Because "the information we were getting from the administration was outdated, it was inaccurate, and sometimes just plain deceptive," freshman Rep. Peter Meijer (R–Mich.) and four-term Rep. Seth Moulton (D–Mass.) made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan on August 24.
The congressional duo—both of them Iraq War vets, both of them intervention skeptics—were promptly criticized for recklessness by the White House, the congressional leadership and the Pentagon. Meijer was defiant about the importance of what he learned there: "We were being lied to up and down."
On Wednesday morning, hours after President Joe Biden's speech marking the end of the 20-year U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Meijer was still describing himself as "very angry at everybody"—about the hundreds of Americans and visa-qualified Afghans left behind, about the two decades of failed leadership and congressional abdication that led up to this, and about the administration's brazen dishonesty.
"If you want to talk to specific lies," the 33-year-old Meijer told me over the phone, "one: that there is no more Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. That's a lie; we know it. Two: them saying that the Haqqani network and the Taliban are two separate entities. That's a lie. Three: that Americans were not 'stranded'—Jen Psaki, that was a lie. Four: that Americans were not being beaten by the Taliban or being harassed trying to get into the airport. That was a lie. Boy, there's a bunch of others too."
Meijer, who holds the Grand Rapids congressional seat previously represented by Libertarian Justin Amash, first jumped into politics in 2019 out of concern that Amash, still then a Republican, was spending too much time bashing Donald Trump. In his first month on the job, Meijer himself faced intense criticism and a GOP primary challenger for witheringly criticizing Trump and then voting to impeach him for his role in stoking the Capitol riot.
Though the two men diverge philosophically, they share an independent streak, a desire to "end the endless wars," and a certain generational facility with social media. After the State Department left stranded dozens of employees of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which funds Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, one of a group of 15 such journalists got out of Afghanistan at the last minute only by sliding into Meijer's DMs.
"They're now resettled in a safe country," Meijer said. "But it's just astounding how out of touch or unaware or oblivious this administration has been. It's just been every step of the process."
Now making the media rounds, Meijer is calling for Congress to buff up its foreign policy responsibilities and repeal open-ended Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs). He is also calling for the resignations of officials who botched the U.S. retreat.
"There are a lot of things that I cannot wait to share until we are a little bit past this point—because there are situations with folks who are still trying to get out—that are just jaw-dropping for the organizational failures," he said.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. "It's delusional," Meijer contends, "to call what has happened over the past two decades, and as we saw encapsulated over the past two weeks, as anything but an abject failure."
Reason: What was your impression of President Biden's speech?
Peter Meijer: What my fear has been for a while is that there will be these victory laps and attempts to make this a Mission Accomplished moment. Without a doubt, the men and women of our armed services and our diplomatic personnel on the ground have done incredible work. But I'm a lot less focused on the people we were able to get out than on those we left behind, and I think that's where our focus needs to continue to be, no matter how much the president would like to put this in the rearview and focus on his domestic agenda.
Reason: Tell us a little bit, given your knowledge and your ongoing work on this, about who is left behind. Who are these people, what is your sense of their danger, and how many of them are there?
Meijer: We have several hundred Americans. And again, for each of these American citizens, they in many cases have non-U.S.-citizen family members. So it's those American citizens who were left behind and their family members. And then it's also a staggering number—thousands upon tens of thousands of individuals who either have Special Immigrant Visas, have applied for them and are close in the pipeline, or are otherwise eligible for those Special Immigrant Visas who are currently being hunted by the Taliban.
We've seen plenty of incidents of reprisal killings, and I don't know that I've spoken to somebody who hasn't said, "The Taliban have come to my house, have asked my family where I am." Or they came to their house and the house was empty because they're in hiding, and asked the neighbors where these people are. So I think there's a very real and palpable fear that the Taliban will not respect the general amnesty that they put out, but are instead interested in retribution. I hope that that's not the case, but I think it is very wise and prudent to assume any worst-case scenario here.
Reason: I know that you are in favor of withdrawing from the war, and you've been a critic of some of our ongoing missions out there. The president last night said, "I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit." What if anything is wrong with that approach?
Meijer: One thing I want to make very clear, one of the reasons why I was optimistic and supportive of the withdrawal, was because of the work that was being done in Doha to negotiate towards a power-sharing agreement and a unity government that was likely going to be more decentralized, that would allow a bit more provincial autonomy.
