President Obama may have declared that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan has ended. But the country is still so dangerous that the Pentagon has banned members of Congress and their aides from traveling there this summer, U.S. officials told The Daily Beast.
While the Pentagon’s ban was officially issued as “guidance,” congressional aides are calling it a “blackout” that prevents lawmakers from performing their oversight duties. The U.S. has spent trillions in taxpayer dollars fighting a war in Afghanistan and training and equipping the country’s security forces. But this summer sees the beginning of the traditional fighting season, when Taliban violence flares up. And with thousands of American troops pulling out of the country, the Pentagon doesn’t have the equipment and manpower to keep visiting legislators and their staff safe, officials said.
“What we find problematic about this is that it highlights the fact that we don’t have enough troops there to support the mission,” one senior Senate aide told The Daily Beast. “Concerns regarding taking U.S. congressional staff or lawmakers to the region show that there aren’t enough resources in the region to take people there safely—and that it’s not safe even though [the Obama administration] said the war is over.”
The Pentagon has issued travel restrictions during the summer for the past several years. But the fact that these restrictions are now continuing through the official end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan highlights the fragile security situation nearly 14 years after the U.S. invaded the country to topple the Taliban and attack Al Qaeda terrorists.
The Pentagon’s decision “means to me that they are concerned about the increased fighting and security implications this summer,” a congressional aide told The Daily Beast. Another senior Senate aide said that the months for the blackout are June through September.
Though the Pentagon said that lawmakers and theirs staffs were not bound by their guidance, many government officials would be. And a government official who works in Afghanistan confirmed that the plan is to not have staff or members of Congress visit this summer due to what the official called a “blackout.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch, the top Democrat on the House Subcommittee on National Security, alluded to how resources and travel restrictions hamper Congress’ oversight role in a committee hearing last week.
“Congress is also subject to limitations getting in there now, as well,” Lynch said, referring to Afghanistan. “So we’re doing less oversight, because of the limitations of assets there, we’re told. So we can’t [do] that oversight anymore. That’s a troubling development…with the amount of money we’re spending over there, you know, it’s a disgrace that we don’t have an accountable system.”
The precise reasons for the travel restrictions differ depending on who in the military is explaining them. Some officials say the military either doesn’t have the transportation resources to handle Congressional aides and representatives, or it is too dangerous to ferry them around, or some combination of both.
Henrietta Levin, a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said that the restriction is put in place every year, and that while members of Congress are not bound to honor the guidance, “due to elevated security concerns, the department considers it prudent that congressional delegations honor this restriction.”
Army Lt. Col. Christopher Belcher, a spokesman for NATO’s American-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, said, “Visits are being reduced to only those necessary for oversight purposes during the summer months due to competing demands on intra-theater transportation assets. At this moment there are no visits scheduled.”
The “blackout” is not absolute. If the chairman of a relevant committee were to demand to travel to Afghanistan, it’s likely that the military could accommodate the lawmaker.
“Members of Congress and their staff are not bound by this guidance, as they are not subject to DoD policies,” Pentagon spokesperson Levin said. And some Congressional staff are sympathetic with the demands on the military.
“It becomes more difficult to move members around [in the summer]. And it is just another demand on equipment and manpower. Anecdotally, it is as much about the drawdown and having the equipment to get this done—as it is about the threat level,” said a top House aide.
While President Obama hailed the conclusion of the U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, as well as Justice Department attorneys, have said that a state of armed conflict still exists in the country. Among other things, officials have used that argument to justify the continued detention of Taliban fighters at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
—Nancy A. Youssef contributed reporting.