REP. ZOE LOFGREN stood before her House colleagues two decades ago and called for unity in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attack in United States history.
It had been just three days since the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington wounded the Pentagon and turned the twin towers into a fiery pile of rubble. Thousands were dead, first responders were working to recover the bodies and most Americans were hearing the name Osama bin Laden for the first time.
“Our country was brutally attacked, it was an act of war and it demands a response,” Lofgren said from the House floor at the time. “… It is important to show that we are united. When America is attacked, Americans stand together.”
Lofgren, along with nearly every other member of Congress, voted that day to approve the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a joint resolution stating then-President George W. Bush could use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those he determined were involved with the Sept. 11 attacks.
Twenty years later, the San Jose Democrat says lawmakers didn’t realize where it would lead. Troops soon found themselves fighting the longest war in U.S. history.
“Almost everybody believed that what we were authorizing was a strike back at Al-Qaeda for the attack and that would be the end of it,” Lofgren told San José Spotlight in an exclusive interview. “I am sure no one expected that we were authorizing a 20-year war.”
Within a year, the congresswoman said grave concerns arose as the invasion of Afghanistan morphed into a massive nation-building mission. She recalled some legislators on both sides of the aisle felt betrayed.
“I think the authorization was distorted beyond all recognition,” she said. “…I remember at one point (then-Secretary of Defense) Donald Rumsfeld walking into the room and Republicans on both sides of me muttering under their breath, ‘that liar.’”
Cost measured in dollars and human lives
The war in Afghanistan costs trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives before coming to an end last month. But while many condemned Bush over the years for starting the war, President Joe Biden is now under fire for its chaotic close.
Earlier this summer, Biden assured the American public that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would proceed in a secure and orderly fashion. Images and reports from Afghanistan, however, quickly painted a different picture. Provincial capitals rapidly fell to the Taliban as U.S. troops withdrew, and tens of thousands of Afghans who assisted the U.S. military or other agencies raced to evacuate—but many were left behind.
“I think the president did the right thing by ending the forever war,” Lofgren said. “Obviously, the end of a war is not a pretty picture, and there were things that we clearly wished had happened differently.”
The congresswoman believes there is blame in many directions.
Congress never structured the Special Immigrant Visa process for an emergency situation, she explained.
“We put in very detailed, bureaucratic requirements and the visas couldn’t be issued until all of those steps were taken,” she said.
Lofgren further faulted Stephen Miller, a senior policy advisor to former President Donald Trump, for anti-immigration policies that led to a “huge backlog” of SIV applicants. She also questions why the Biden administration did not grant humanitarian parole, which permits people in emergency situations to temporarily enter the U.S.
To help refugees in America, Lofgren and four other legislators recently introduced the Afghan and Iraqi Allies Resettlement Improvement Act. Among other provisions, the legislation would direct the Department of Defense and Department of State to jointly create and operate a program offering employment to SIV holders as translators, interpreters and cultural awareness instructors.
Lofgren added that she’s proud, but not surprised, to see many California legislators and residents are embracing the new refugees.
“California has a long record of welcoming people who want to become Americans here with us,” Lofgren said. “That’s a good thing and I hope the rest of the country follows our lead.”
Local nonprofits, including Refugee and Immigrant Transitions and Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, previously told San José Spotlight they are scrambling to help the incoming Afghans with a range of resettlement services.
As for whether the war ultimately achieved any positive outcomes, Lofgren said it’s a question she can’t answer. History will have to judge, she explained.
“I think it’s hard at this juncture to have the perspective necessary to know,” she said. “I will say I am grateful for the bravery and patriotism of thousands and thousands of Americans who served in our military, our diplomatic corps and even our nonprofits. They are all people we can all be proud of.”
Contact Katie King at KatieKingSJS@gmail.com or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.