OPINION: Warnock’s challengers run into the void on Afghan withdrawal

Long before I was a political columnist for the AJC, I was a staffer to U.S. Sen. Max Cleland on Capitol Hill.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I walked into my office in the Dirksen Building just as the first airplane hit the World Trade Center in New York.

Moments later, the senator’s scheduler burst into our office. Sen. Cleland had been meeting with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when an urgent message came from the Pentagon.

“America under attack. Washington next,” a general scribbled on a notepad near the scheduler. We all knew then that we would soon be going to war

Within days, Congress gave then-President George W. Bush a nearly unanimous vote to use force to root out terrorism anywhere in the world. Weeks later, Bush announced his plans to go into Afghanistan first.

Now almost 20 years later, we’re watching the final chapter in that war come to an abrupt, but not unexpected.

Former President Donald Trump criticized Afghanistan as a “forever war” and finalized the plan to withdraw directly with the Taliban after he took office.

But after President Joe Biden’s move to bring Americas last assets out of the country, the Taliban has now taken control of the entire country in the course of a single week.

Since Georgia’s senators voted to start the war in 2001, where are today’s senators as it ends now?

It’s hard to say. So far, Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock have focused mostly on the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded since Americans’ final withdrawal last week.

Ossoff set up a email hotline for people who need to reach the State Department and urged veterans to call the VA’s 1-800 number if they need mental health services.

On Monday night, Warnock released a statement that he is “deeply saddened” by the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and called on the U.S. to prioritize getting American citizens and allies to safety.

Both senators also signed a letter asking that special visas be created for women activists in the country, and Warnock wrote to Senate leaders in July to ask for money to resettle Afghan interpreters, “who will inevitably face violence in the absence of U.S. military presence because of their support to our efforts.”

But neither Ossoff nor Warnock has spoken out so far about Biden’s decision to move troops out when he did or how he did he did it. If they’re critical of the decision itself, they’re not saying so publicly.

They’re in good company in Washington, where Senate Democrats are largely standing by Biden after he told the American people Monday night that he does not regret his decision.

“I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said. “We were clear-eyed about the risk.”

It’s a tight spot for any Democrat, but it’s a particularly dicey moment for Warnock, whose three Republican challengers have rushed to paint the contrast between his limited response and what they think he should be doing instead.

The broadest criticism is coming from Latham Saddler, who has an unusual depth of experience in Afghanistan.

Saddler first decided to join the military after watching the 9/11 attacks from his college dorm. He studied Persian Dari and Persian Farsi, the languages in Iraq and Afghanistan, before applying to become a Navy SEAL and deploying to both countries.

Saddler was later assigned to the National Security Council under former President Trump, where he worked on Afghanistan issues as director of intelligence programs.

Talking to him about the unfolding crisis, it’s clear he’s thought about these issues for years, particularly the Senate’s oversight role for military operations.

“We’ve got to have national security leaders up there that understand these issues, I’m not seeing it from Senator Warnock at all,” Saddler said.

But instead of hammering Democrats generally, Saddler said the United States’ greatest error came when the Bush Administration moved to a nation-building effort in Afghanistan, instead of getting in, overwhelming the Taliban, and getting out.

“We won this war in a matter of a couple of years and I’d argue that it grew into something that never should have grown into,” he said.

But he pins the blame on Congress, too, for failing to stay engaged in oversight of the war.

Another Warnock challenger, Kelvin King, served in uniform as well, graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy and serving as an active-duty officer.

“Twenty years of effort or resources have been thrown away in just a matter of days,” King said. “This is crisis caused by weak leadership and a weak plan.”

King said he doesn’t disagree with the decision to leave Afghanistan. Instead, King said he takes issue with the way the decision has been executed.

“I would be calling the administration out, saying that we should make our decisions based on metrics and not politics,” King said.

Gary Black, the state Agriculture Commissioner, doesn’t have military or foreign policy experience like Saddler and King. But he said “it doesn’t require a degree from the Army War College, which I greatly respect, because you could see (the chaos) coming.”

Black called Biden’s Monday evening televised address “horrifying” and said that the Senate should abandon its recess plans next week to start an investigation into how the situation in the country went so badly so fast.

“It goes back to the core values of leadership, of understanding what a senator should do at the proper time, and making sure your constituents actually know that you’re in the game,” Black said.

It’s no surprise that Warnock’s rivals would criticize him in this moment. But it is surprising that Warnock has said so little about the war that he and every other U.S. senator in Washington are constitutionally bound to oversee.

His policy expertise lies more squarely on domestic issues like health care and voting rights. But warfighting is one area Georgians invariably look to their senators to ask, “What should we do?”

Warnock’s challengers will continue to fill in the void if the senator doesn’t say more on his own.