Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told members of Congress on a conference call Friday that Americans attempting to evacuate Afghanistan have been beaten by the Taliban, directly contradicting President Biden’s assertion that U.S. citizens were not being blocked from the airport, two lawmakers told The Post.
Striking a decidedly more concerned tone than the commander in chief, Austin called the abuse of Americans at the hands of the Taliban “unacceptable” as lawmakers sought answers on how the Biden Administration is attempting to get U.S. citizens and allies out of the country.
“Within 30 minutes of Biden saying it publicly, the Secretary of Defense directly contradicted him,” one senior GOP lawmaker told The Post.
Following the call with Austin, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, multiple GOP lawmakers said the briefing did little to quell their concerns about the safety of Americans and Afghan allies, with critics arguing they received conflicting information and few details on a viable plan to evacuate citizens from the country as the situation continues to deteriorate.
A second Republican lawmaker said that the call was cut short before all lawmakers could have their questions answered, with officials stating that they had a “hard stop” despite that not being articulated before the call.
“The big thing for me is, there’s a huge gap between what Biden says on TV, and then what we hear in these calls,” said the source, which spoke on condition of anonymity.
“And that’s alarming because it either means he’s completely misinformed or he’s misleading the country, both of which are a big problem. So, if we’re going to get our people out and we’re going to protect our Afghan partners and we’re going to be good allies, and start to rebuild those relationships.
“We should at least be honest with ourselves about what’s going on,” the congress member added.
Lawmakers also stressed that they find it concerning that the administration is relying on the Taliban to transport citizens to the airport, noting the terrorist organization has proven itself untrustworthy.
“We’re told [by Blinken] the Taliban will not allow terrorists to operate. Their number two is an Al Qaeda commander and they themselves are a terrorist organization,” one House member said.
“The Taliban are roaming the streets, beating Americans, beating Afghans and beating our allies and that’s who we’re negotiating with to get our people out and putting our faith in — it’s insane,” another added.
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) said that Biden’s messaging has conflicted with multiple media reports of the situation on the ground, arguing its counterproductive to their efforts to get citizens and allies to safety.
“There remains a massive gap between the message that President Biden shared with the American people and the reality on the ground. He says Americans are not having trouble accessing the airport, while the media is reporting of the Taliban roaming the streets beating Americans and our allies,” Gonzalez told The Post.
“He says he has not heard criticism from our allies, while the British parliament is condemning us from London. If we are going to get our people home while protecting our Afghan partners we need to be clear-eyed about the challenge. Now isn’t the time to try to win a press conference, we need to win the mission and get our people home while providing safety to our partners.”
Three Republican lawmakers that spoke to The Post even praised Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for inquiring on the call as to how the Biden administration planned to get individuals out quickly and clear checkpoints, asserting it is a bipartisan concern.
The lawmakers were told that instructions would be sent to those abroad attempt to exit the country, with Milley asserting that “we’re not turning our back on those that helped us.” But one source on the call argued they are “still neglecting that the Taliban controls” offering no details on how they plan to help Americans that remain outside Kabul.
“There seems to be an alternate reality. It’s all about what happens once people are at the airport and after. It’s horrifying the disconnect,” the lawmaker said.
During the call, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) questioned whether there were plans to extend security outside the gate of the airport or extend the deadline to evacuate US citizens and Afghan allies beyond Aug. 31, according to multiple sources.
Neither Blinken nor Austin provided members with a number on how many Americans remained in the country, with Blinken stating that they are finding out where they are and if they want to leave. We’ll get back to you with more information.”
According to sources on the call, Milley responded by telling lawmakers that the “security situation is likely to degrade” and are considering extending beyond the perimeter while Austin said that they are aiming to complete the mission by the end of the month, but will take more time if it is provided.
Frustrations from Congress over the lack of details they have been provided has become increasingly evident since the collapse of the Afghan government on Sunday.
“He [Blinken] doesn’t really answer anything with any specificity and says nice things like I’m talking to our allies and I’m having a lot of phone calls. But in terms of what’s happening on the ground. He doesn’t seem to have a grasp of it,” the second lawmaker said.
“The person who does is Austin, but there’s a lot of things he’s saying that I find disappointing while we still have Americans on the ground, we still have Afghan partners struggling to get out of the country, we still have our allies who are there. The tactical decisions that they’re making I disagree with.”
A third GOP lawmaker expressed dismay with Blinken for projecting confidence that the Taliban would cooperate with the U.S. and uphold the rights of women in the country, telling The Post it raises strong concerns over his ability to hold the position.
“He’s living on another planet,” they said. “ I’m like, motherf—r you have lost your mind?
According to multiple sources on the call, neither Austin nor Blinken provided information on the number of Americans that remain in Afghanistan when asked by Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), with Blinken telling members that “we’re finding out where they are and if the want to leave. We’ll get back to you with more information.”
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), a member of House GOP leadership and a Navy veteran, told The Post that chaos that has ensued since the botched troop withdrawal has projected weakness to adversaries.
“My takeaway from Biden’s speech and the briefing from Austin and Blinken is that these so-called leaders fear the Taliban much more than the Taliban fears them,” he said. “They can’t connect the dots without admitting failure for themselves and Biden. That’s why this briefing seems to be like an alternate reality.”