Interview: Rep. Jason Crow on the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Pentagon military document leaks

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Jason Crow addresses the crowd gathered at Art Hotel in Denver for the Democratic election watch party. Crow won reelection to U.S. House in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District

When Congressman Jason Crow reflects on the two decades the United States spent fighting a war in Afghanistan, he sees failure — mistakes made by both Democratic and Republican administrations. By Congress. And by a military that, by its very nature, seemed incapable of admitting what seemed to be very obvious that the conflict was unwinnable.

“The generals say, 'Well, we can win this. We just need more troops. We just need more tanks. We just need more time.' And of course, the generals are going to say that. That's what generals always say, right?” said Crow, a veteran who served in the war. “You'll never find a general that says, ‘We can't win this. We have to end it.’"

“That's just not military culture. But that's also why we have civilian control of the military, because it's our elected officials that should be held accountable that should make those tough calls and say, ‘No, we're not going to win this and we're going to end it.’"

Crow, who represents Colorado's 6th Congressional district, spoke with Colorado Matters Senior Host Ryan Warner in the wake of a recent report by the National Security Council on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Crow pointed to another failure when asked about the report, and what questions he has today.

“We stopped having a national conversation about it, and we stopped holding people accountable,” he said. “I think the ultimate question here is, as the nation, why did we allow a war to go on for 20 years when there were more than enough signs that this war was unwinnable and we weren't going to achieve our goals years ago?"

“So what happened? And why did we stop having that national conversation?”

Crow also addressed the recent leaks of military documents covering areas like the war in Ukraine and Egypt’s desire to provide missiles to Russia, ostensibly to use in that conflict. If true, Crow said, that would require the U.S. to rethink its relationship with the Mideast nation, long regarded as one of America’s oldest allies.

Interview Transcript

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ryan Warner: Congressman, thanks for being with us.

Rep. Jason Crow, (D) Colorado: Always good to be with you, Ryan.

Warner: Before we get to Afghanistan, there's a developing foreign affairs story, the leak of Pentagon documents related to a whole host of countries, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Canada, and the list goes on. According to the Washington Post, one of the leaks labeled top secret seems to indicate the U.S. has doubts about a Ukrainian counter offensive against Russia, along with other misgivings. That document was produced in February, I'll note, but I'm wondering what your reaction is to that particular file and to the leaks in general.

Crow: First of all, the leaks in general. I mean, this looks like a very troubling, very problematic leak. It's broad, it's certainly one of the bigger leaks that I've seen probably in my time in Congress. So I’m very troubled by it. But I think we also should have some perspective here that this is a snapshot in time. Wars evolve, things change from day-to-day. This is a snapshot that the documents appear to be a snapshot in time from February and March, so maybe of limited value. Yet at the same time, it does show troop strength numbers, disposition of troops, things of that nature, but also signals intelligence intercepts from various countries.

So, very problematic. I've asked for a full briefing by the Defense Department on the nature of this leak, what they know about it, what they've done to mitigate it, but the concerns about the ability of the Ukrainians to conduct a counter offensive, we've heard these concerns from day one, and every single time we hear these concerns, the Ukrainians overperform. People said that they couldn't learn how to use weapons systems that they then ended up not only learning how to use, but learning how to use better than the U.S. in many instances. So they've always overperformed. They've always surprised people in a positive way, and I expect they'll continue to do that.

Warner: Do you think that the leak has Russian fingerprints? I guess I don't want you to speculate, but do you have any sense here?

Crow: I don't. I think it's too early to tell. I mean, it certainly borders on a kind of seditious or treasonous act in my view. Somebody that would take documents of this nature and publish them online, and certainly not somebody that has the best interest of America in mind here. So what their motivation is, who did it, remains to be seen.

Warner: When you look at the collection of files in its entirety, another example is Egypt, which is considered an ally of the U.S., trying to supply rockets to Russia. In what ways do you think the U.S. is left most vulnerable?

Crow: I'm going to be calling for a full review of our relationship with Egypt because we shouldn't be spending $1.3 or $1.4 billion a year to assist them with their military and their modernization efforts. If they're then going in the back door and looking at sending weapons and equipment to Russia, I mean, that is not the type of friend or alliance that I think we need to have. And we should do a full analysis of what we're doing and why we're doing it and whether or not we need to hold some folks accountable.

Warner: I gather from that answer, Congressman, that you have learned some things from these documents. This was not classified material you'd had access to.

