans have attempted to rewrite what actually happened that day.

Trump said on Fox News that the riot was “peaceful” and there was “love in the air.” Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and Louie Gohmert floated a conspiracy theory that blamed the upheaval on the FBI. Others tried to shift blame for the violence to supposed left-wing activities instigated by Antifa.

Given that some Republicans have tried to downplay the events of Jan. 6, Kilmer was asked if those efforts have hurt his ability to work with congressmen and women on the other side of the aisle.

“Some of the people who are most vocally revising history are people that frankly I didn’t have much of a relationship. The guy [Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Georgia] who said [the protesters] were all friendly tourists, I’m not even sure I ever met that guy. I wasn’t partnering with Jim Jordan [R-Ohio], Rep. Paul Gosar [R- Arizona] or Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) on any legislation.

“In an institution of 435 members, for good or for bad, you can’t work with everybody. You kind of get to choose some of the folks who you tag-team with when you work on legislation together, and that’s fine,” he said.

“When you have 435 members, there is a good chunk of folks who want to fight, and then there is a good chunk of folks who want to figure out how to work together and solve some problems. I guess some of the people who are there for the fight aren’t really interested in working with those of us who are there to get things done,” Kilmer said.

Currently, a House Select committee is investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. The committee is made up of nine lawmakers — seven Democrats and two Republicans appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Kilmer candidly admitted he is not sure what will result from the committee’s review.

“My hope is it goes beyond just what happened and gets at how we can prevent something like this from happening again,” he said. “This is not just about lapses in security. It is also important to get at the root causes of this. The presence of hate groups, extremist groups.”

He applauded the two Republicans who agreed to serve on the committee — Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

The lawmaker indicated the House Select committee investigation was not his first choice as to how that fateful day would be examined.

“The first proposal was to a 9/11-style commission, which I think is the right way to do this, personally. There is value in having an outside perspective. Unfortunately, Mitch McConnell killed that proposal in the Senate. So, the decision was to have a House Select committee. I think that is better than nothing, but I think the original proposal would have been optimal.”