ALPENA — Amid growing tensions in Afghanistan, where hundreds of Americans still wait to get evacuated after the Taliban overtook the country, government officials representing northern Michigan differ in their opinions of the federal government’s handling of the situation and how President Joe Biden should proceed ahead of a looming deadline.
During a recent stop in Alpena, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat from Rochester Hills, said he didn’t know if Biden should extend the Tuesday deadline to withdraw the American military, citizens, and allies from the country. Biden set the Aug. 31 deadline for full American withdrawal. The Taliban, which took control of the country on Aug. 15, had agreed not to harm Americans fleeing the country before then, though many on the roads to the Kabul airport have been attacked by the group.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Associated Press on Wednesday that as many as 1,500 Americans still await evacuation from Afghanistan, and Biden has faced bipartisan pressure to extend the deadline and do more to get Americans and Afghans who have helped Americans out of the country. Biden said he doesn’t want to extend the deadline, but asked military leaders to develop contingency plans.
Taliban leaders have indicated they will not grant the U.S. more time.
Peters said evacuating those who remain in the country needs to be the government’s highest priority.
“It is hard to know where the Taliban is on anything, and they simply can’t be trusted at all, so I wouldn’t trust anything they say,” Peters said. “Right now, our focus has to be on getting American personnel and our allies out of there as quickly and safely as possible.”
U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, who represents northern Michigan and is a retired Marine general, said he helped oversee U.S. troops and worked with leaders from the war-torn country when he made periodic visits to Afghanistan. He said the Afghani fighters laid down their arms to the Taliban, and the Afghan government left the country because they felt the U.S. abandoned them.
He described the Afghan soldiers he knows as warriors.
“We basically stripped them of everything and, now, it is a terrible decision made by the president,” he said.
Biden’s Tuesday deadline is an extension of a May 1 withdrawal deadline former President Donald Trump set in a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban. In exchange for U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban agreed Afghanistan would not become a terrorist haven, according to the New York Times. In that deal, the Taliban also agreed to talks with the Afghan government and both the U.S. and NATO agreed to reduce their troop numbers substantially within the first 100 days. But the Taliban never kept up their part of the bargain, mostly continuing its violence against Afghan security forces and Americans.
“Now, they are testing President Biden and … we never kept the pressure on them,” Bergman said.
Bergman said he isn’t confident the Biden administration will be able to fulfill its promise to get every American and ally out of the country before Tuesday.
“My confidence is not very high right now,” he said. “We need to make sure every American or people who helped us get out safely. No man or woman should be left behind.”
U.S. House Democrats on Tuesday passed a $3.5 trillion budget and infrastructure bill on Tuesday, clearing the way for votes on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan in mid-September.
The Senate previously passed a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan.
Peters said investment in America’s roads, bridges, high-speed internet, and other critical infrastructure can begin soon, and other programs, such as health care and child care, are considered infrastructure in the bill.
“I think people realize we have to make substantial investment in infrastructure and now it is up to us to come together to get it done.” Peters said.
Bergman said he won’t vote for the infrastructure bill when it comes to the floor of the House. He said only about 15% of the funds are allocated to roads, bridges, fiber optics, and other physical infrastructure, and the rest is allocated for pet projects and social safety net programs.
“This bill is bologna,” Bergman said. “We need all of that money to go into real infrastructure. There are more pages to this bill than there are in the Bible, and this is something our kids and grandchildren are going to be left to pay for.”
Though most businesses and schools reopened earlier this year amid a rise in COVID-19 vaccinations and a lull in infections, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena remains closed, as it has since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
COVID-19 infections have begun to rise again.
Asked what it would take to reopen the facility, and what metrics would be used in determining when it would be safe enough, Peters said he has little say in the matter and it will be up to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the facility, to decide when the doors will reopen to the people in Alpena and tourists.
“We hope it can open up soon, but that is a decision NOAA will make,” Peters said. “They are being cautious as we are continuing to see the delta variant out there, but I will certainly encourage the people at NOAA to open up these facilities as soon as they can.”
Bergman said the federal government has already proven it could open other facilities safely, and the museum should open immediately. He said there are many federal departments that have been reluctant to open their facilities, and he hears from constituents all over the district, inquiring about why some government buildings are still closed to the public.
“Any facility that can safely open should be open, period,” Bergman said. “When you look at a place like Alpena, where tourism is a huge part of its economy, it is imperative that it opens. Too many departments in Washington want to continue to work from home, but we really have moved beyond that. It is time to open places like the NOAA center back up.”