The Pentagon has responded with anger to the unexpected and unannounced arrival of two members of the US Congress in Kabul airport in what the congressmen claimed was a fact-finding mission but critics dismissed as grandstanding.
Seth Moulton, a Democratic representative from Massachusetts, and Peter Meijer, a Republican representative from Michigan, astonished state department and military officials in the Afghan capital when they pitched up at the airport on Tuesday in the thick of the ongoing chaotic evacuation.
The appearance of the lawmakers prompted sharp complaints that during their visit to the airport, which lasted several hours, resources had to be redirected from the work of getting US citizens and Afghans out of the country.
“They certainly took time away from what we had planned to do that day,” John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said.
Three officials familiar with the flight told Associated Press that state department, defense department and White House officials were furious about the incident because it was done without coordination with diplomats or military commanders directing the evacuation.
According to the officials, the US military found out about the lawmakers’ visit as the pair were already flying to Kabul.
Moulton and Meijer, both military veterans, also faced accusations that by flying into and out of Kabul airport on charter jets they had potentially taken seats away from US citizens or Afghans waiting to get out. Moulton defended the visit on Twitter, saying that the duo had conducted it in secret to “reduce risks and impact on the mission”.
He said that they had left Kabul on a plane that was not full and that they had occupied seats “designated for crew so that we didn’t take a seat from someone else”.
In a joint statement, the two congressmen said that they had a duty to provide oversight of what the Biden administration was doing in the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. “We conducted this visit in secret, speaking about it only after our departure, to minimise the risk and disruption to the people on the ground, and because we were there to gather information, not to grandstand.”
The lawmakers have both served in the US military. Moulton is a former marine who served in the Iraq war, of which he became a forceful critic. Meijer was deployed with the army reserves and also worked in Afghanistan with a nongovernmental organisation.
The latest information released by the Pentagon suggested that 19,000 people were evacuated in the previous 24 hours on 90 flights – a new daily record. That included 11,700 people on 42 US military transports.
A further 10,000 people are still waiting for flights out at Kabul airport.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, issued a statement on Tuesday evening taking note of the desire of some legislators to visit Afghanistan and saying she was writing 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”.
She added: “Ensuring the safe and timely evacuation of individuals at risk requires the full focus and attention of the US military and diplomatic teams on the ground in Afghanistan.”
The Pentagon has repeatedly expressed concerns about security threats in Kabul, including by the Islamic State group. When members of Congress have routinely gone to war zones over the past two decades, their visits have typically been long planned and coordinated with officials on the ground in order to ensure their safety.
Joe Biden on Tuesday said he was sticking to his 31 August deadline for completing the risky airlift as people flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The two congressmen said they went into their visit wanting “to push the president to extend the August 31st deadline. After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late, that no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time, even by September 11.”