In order to negotiate, you need to have leverage, and the two points of leverage we had, one, was our physical presence on the ground, and number two was the existence of the Afghan government and the Afghan National Security Forces. So while I am sympathetic at the notion that we don't want to be engaged in the forever war and we don't want to be engaged in a forever exit, the reality is that we were moving towards this negotiated power-sharing agreement, and then frankly stumbled on the one yard line. We failed to adjust our withdrawal, adjust the conditions as the security situation eroded, as the Afghan National Security Forces and Afghan government's credibility and durability eroded. We just made the mad rush for the exits.
So we should not have had as mad a rush to the exits without any adjustments, without any accounting for the situation as it was collapsing. Because once that snowball starts to pick up steam, you wind up with tens of thousands of people overrunning the runways. You wind up with crushes at these gates that exposed our Marine soldiers and sailors to mortal peril, and for which 13 of whom lost their lives.
This is not an indictment on the idea of withdrawing, but on the way in which we so recklessly, and against all reports coming out of the ground, stuck to an untenable approach.
Reason: You worked in intelligence in Iraq. This rapid collapse in Afghanistan has been seen by outside critics as a massive intelligence failure. What is your assessment?
Meijer: I think it's right to call it an intelligence failure. Now, the intelligence community says that it was not a failure of collection, that they had the information, they tried to pass it on; it was not a failure of assessment, they analyzed what they collected and they provided that. But whether it's a failure of collection, assessment, dissemination, or absorption, the reality is that our national security apparatus was taken by surprise, and they shouldn't have been taken by surprise.
Again, I don't think the blame either before the withdrawal, or for the entirety of this 20-year conflict, is going to boil down to one simple answer. While the president is ultimately responsible, this failure has a thousand fathers, so we need to make sure that we hold all to account and that we have an unsparing examination of not only how things went so wrong, but how we got into this position in the first place.
Reason: Walk us through your decision and motivation to go to Afghanistan.
Meijer: First off, the information we were getting from the administration was outdated, it was inaccurate, and sometimes just plain deceptive,
Reason: And you knew this before you decided to go?
Meijer: That was one of the strong, driving motivations to go. A number of us felt that we were not getting the information that we needed. That when it came to evacuating individuals, a lot of the expected assistance from the executive branch, unless you had personal contacts and connections, as some of us did, you were sending out cases into an email inbox that oftentimes was backlogged and it would bounce those emails back.
Meijer: This was incredibly infuriating, because you were getting in our case over a thousand requests that were coming in that we were trying to action, trying to connect with sources on the ground. The way in which so much of the evacuations that people were able to get to safety got to safety was because we were in contact with people at those gates. We could send a photo to somebody on the ground and say, "Look for this guy and grab him." That was not something most congressional offices had.
So both in terms of understanding what the dynamic was on the ground, understanding the decision and the consequences of either keeping to the August 31 withdrawal deadline or trying to extend that, and the question of how do we most efficiently and effectively connect congressional offices and the people reaching out to them needing an evacuation with the folks on the ground, we came to the realization that we can't do this from afar, that we need to see what's going on, that this is a bit of a black hole and that it is the most important thing going on in the country—probably one of those significant foreign policy moments of recent memory. And the fact that we have no understanding, no visibility and ultimately no oversight, is problematic and troubling. And we need to correct that.
Reason: What did you see and learn on the ground that you did not know? How did it change your assessment of the situation?
Meijer: What I did not know from the onset was just how completely dependent we were on the Taliban for perimeter security, for physical security. That if our agreement with the Taliban broke down, that if they made the decision that they didn't want us there anymore, that we frankly would not be able to evacuate the vulnerable individuals: American citizens and our loyal Afghan allies. We might not even be able to evacuate our own uniformed military personnel. That it was a fragile, dangerous, volatile dynamic around that perimeter.
That was one of the reasons why we both changed our minds, and after speaking with commanders said, "We understand and we respect and support this decision to stick to this deadline. Not because we think it's a good option, but because of all of the bad options it is the least worse."
The other thing that we saw was just how many prophecies broke down, how hard it was to actually get folks through, and just the impossible position we were putting the Marines and soldiers who were manning those gates. And then more broadly, how little planning ahead of time had actually been done, and how much of everything that was achieved was on the fly, ad hoc, and thanks to military men and women, diplomatic individuals on the ground, rather than any significant degree of external support.
It's just a very volatile picture on the whole, and we were able to get insight that we couldn't have gotten through other channels, especially while the administration was stonewalling, or frankly I think didn't know as much of what was going on.
Reason: We're seeing some people on, for lack of a better phrase, the Tucker Carlson right, who are deeply skeptical about the national security wisdom of accepting refugees from Afghanistan. That basically we're inviting trouble, potential terrorist violence. Can you talk to your confidence in the vetting process and your feelings about such fears as expressed?
