US military leaders face tough questions from Congress over Afghan withdrawal

US military leaders face tough questions from Congress over Afghan withdrawal
The US defense secretary and an army general will testify in front of Congress on Tuesday over the country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
4 min read
28 September, 2021
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee [source: Getty]

Top US military leaders will face sharp questions in Congress about the country's pullout from Afghanistan and the Taliban's rapid takeover.

This is their first public testimony since the US completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Republicans in particular have intensified their attacks on President Joe Biden’s decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan by August 31, saying it left the US more vulnerable to terrorism. 

They are demanding more details on the suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport, in which 13 American service members were killed in the final days of the withdrawal.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are slated to testify Tuesday in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee and then on Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee. 

General Frank McKenzie, who as head of Central Command oversaw the withdrawal, will testify as well. 

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The Senate committee's ranking Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has showered the Pentagon with a lengthy list of questions about multiple aspects of the withdrawal, including the suicide bombing on August 26. He also is demanding information about decision-making over the summer as it became apparent that the Taliban were overwhelming US-backed Afghan forces.

“We need a full accounting of every factor and decision that led us to where we are today and a real plan for defending America moving forward,” Inhofe wrote last week.

The withdrawal ended the longest war in US history. The Biden administration, and some Democrats in Congress, have argued that former President Donald Trump bears some of the blame for the war ending in a Taliban victory since his administration signed a deal with the Taliban in 2020 that promised a full American withdrawal by May 2021. 

They also have pointed to a yearslong US failure to build an Afghan military that could stand up to the Taliban.

“This is not a Democratic or a Republican problem. These failures have been manifesting over four presidential administrations of both political parties,” Senator Jack Reed said the day after the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15.

Although Tuesday's hearing was scheduled to focus on Afghanistan, other topics will likely come up, including Milley's actions during the final months of Trump's presidency.

Some in Congress have accused Milley of disloyalty for what the book “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, reported as assurances to a Chinese general that the US had no plan to attack China, and that if it did, Milley would warn him in advance. 

In the days following news accounts of the book's reporting, Milley declined to comment in detail, instead, telling reporters that he would lay out his answers directly to Congress. His only comments have been that the calls with the Chinese were routine and within the duties and responsibilities of his job.

Both Milley and Austin have defended the US military's execution of an Afghanistan withdrawal that Biden ordered in April. 

The pullout was largely completed by early July, but several hundred troops were kept in Kabul, along with some defensive equipment, to protect a US diplomatic presence in the capital. 

The State Department initially said the diplomats would remain after the military withdrawal was completed by August 31, but when the Afghan forces collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, leaving the Taliban in charge, a frantic evacuation began.

The Pentagon has defended its execution of an airlift from Kabul airport that transported more than 120,000 people out of the capital. However, it has been acknowledged that the evacuations got off to a chaotic start and was under near-constant threat of terrorist attack.

“The Biden administration’s avalanche of incompetence has damaged our international reputation and humiliated the United States on the world stage,” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, both Republicans, wrote in the Des Moines Register. 

“Yet, our president and secretary of state continue to pretend that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a historic success.”

Cotton and others have questioned the viability of US plans to contain al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate by using intelligence-collection assets and attack planes based outside of Afghanistan.