Crow: I wouldn't say I've learned things from these documents. I mean, I sit on the House Intelligence Committee, which has access to all of the intelligence of the United States in every category. So I'll refrain from saying whether or not there's something new or not. But the real troubling aspect is that this has been public and is information that's widely available now, which of course is unacceptable.

Warner: To Afghanistan, and some context. When the U.S. tried to evacuate people from the airport in Kabul, just about two years ago, 13 American servicemen were killed in a suicide bombing. Afghans who'd been helpful to the U.S. cause were left to fend for themselves against the Taliban. I gather you have read the National Security Council's report, and what's a big takeaway for you from it?

Crow: I have. Obviously this is something that I've struggled with a lot, this withdrawal. I've supported the administration's decision to end the war. I thought the war was unwinnable. It was unwinnable a long time ago, and I didn't think we should continue to spend tens of billions of dollars a year and American lives in an unwinnable war. And I wanted to see it end. And the president had the courage to do something that prior presidents and congresses weren't willing to do, and he did it. Now, I did think that that withdrawal was messy. It was chaotic. There were a lot of mistakes that were made, and I haven't pulled punches on that. I think we have left behind some of our Afghan partners and their families, and I've worked really hard to make sure we're pulling those folks out. And I've been one of the leaders in Congress on legislation to help get these people into safety and into the United States and other countries.

But this report shows a couple of things. Number one, that this is a longtime mistake. This isn't just August of 2021. This was a 20-year mistake. And Donald Trump was the one who negotiated this deal in the dark without even consulting with the military or the State Department and our allies, and committed the U.S. to a withdrawal timeline that was untenable. And then started a withdrawal of troops immediately thereafter.

And then President Biden inherited all that and was really left with two choices. Either comply with that agreement or not comply with that agreement, in which case the Taliban would conduct a full out assault on U.S. troops. We didn't have enough troops in the country at that time to respond to that attack. We would've had to have sent in 10, 15, 20,000 more, and it would've been all out war, which of course was not a tenable result.

So I think he then made the decision to move forward with the withdrawal. But yes, there were problems with the conduct of that: lack of unity of command, lack of guidance, lack of coordination between State Department and DOD. And of course the withdrawal itself should have started earlier. And the report shows that. It says that there should have been an earlier withdrawal. So there are lessons learned, but I want to take a holistic look at this and not just look at it in one small narrow frame.

Warner: One commentator from the Center for Naval Analyses has called the NFC's assessment, a political document designed to deflect blame in advance of a gathering storm of House GOP hearings. What's your response?

Crow: I fully disagree with that. The document and the spokespeople for the Department of Defense for the State Department, even Secretary of State Tony Blinken last week, during a gathering of State Department employees, admitted that there were mistakes and admitted that withdrawal should have started earlier. They have admitted things that could have been done better because in an operation like this, of course, there are missteps and mistakes and things that didn't go well, and they've taken responsibility for that. But you just can't look at a 20-year war where there's over 3000 American soldiers that were killed, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, a two-decade story of missteps and mistakes. You just can't look at that in isolation. Ten congresses, both Republican and Democrat, and four presidential administrations, also both Republican and Democrat, made mistakes, self-blinded, kept this going when it should have ended a long time ago. And that's a story that America needs to come to terms with. We can't afford to do this again.

Warner: You talked about those left behind. In a statement you issued after the release of the NFC's report, you said, "I might not be here today without the guides and translators that aided our efforts, many of whom are still trying to escape Afghanistan." Congressman Crow, could you elaborate on that? Is there anyone in particular that you have in mind?

Crow: Yeah, my translators, my guides, they were essential, and I'm not going to name names to keep people safe, but time after time, we'd be out on patrol deep into Afghanistan territory, in the mountains. And those guides would be a lot more than just people that would translate the words. They would help me understand the culture. They would help me understand what's going on. I mean, numerous instances where I would be meeting with tribal elders deep in a village, somewhere in a remote area, where we're very vulnerable in a small unit, and my translator would say, "Hey, there's something not right here. Something doesn't match up. What you're being told is not consistent with the history of this tribe in this region.” They're giving each other looks that make me uncomfortable and that translator would have the ability to understand what was going on, the subtext, what was being said between the words. And I could make decisions to pull out. I could make decisions to move my troops around based on that. That was essential. It protected us. It protected the locals in many instances. And these folks did that work at great personal risk to themselves and their families, knowing and thinking that we would keep our promise and do right by them. So that's the moral commitment that we have. That's the national security commitment that we have, and we have to strive to keep it.

