In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, three senior Pentagon officials—Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense; Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM—were grilled about the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan last month. The hearing started strong on substance before it deteriorated, as congressional hearings tend to do, into something of a clown show.
The hearing confirmed several things we already knew, such as the failure to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan National Army before the encroaching Taliban forces—despite the Biden administration’s repeated claims of having planned for every scenario. However, it would be wrong to attribute this failure solely to the intelligence community: As Gen. McKenzie noted during the hearing, U.S. advisers to the Afghan military were among the first personnel to be pulled out, months before the Taliban’s march to Kabul gained steam, and their removal significantly damaged the capability of the intelligence community to assess the strength of the Afghan forces.
Tuesday’s hearing also raised—or left unanswered—several lingering questions. Here are a few of them.
Did President Biden Lie?
Senator Tom Cotton pressed Gens. Milley and McKenzie on an important point about the advice President Biden received. In an August 19 interview with George Stephanopoulos, Biden was asked whether he was given a recommendation to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, as Gen. Austin Miller had proposed. The president responded, “No one said that to me that I can recall.”
The generals, though, confirmed during the hearing that they would have preferred to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. While they, with justification, declined to comment on whether they conveyed that suggestion to the president, they repeatedly said that “the military was heard” in policy and strategy settings. Given that Milley is the president’s chief military adviser, it is impossible to imagine that he didn’t make the suggestion directly to Biden that 2,500 troops remain in Afghanistan. So when the president said that he could not recall this conversation, was he lying? Did he misspeak? Did he—and this is perhaps the most troubling possibility—forget?
Will There Be a Real Response to the Terror Attack on the Kabul Airport?
On August 26, suicide bombers from Islamic State-Khorosan (IS-K) attacked the airport from which U.S. troops and our Afghan allies were departing Kabul. After the attack—which killed 169 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. military service members—President Biden promised “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” Three days later, a drone strike, described not as retaliation but as intended to prevent a future attack, killed several innocents, including 10 children and an Afghan aid worker.
The military investigated the incident, but Secretary Austin subsequently ordered an investigation of the investigation, as he mentioned at the hearing on Tuesday. Yet nobody asked Austin two important follow-up questions: First, what are we going to do regarding reparations for the victims’ next of kin? Over the last two decades, thousands of civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes. The United States has made many condolence payments, sympathy payments, and solatia to the families of the dead. Is something like that being done in this case?
And second, what becomes of President Biden’s pledge? Hours after the airport attack, in the same speech in which he promised “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” President Biden said that he had ordered his “commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership, and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, and the moment of our choosing.” The drone strike conducted three days later that killed the aid worker and children was understood by commentators to be the promised retaliatory strike—but when it became clear that the strike did not hit IS-K, DOD officials claimed that its aim had been preemptive, and that the aid worker had (wrongly) been suspected of involvement in a planned attack. Since IS-K was not punished for its attack on the airport, are we going to let them off the hook now that Afghanistan is not dominating the headlines?
Why Was the U.S. Unprepared for a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation?
Senators from both parties complained on Tuesday that the Departments of State and Defense each kept pointing fingers at one another. State Department officials have blamed the Pentagon for some of the failures regarding evacuations from Afghanistan, including issuing special immigrant visas for at-risk Afghans. The DOD officials at the hearing returned the favor by blaming the State Department, suggesting that the order for noncombatant evacuation came too late to be orderly. According to Axios, during the closed-door part of the hearing on Tuesday, when the TV cameras were not present, Milley was more blunt about this.
The Biden administration has been quite successful in preventing interagency blame games and leaks, but if the interagency bitterness that the Afghanistan withdrawal has created is not quickly resolved, Biden could end up with a Powell-Rumsfeld saga on his hands.
In the meantime, there are still Americans and allies left behind in Afghanistan, a month after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. For now, according to Austin, the United States is trying to get them out by using Qatar and Pakistan, both supporters of terrorist organizations, to exert pressure on the Taliban, which could have consequences down the road.
There is a more important lesson here, however. Generals Milley and McKenzie mentioned the mistakes that the military, including them, made. General McKenzie took full responsibility for the erroneous drone strike. General Milley mentioned that the military made mistakes in training and equipping the Afghan forces, and said he will try to find the answer of what the military did wrong. Nobody’s blameless in Afghanistan, but it seems that the military is the only party willing to at least pay lip service to this fact.
Should Gen. Milley Be Talking to So Many Reporters?
Several of the recent books about Trump have included bombastic stories about Gen. Milley’s actions during the transition period. Asked about this during Tuesday’s hearing, Milley acknowledged that he was a source for the books and confirmed some of the details reported in Peril, the book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. For example, Milley confirmed that he talked with his Chinese counterpart, Li Zuocheng, that both calls “were coordinated before and after with [Defense] Secretary [Mark] Esper and Acting Secretary [Christopher] Miller’s staffs and the interagency,” and that Milley only reiterated U.S. policy in those phone calls. The calls, Milley said, resulted from concerns in China about a potential attack, which could have prompted a preemptive attack by China.
There is, however, a concern regarding the appropriateness of the interviews Milley gave. The general defended himself during the hearing, arguing that it is a part of his job to talk with journalists because Americans need to know what is happening. That is a legitimate argument. But more restraint is called for—and there is a big difference between giving an interview to a correspondent who covers military matters and a political reporter working on a major political book. Milley should have been asked about the growing problem of turning the military into a partisan football, and whether he thinks his interviews contributed to that problem.