Meijer: On the vetting side, we saw the Department of Homeland Security personnel and our consular officials on the ground there doing that vetting: comparing the individuals who are there and who have passed the preliminary checks at the Kabul airport, but making sure that they actually A) have the requisite authorization and background or experience to be qualified for the programs that we have, to get them out. B) that those individuals pass our security vetting and screening criteria.
So they're checking their biometrics, checking them against their biometrics databases, doing name searches, other background check components that we're actually able to do far better than in most other circumstances, simply for the fact that we've been in Afghanistan collecting information for 20 years. So we have a much bigger body of knowledge than we would have in Syria, or in other comparable conflict areas.
I will say about a lot of the, to use your phrase, the Tucker Carlson right, is that it just doesn't have a full understanding of what they're talking about. And I get it, it's an easy way of falling back on tired tropes of these sort of dangerous dirty people from the outside world. The reality is that the folks we're bringing in, by and large, if they're not U.S. citizens, if they're not U.S. legal permanent residents, the people coming are those who are coming because the Taliban are trying to hunt them down because of the work they did for our government. So it's not just a random assemblage, it's not whoever was able to get on the plane. These are people who are known to us, who have veterans back home who are advocating for them.
I think it's telling that some of the passionate proponents of this evacuation, and working tirelessly to do so, have been the veterans community, have been people who've served in Afghanistan and to whom this is a personal issue, who know that these are not random individuals, these are our friends that we still talk to on WhatsApp and FaceTime and Facebook. And some of the most critical individuals are those who've never spent a day in service to this country.
Reason: You have upon your return been pretty critical of the White House, even using phrases like "lying" to describe what they have told the American people or Congress. Can you be specific about that, either in the White House or in the military leadership?
Meijer: Yeah. We'll start to go back with, maybe weren't dishonest assessments, but were overly optimistic or otherwise flawed, in terms of what we were seeing on the ground and the strength and competence of the Afghan National Security Forces.
If you want to talk to specific lies, one: that there is no more Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. That's a lie; we know it. Two: them saying that the Haqqani network and the Taliban are two separate entities. That's a lie. Three: that Americans were not "stranded"—Jen Psaki, that was a lie. Four: that Americans were not being beaten by the Taliban or being harassed trying to get into the airport. That was a lie. Boy, there's a bunch of others too. There's just things that, as soon as they leave that person's mouth, you're like, "Do you even know what the hell you're talking about?"
Reason: President Biden last night criticized the idea of having a mission without "clear, achievable goals," and said there's been too much of that in the last 20 years. I presume you agree with that as a general sentiment. So who do you blame? Specifically in Afghanistan, or anywhere else that you might want to point to.
Meijer: I think you can certainly and appropriately spread a lot of blame, it's just that it's dependent on what failure we are highlighting. Specifically, when it comes to the botched withdrawal, that responsibility lies with the State Department that was responsible for it, and the president to whom they answer.
But for the failure of the conflict, that starts across administrations. It gets to the balance of power, between the president and the Congress. Congress delegating its oversight responsibilities, especially its authorities around war powers. Some blame also lies with the American media that got disconnected from the realities on the ground, that as soon as Americans weren't dying, they stopped paying attention, even though a record numbers of civilians and Afghan National Security Forces were losing their lives, from an outside view seemed like everything was hunky-dory. And also the American people for contributing to that disengagement.
There is widespread blame to go around for the conduct of the past 20 years, but for the conduct of the past two and a half weeks, or the past two months, that fault lies with the president and the State Department, almost exclusively.
Reason: What do you pin on military leadership for this? You can't have a 20-year mission, regardless of how you redefine it over the years, without those plans being drawn up by brass.
Meijer: I certainly pin just how many generals believe their own propaganda or their own spin. That sense of "We can control a reality by controlling the message and controlling the narrative." That works for a little bit, but then eventually reality has a vote. The enemy has a vote. Wars are not fought on TV; they're fought on the battlefield. And just because the TV cameras aren't on the battlefield doesn't mean you're winning on the battlefield.
I'm certainly highly, highly, highly critical of the conduct of any number of senior officers, of senior leadership, over the past two decades. And just the failure of our national security establishment to create and hold to a strategic plan or a strategic objective. I think that's something that we have been missing in a widespread fashion.
So I'm very angry at everybody over this, including myself, including Congress. I think we need to be, again, unsparing in our criticism, because if we don't learn every lesson—and not just learn it but apply it—we'll be doing a disservice to all those who lost their lives in this conflict, to all of the blood and treasure that was spilled.
It's delusional to call what has happened over the past two decades, and as we saw encapsulated over the past two weeks, anything but an abject failure.
