Seth Moulton saw things during his trip to Afghanistan that were “truly out of this world.” He spent about 15 hours on Tuesday at the airport in the capital city of Kabul, the epicenter of America’s messy withdrawal from the nearly 20-year war there. The Massachusetts congressman described the scene as “the most visceral, raw view of humanity that I will probably ever see in my life,” with “thousands upon thousands” of refugees camped out and “desperate” to fly out of the country, which was overtaken by fundamentalist Taliban forces. The experience left Moulton more convinced than ever that President Joe Biden made grave mistakes in his handling of the exit.
Moulton was on his way back from Kabul in the wee hours of Thursday morning when he spoke to New York about the trip, during a layover in Madrid.
“The thing that everybody needs to understand, even if you completely agree with the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw, the way they have handled this has been a total fucking disaster,” said Moulton, who traveled to the country with Representative Peter Meijer, a Republican from Michigan. “It will be measured in bodies, because a lot of people are dying because they can’t get out.”
That brutal toll began earlier this month as crowds of civilians and Taliban fighters rushed the airport. Biden ultimately ordered 6,000 troops to secure the facility following shocking images of terrified people hanging onto planes as they took off. The surge allowed the U.S. to rapidly evacuate over 100,000 people, including special visa holders, ethnic minorities, and others who faced persecution by the Taliban. But the violence and danger has not ended. On Thursday, as Moulton and Meijer made their way back to the States, two suicide bombers and gunmen staged attacks at the aiport that killed at least 60 Afghans and 12 American troops. The Pentagon has blamed fighters associated with the militant group ISIS-K for the latest violence.
Amid clearly dangerous conditions at the airport, many of Moulton’s fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill saw his clandestine trip as blatant attention-seeking that only added to the risky atmosphere on the ground. However, Moulton insisted the mission brought him valuable insights, including about dire conditions at an airfield in Qatar, where refugees are being held and where the congressmen stopped en route back to the States.
“Refugees are going to start dying today if we don’t get them help in places like Qatar. Thousands will get slaughtered by the Taliban if we don’t somehow devise a plan to get them out before we leave,” Moulton said. “These are all things that the administration has failed to do, and I know that because the people on the ground are telling me.”
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Moulton, 42, has been no stranger to high-profile battles with members of his party since he first took office in 2014. He’s a broad-shouldered, square-jawed former Marine captain with notably sharp elbows and ambitions. Last year, he mounted both a long-shot presidential campaign and an unsuccessful effort to oust House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
His military experience means the threat to Afghan refugees, many of whom were granted special immigrant visas for helping American troops during the war, is personal for Moulton. During four deployments in Iraq, he relied extensively on local translators. Moulton later worked to help multiple interpreters emigrate to the U.S. and opened his home to Mohammed Harba, one of the interpreters he worked closely with in Iraq.
“I wouldn’t be alive today without people like Mohammed. I put my life in their hands every single day I went out the gate, and I knew that they put their lives in mine,” Moulton said of his time in Iraq. “I promised him, ‘I will have your back. We will protect your family … and we will never leave you behind.’”
Since his arrival in Congress, Moulton has repeatedly pressed to have the special immigrant visa program, which was started in 2009, expanded or expedited. His efforts took on new urgency this year as Biden prepared to follow through on an Afghanistan withdrawal plan initiated by former president Donald Trump. In May, Moulton called the delays in processing SIVs an “immediate crisis,” as he urged the Biden administration to move applicants to an American territory for processing ahead of the exit.
“We do not have time to fix the SIV process before we withdraw,” Moulton said. “We need to evacuate our Afghan allies and friends before they are slaughtered in the wake of our departure.”
Over the next three months, Moulton backed a plan for evacuation and raised the issue in hearings and on the House floor. He also claims to have brought the issue up in multiple private meetings with administration officials.
Moulton and Meijer, who served as an intelligence adviser in the Iraq War, have not been alone in banging the drum about issues with the SIV program and looming dangers ahead of the withdrawal. Last June, the State Department’s inspector general conducted a review of the program, which found multiple “obstacles” that would prevent most visas from being issued in nine months or less. The audit described the program as “generally understaffed” and noted no one was appointed to “oversee and direct” it throughout the Trump administration. Multiple lawmakers have joined Moulton in recent months in urging the Biden administration to expedite the visa process.
As the situation morphed into an immediate crisis with the Taliban’s swift advance earlier this month, Moulton and Meijer have also joined efforts to evacuate individual Afghans. These unofficial rescue operations have been coordinated in Slack channels and group chats on encrypted messaging apps with current and former Hill staffers, members of the military, and others. One current staffer who has helped arrange multiple successful evacuations in recent days said the two congressmen have been “very involved in this.”