Warner: You've pushed indeed for more visas to help some of the folks you're talking about. Where do things stand on growing the number of those special immigrant visas?

Crow: So we passed my Allies Act in July of 2021, which actually was one of the most bipartisan bills in Congress that summer. It passed with 416 votes. Only a handful of Republicans voted against it, but it was overwhelmingly bipartisan. And I continue to co-chair the Honoring Our Promises Working Group, which is a bipartisan working group in the House of largely veterans actually, both Republican and Democrat, who are working to pass legislation. I'm working with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, to put together a comprehensive package of legislation to expand visas, to expedite the process, to do things like remote processing. All things that need to be done to make it easier for folks who are still in Afghanistan when we don't have an embassy there in operations on the ground there anymore, to still have a mechanism to leave the country to get out of there safely. So we're working hard to legislate this and to make sure there's still a pathway.

Warner: So that's the process. What's been the result? I mean, how many Afghans are there that you'd like to get out, and what could the US reasonably do on the visas?

Crow: Right now there are about 150,000 applicants in Afghanistan. Those are principal applicants. Those are just the people who said they've worked for the U.S. government during the 20-year war. Usually, 60 to 70 percent fall off. So we think that there's somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 70,000 Afghans who did legitimately work for the United States government or allies who are there. And not all of those folks will complete the application process. So we think there's a lot who have been left behind, who are still there, who we could pull to safety, but the pipeline is obviously very small. So figuring out how we get them out of the country, how we process them, and how we vet them effectively is a real challenge.

We are working with some of our other partners. The Qataris have a presence there, and they're a close partner of the United States, and they have an embassy in Kabul, and they've been working with us to facilitate some of those interviews and some of the exit procedures. But it is very, very challenging. There's no doubt about that.

Warner: You helped establish the bipartisan Afghan War Commission, and I'll note that you said after the NFC's report, that you will work to provide a full facts-based accounting of our nation's longest war. You seemed to indicate earlier that we ought to take some lessons away from Afghanistan, perhaps so that we don't repeat the history. What is one question, before we go, that you're still asking in regards to the war?

Crow: I think the ultimate question here is, as the nation, why did we allow a war to go on for 20 years when there were more than enough signs that this war was unwinnable and we weren't going to achieve our goals years ago? Why did we stop having a conversation about this?

Warner: But Congressman, it sounds almost like you're talking about Vietnam. That was invoked a lot in relation to Afghanistan.

Crow: There are a lot of parallels. And frankly, I think the responsibility lies with Congress ultimately. And here's why: our constitution gives Congress the authority to decide matters of war and peace. It's only Congress that can authorize the use of force. Congress decides military policy. We set the military budget. And what happened was after 9/11, we provided these authorizations for use of military force, these AUMFs, which is how Congress carries that out. And they were essentially blank checks, and we gave it to administration after administration. We didn't rein it in, they didn't sunset. And then we stopped having a national conversation about it, and we stopped holding people accountable.

And then the generals come out and the generals say, "Well, we can win this. We just need more troops. We just need more tanks. We just need more time." And of course, the generals are going to say that. That's what generals always say, right? You'll never find a general that says, "We can't win this. We have to end it." That's just not military culture. But that's also why we have civilian control of the military, because it's our elected officials that should be held accountable that should make those tough calls and say, "No, we're not going to win this and we're going to end it."

So what happened and why did we stop having that national conversation? And frankly, that's why one of my priorities in Congress has been ending these AUMFs. We actually have a bill right now to end one, one that's still being used, and replace it with one that sunsets that has very, very defined guardrails and puts that responsibility down to Congress to continue to have that conversation and to be accountable to the American people. And that's ultimately how our system is structured. But it hasn't worked that way, and we have to get it back to working the right way.

Warner: I just have to follow up on the notion that you are hard-pressed to find a general who would tell you, we can't win this war. Should we be training generals differently?

Crow: Well, I mean, military culture is mission-first, right? No, I don't think that this is a general issue. This is a checks and balances between what we ask our military to do versus civilian control of the military. I used to be a military officer and you put a mission first. It's no fail. You get it done at all costs. And of course, that's what we want our military to be thinking and doing. That's also why generals in the military don't make those decisions about how we're going to commit our military and when we're going to stop. That's on our civilian elected leadership. We have civilian control of the military in the United States of America, which actually is unique. A lot of countries don't have that.

Warner: Thank you so much for your time.

Crow: Thank you, Ryan. Appreciate it.