The military leaders who oversaw the United States’ exit from Afghanistan head to Capitol Hill this week for two days of questioning, as lawmakers in both parties have lost patience with the Biden administration over the Americans and visa-bearing Afghans left behind.
The inquisition awaiting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, will be informed by a series of closed-door briefings held with their subordinates in recent weeks and the public testimony of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, hearings that exposed deep partisan divisions.
Republicans have accused the Biden administration of incompetence while most Democrats maintain the withdrawal was doomed to be chaotic because of how President Donald Trump negotiated the exit agreement with the Taliban.
Yet senior Democrats have been unequivocal that President Biden shared in the blame for a “clearly and fatally flawed” withdrawal, as Sen. Robert J. Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, put it during Blinken’s appearance earlier this month, while arguing that both Biden and Trump officials had “lied” to Congress about how swiftly the Taliban might take over.
Austin, Milley and McKenzie are likely to face a more favorable reception than Blinken did, as Republicans widely believe the Pentagon was the cautionary voice among Biden’s advisers, warning that a hasty and complete departure would only embolden the Taliban.
Earlier this month, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, informed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had been opposed to a total withdrawal of American troops, and told Austin, Milley and McKenzie as much earlier this year.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the armed services committee’s top-ranking Republican, seized on Miller’s testimony to accuse Biden of ignoring the military’s advice — and intentionally misleading the public about what they told him.
Biden has said publicly that the generals were “unanimous” in their assessment that the military should reduce its footprint in Afghanistan to zero by the end of August. But numerous officials have said the military embraced Biden’s plan for a complete exit only after the president decided to leave.
The military leaders are expected to take heat, however, about tactical decisions made during the rushed 17-day evacuation, in which about 124,000 people departed Afghanistan through Hamid Karzai International Airport but hundreds of Americans and thousands of Afghans with or eligible for U.S. visas were left behind.
Democrats and Republicans have pledged to query Austin, Milley and McKenzie about why the military did not facilitate more charter flights for American citizens and green-card holders, or do more to assist those who were stranded outside the airport as they tried to get through Taliban checkpoints. The Pentagon has been criticized for keeping shoddy records of the Afghans who worked to assist military units and defense contractors in Afghanistan throughout the 20-year war, a failure that slowed the processing of special immigrant visas.
Lawmakers also are expected to ask sharp questions about how the military intends to confront counterterrorism threats now that it no longer has a presence in Afghanistan and as neighboring countries, heeding objections from Russia, have rejected U.S. requests to base personnel and equipment within their borders.
Though the administration has insisted it has “over the horizon” capabilities, Republicans and Democrats have pointed to the Aug. 29 drone strike that killed 10 people — including a U.S. aid worker and seven children — as evidence that such an approach is faulty at best.
Austin acknowledged the attack was a “horrible mistake” and not a “righteous strike” against a presumed terrorist target, as Milley had called it in the immediate aftermath. Milley is expected to face criticism over that statement, as well as recent revelations that, doubting Trump’s mental stability, the general promised to warn his Chinese counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack against Beijing’s interests.
For many lawmakers, this week’s hearings — however dramatic — are likely to be insufficient. Democrats and some Republicans believe that focusing solely on missteps committed during the Biden administration will prove to be an incomplete accounting of a war that spanned four presidencies.
Already, efforts are underway to establish an independent bipartisan commission tasked with reviewing America’s longest war. The House has already passed legislation directing creation of such a panel.