For those trying to aid evacuations, getting people past the crowds outside the gates of the Kabul airport is a major obstacle. Moulton said he’s worked to get “a few” people “over the wall.” When he arrived in Kabul, he could hear gunshots outside the gates along with with the cries of people on both sides of the divide. Inside, Moulton said he saw troops and diplomats trying to make the best of a bad situation, but who were overwhelmed by the difficulty of the task and the number of people they wouldn’t be able to save.
“I’ve never seen more people cry, just salty Marines, seasoned State Department veterans just break down in tears, talking about their work, and hugging me, and saying thank you for coming,” Moulton said.
According to Moulton, one of the exhausted officials summed up the situation by saying, “I know this had to end someday, but none of us wanted it to end like this.” Moulton said that by raising alarm bells about the evacuation in recent months, he had hoped to avoid this very situation. He described watching those warnings go ignored as an “unfolding disaster.”
“I did everything I could. I mean, I would get on these calls with like a small number of members of Congress, mostly Democrats, who would all very politely say, ‘We love you Biden administration, but can you do a little bit more on this,’” he recalled. “I would be the only one who would just say starkly, ‘Here are the stakes. People are going to die.’”
Moulton’s years of work on the issue and personal involvement complicate the idea that he’s simply rushing into the spotlight, but he clearly relishes playing the role of hero. As he discussed the trip with New York, Moulton read text messages he received from people praising his work and quoted anonymous officials who he claimed had privately expressed appreciation for his demands for more urgent action from the White House.
Following one of these meetings with administration officials, Moulton said a deputy secretary of State pulled him aside and said, “Thank you for all your advocacy and thank you for pushing us so hard.” Moulton believes leaders at the Defense Department and diplomats were ready and willing to begin a mass evacuation more quickly. “They were never given the order, or probably more accurately, they were stopped from doing this,” Moulton said.
Moulton said he doesn’t know why the evacuation didn’t begin earlier. However, it’s something he’d “absolutely” like to investigate as part of a congressional commission. With deadly violence outside the airport and thousands of potential refugees stranded, Moulton is adamant that “the administration has created a disaster of epic proportions.”
And Moulton lays the blame squarely at the feet of the White House. In contrast to the president and his Cabinet, Moulton said “a lot of people below the top get this,” as U.S. diplomats and leaders in the Pentagon have “relied on translators as well” throughout their careers.
While Moulton might have allies behind the scenes, the public response from leaders in Washington following his trip has been overwhelmingly negative.
Shortly after news of Moulton and Meijer’s secret mission broke on Tuesday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to members of Congress “to reiterate that the Departments of Defense and State have requested that Members not travel to Afghanistan and the region during this time of danger.” On Wednesday, a Hill source said Pentagon officials led with a request for members to avoid travel to the region during a briefing call with congressional staffers. The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment. When asked about the trip during his briefing on Wednesday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said they were “not encouraging VIP visits” and that, by virtue of their presence, Moulton and Meijer “took time away from what we had been planning to do that day.”
However, Moulton claimed he and Meijer repeatedly tried to obtain permission for an official congressional delegation, or “codel,” before the emergency at the airport began.
“Peter and I had been talking for a while about going to Kabul because all our official requests had been denied … which I had made many over months, not just recently,” he said.
Monica Matoush, a spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee’s Democrats, said they had not received a “formal request” from Moulton.
“The House Armed Services Committee’s policy for congressional travel requires a formal letter from the member requesting international travel at least two weeks prior to the requested travel date,” Matoush said. “To date and since the beginning of the year, the committee has not received any formal requests for congressional travel to Afghanistan.”
A spokesperson for Moulton said he did not make a written request because he “was eventually informed at the staff level that a formal request would not be approved.”
Once they decided to go rogue, Moulton said the pair’s visit “had the lightest footprint of any codel in history.”
“Our goal was to be as efficient as possible at finding the truth and saving a few lives,” he explained.
To that end, the pair flew commercial to the United Arab Emirates before boarding military planes to Kabul. The C-17 cargo jets being used for the airlift are largely empty on the way into Afghanistan. When they left Kabul, Moulton said that he and Meijer traveled in vacant space in the crew cabin located behind the cockpit, noting these spaces are not accessible to refugees, before boarding commercial a flight out of the Middle East. Moulton, who has made multiple prior codels to Afghanistan, said it was easy for him to make the travel arrangements.
“Look, man, when you’ve been in the Middle East as long as I have, it’s not that hard to find a friend who can get you on a flight,” he said.
A senior Democratic House staffer said Moulton and Meijer’s trip “had all of official Washington talking about them.”
