Active service members and veterans have described in harrowing detail the carnage and death they witnessed during the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Former US Marine Sergeant Tyler Vargas-Andrews was among those giving evidence to the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee examing the handling of the withdrawal.
Mr Vargas-Andrews broke down in tears as he told of the deadliest moment in the August 2021 US evacuation – a suicide bombing in Kabul airport that killed 170 Afghans and 13 US servicemen and women.
He told of the stench of human flesh under a large plume of smoke as the screams of children, women and men filled the space around the airport after two suicide bombers attacked crowds of Afghans hoping to escape the country on a plane.
He said Marines and others aiding in the evacuation operation were given descriptions of men believed to be plotting an attack before it happened.
Mr Vargas-Andrews, whose right arm and right leg had to be amputated as a result of the bombing, said he and others spotted two men matching the descriptions and behaving suspiciously, and eventually had them in aim, but never received a response about whether to take action.
“No one was held accountable,” Mr Vargas-Andrews told the committee. “No one was, and no one is, to this day.”
“The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion.”
The withdrawal brought an end to America’s longest war – a 20-year campaign that saw tens of thousands of Afghans die and more than 2,400 Americans.
Thousands of Afghans rushed to Kabul airport in August 2021 in the hope of escaping the new Taliban regime which had seized the capital far more quickly than US intelligence had foreseen.
Witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing recalled seeing mothers carrying dead babies and the Taliban shooting and brutally beating people at the airport. They depicted the US’s desperate attempt to rescue American citizens and Afghan allies, blaming inadequate planning and support.
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“I see the faces of all of those we could not save, those we left behind,” said Aidan Gunderson, an Army medic who was stationed at Abbey Gate, the area of the airport where the bomb exploded.
“I wonder if our Afghan allies fled to safety or they were killed by the Taliban.”
President Biden followed through on Donald Trump’s pledge to leave Afghanistan – despite the fall of the Afghan capital.
Witnesses called for action to help the many thousands of Afghan allies who worked alongside US soldiers and who are now in limbo in the US or back in Afghanistan.
“Our veterans know something else that this committee might do well to consider: we might be done with Afghanistan, but it’s not done with us,” retired Lieutenant Colonel Scott Mann told the committee.
The Republican-led hearing is the first of what is expected to be a series examining the withdrawal.
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Defence Department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Rob Lodewick said on Wednesday that the Pentagon’s earlier review of the airport attack resulted in no advance identification of a possible attacker nor any requests for “an escalation to existing rules of engagement” governing use of force by US troops.
Last month, a report by US inspector-general for Afghanistan John Sopko found actions taken by both the Trump and Biden administrations were key to the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and military.
The report blamed all US administrations since American forces invaded in 2001 for failing to build a capable, sustainable Afghan military before completing the withdrawal of US troops in August 2021.