Reason: Talk a bit about that congressional role in it. You are obviously a freshman, a rookie out there. How has being face-to-face with how this stuff is done opened your eyes about oversight and process in the legislative branch?
Meijer: I would say that it's clearly been highly illuminating. The process has been inadequate or nonexistent from that oversight standpoint. When military leadership is evasive or unresponsive to the most responsive and accountable body to the American people, I think there's something fundamentally broken there that we have to correct.
So I make no bones about being furious and livid at any number of individuals who've been associated with this failure, and I think it is critically important for the country that, again, we're unsparing in that accountability. That we don't just say, "Well, mistakes were made. Let's just move past it and forget it," but we examine the whole damn thing.
Reason: One of the oldest clichés in American foreign policy discussion is Eisenhower's line about the "military-industrial complex," a warning of it in his farewell address. Is there a truth behind that cliché, do you think, in terms of a machinery set up to keep extending U.S. military engagement, of using the military as a problem-solving and also a jobs program? Or is that too simplified?
Meijer: I think that has more of an impact on some of the larger, more discreet weapons purchases. There's a reason why parts of the F-35 are made in probably every congressional district. There's a reason why parts of the C-130 are made in probably every congressional district. That is certainly an impact, and something that plays a role.
I don't think that in the case of why the conflict in Afghanistan lasted so long. I'd place a lot more blame on just the momentum that was created and the hands-off approach by too many in government. I think that was far more operative than any sort of nefarious, string-pulling complex. I'm not completely dismissing that possibility; I've just yet to meet anybody who has actually understood or knew what was going on to a sufficient degree to be able to orchestrate such an outcome.
Reason: I have heard from a lot of Afghanistan vets over the past week or two. Lord knows how many you have heard from, being a vet yourself and a congressman. Can you characterize, for those who aren't in those types of conversations, what people are going through right now?
Meijer: I would say despair, frustration, disillusionment. A lot of that has been put off, because in the short term, they're still trying to rescue and help out their friends who were left behind, so I think a lot of the consequences will not be fully realized for the weeks or months to come. But in some ways, this kind of feels far more visceral and immediate, partially because of how rapidly the situation collapsed, but also because we are watching it all in real time. This is not something that Cronkite is narrating on the evening news. We're getting live updates by the second on Twitter, and messages from people that are stuck over there on WhatsApp, so there's an immediacy and a saliency that I think are pretty novel and unique to this moment.
We've already seen calls to the suicide prevention hotlines. We've already seen a spike in text messages on the V.A.'s crisis line that have gone up 87 percent in the past two weeks, or since mid- or early August. So there are going to be some deep and pernicious and dangerous long-term impacts from this, and frankly we need to be doing everything we can to mitigate those while we still can.
Reason: You've talked a couple times about being "unsparing" about Congress's role. What's an action item about that? What do you need to do, right now, going forward, in terms of concrete activity?
Meijer: One, the creation of an independent bipartisan commission, styled after the 9/11 Commission or the Iraq Study Group. This outside effort that will look at the whole in its entirety. Number two, that AUMF reform, that war powers reform, and reforming and taking back to Congress its responsibilities. Number three, the creation of an independent congressional intelligence analysis bureau. We don't trust the president to give us accurate budget numbers, so we have a Congressional Budget Office, but somehow when it comes to intelligence assessments that influence how decisions are made within the executive branch and our national security strategy, we assume that the president will be upfront and honest. I think that is unwise.
Number four is we need a much more long-term reform of how our national security establishment, whether it's defense or diplomatic, or the intelligence community, how they are structured, how they prioritize information, how they align their operations with strategic objectives. Because when those operations aren't aligned, when they're just helter skelter, as we've seen over the past couple of weeks, or as we've seen over the past couple of decades, you quickly come into a scenario where what initially may have been neat and orderly and disciplined, it becomes just a jobs program for military officials in and of itself.
And I think that blends the chaos, confusion, and mission creep, and frankly deceit, that we've seen most recently in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Reason: A lot of people, including the president yesterday to some degree, are seeing what has gone down this past month in Afghanistan as the end of an era—or the beginning of an era. It's a moment of great symbolism, directionally. Do you see it as such, and if so, in what way?
Meijer: I think the sort of post–Cold War belief in the "indispensable nation," and the post-9/11 belief that we can do anything—I think that's been pretty roundly humbled.
If you look over the past nine months, between the pandemic, the violent events at the Capitol on January 6, and this collapse in Afghanistan, it's no wonder that a lot of folks are exhausted and disillusioned and probably incredibly concerned about the direction of the country, about where we're heading, about what's going to happen next. I think it's important that we have a government that is as responsive and is effective, and that renews the confidence that I think has been by and large shattered.