“I’ve been arguing with staffer friends about this since the minute the news broke,” said the staffer, who requested anonymity to discuss the situation candidly. “I am very much of the thinking this is a crazy thing to do.”
The staffer said they know Moulton “really cares about this” and that there are some on the Hill who “think this was amazing.” Personally, though, they don’t believe it would have been possible for the trip to avoid wasting resources.
“Once you have a member of Congress there, someone is going to have to babysit you … The worst-case scenario is that bad actors find out who they are and try to use them as leverage,” the staffer said of Moulton and Meijer. “You have to be able to not make the story about you.”
Meijer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In their initial statement announcing the trip, Moulton and Meijer said, “As Members of Congress, we have a duty to provide oversight on the executive branch.” The staffer doesn’t buy that justification.
“I don’t feel super-convinced that they are returning with some kind of special info that changes everything,” said the staffer. “What Moulton is saying when he comes back sounds remarkably similar to what Moulton was saying before he went there.”
Another Democratic Hill aide, who also requested anonymity to offer a frank assessment of the situation, similarly said the trip was reckless.
“I don’t doubt their intentions of also wanting to assist the appropriate people,” the aide said. “There are ways to do that from home that’s not putting yourself into a literal combat zone.”
While they agreed that the SIV program had been handled badly, the aide said that considering the wall-to-wall coverage prior to the visit, they questioned whether Moulton and Meijer weren’t just overly eager to get into the spotlight.
“Was this driven by wanting to be at the center of a story that was finally getting the attention that this deserves?” the aide asked.
Moulton angrily brushed off the critiques.
“There’s nobody in Congress who understands our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan better than me. So for a colleague to second-guess this decision is pretty hypocritical and it just shows how many people don’t understand what’s at stake,” Moulton said. “The overwhelming response from everyone we met on the ground was, ‘Thank you for coming.’ That’s what matters. What matters are the people on the ground, not the critics in Congress.”
Moulton argued that oversight was necessary, particularly since foreign journalists have largely left Kabul. He also believes he gained vital information from the trip. Prior to visiting Kabul, Moulton thought Biden needed to extend the U.S. troop presence beyond the August 31 deadline that the president has set for withdrawal. Based on what he saw in Afghanistan, Moulton said getting along with the Taliban is a “diplomatic necessity” that makes getting out on time imperative.
“We understood as one only can from being on the ground in Kabul that we were never going to finish this in time, even if we extended to September 11th,” he explained. “As crazy as this sounds, we need a positive relationship with the Taliban to have any hope of getting out the thousands of people we’ll leave behind down the road.”
The journey home through Qatar also alerted Moulton to what he described as deadly conditions for refugees. He said Afghans there are packed in at an air base “in 120-degree heat literally sheltering under aircraft wings, which is not safe, by the way.”
“They’re in hangars, some of them are just on the tarmac, and it’s crazy,” he said.
Photos provided by Moulton and another source showed refugees in Qatar crowded shoulder to shoulder at an airfield. Some sat on the hard ground, which was visibly dirty.
Despite what he described as “heroic” efforts by U.S. troops and officials at the airfield, Moulton said the situation is potentially deadly. According to the congressman, “One of the many State Department officials who couldn’t stop thanking us for coming said, ‘You have to tell the administration to call off their lawyers and stop preventing donations of food and water to these refugees in Qatar, because they’re going to start dying tomorrow.’” Moulton claimed he relayed that warning to Democratic House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith, who immediately passed it on to administration officials. Smith and the White House did not respond to questions about this incident.
“That’s just one example of how critical congressional oversight is at this moment,” said Moulton.
Moulton’s outspoken criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal has put him and his Democratic colleagues in a politically awkward position. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy echoed Pelosi’s view that members of Congress should not go to the region to avoid taking focus from the military, but he also expressed some sympathy for Moulton and Meijer’s concerns over the handling of the withdrawal.
“They’re both veterans and they’re both frustrated,” McCarthy said.
Moulton said he hates “criticizing Biden,” a fellow Democrat. However, he also said, “If telling the truth is what’s required to save a few lives, then it’s worth all the bad politics in the world.”
“I agree with 95 percent of his agenda. I’m still onboard with him and I believe this was a massive mistake,” Moulton said. “But I come to all of this as a Marine first and politician second. That’s always who I’ve been and it’s always who I’ll be.”
And there are people on Capitol Hill who are on his side. A Hill staffer who has been heavily involved in the ad hoc efforts to evacuate Afghans said they felt both Moulton and Meijer had “abandoned party lines and are operating purely as military men.”
“There’s nothing disingenuous about this,” the staffer said. “I think what they did was brave, and it was necessary.”