Pentagon leaders to answer to Congress today over Afghanistan debacle

Pentagon leaders to answer to Congress today over Afghanistan debacle
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

One thing to keep an eye on today is the next round of congressional hearings into how the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into such an utter disaster. Today we are slated to see the Secretary of Defense, along with Generals Frank McKenzie and Mark Milley (of Chinese informant fame), answering questions for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Tomorrow they are scheduled to provide answers for the corresponding committee in the House. Given the tone of many members of Congress from both parties in the past five weeks or so, you can expect parts of the conversation to potentially be less than cordial. What we should really be looking for, however, is less about these players’ individual actions and decisions and more to do with how good or bad the intelligence was leading up to the beginning of the pullout and whether or not the Commander-in-Chief actually listened to his military advisors. (Associated Press)

In their first public testimony since the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, top Pentagon leaders will face sharp questions in Congress about the chaotic pullout and the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country.

Republicans in particular have intensified their attacks on President Joe Biden’s decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan by Aug. 30, saying it left the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism. They are demanding more details on the suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 13 American service members in the final days of the withdrawal.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. 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. Gen. Frank McKenzie, who as head of Central Command oversaw the withdrawal, will testify as well.

As far as Lloyd Austin goes, he may or may not have been entirely up to date on the relative strength or weakness of both the Taliban and the Afghan army when the final plans were being put together. But if he wasn’t, he really should have been. He was among the first people appointed by Joe Biden to his cabinet and he was confirmed almost immediately on January 22nd. McKenzie was in charge of the withdrawal and Milley had been around long enough to know the lay of the land.

What might we find out? For one thing, there is the question I alluded to above regarding our military’s current best assessment of the balance of power in Afghanistan. Our troops had been training and fighting alongside the Afghan army for decades. Surely we had people on the ground with a solid grasp of their potential after all that time. And the Taliban was the enemy we had been fighting. What was the internal view of that situation and what was being suggested to Joe Biden in early summer when he announced that we would be out of the country by September 11?

If you will recall, on August 15th (barely six weeks ago, if you can believe it), the Biden administration confessed to being “stunned” by the speed at which the Taliban was taking over the entire country and the virtually overnight collapse of the entire Afghan military and the government in Kabul. Keep that in mind.

Here’s what Congress needs to be asking these witnesses. How is it possible that the White House was “stunned” in this regard? Were McKenzie and Austin unaware of the inability of the Afghan army to stand against the Taliban without the American forces there to shore them up? Did they not know the full assets of the Taliban fighters or their willingness to mount a sustained attack? Or did they know that and advise Joe Biden to pursue a different course of action? If it’s the former situation, then we were operating in the dark because of gross incompetence at the highest ranks. But if it’s the latter (as many have already suggested), then Joe Biden overrode the strategic advice of his own military experts and drove us into that unmitigated disaster based solely on his own conclusions. If that’s the case, then Biden is guilty of criminal incompetence if nothing else.

The more pressing questions requiring answers may not surface during this portion of the hearings. We still need to know what sort of deals were cut with the Taliban and how badly they reneged on them. Since most of the wheeling and dealing was being handled by the State Department, it’s conceivable that the top brass at the Pentagon wasn’t privy to those details. But if they were “taken by surprise” by any of the agreements that showed up in the media, we should be made aware of that also.

By some compelling estimates, there are still as many as one thousand Americans stranded behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. This was an utter disaster that is far from finished. The majority of the media and many Democrats in Congress are in a hurry to “turn the page” and put all of this behind us so they don’t pay a political price for it, but Congress can’t allow that to happen. We are still experiencing a crisis of our own making in Afghanistan and the public deserves answers. Even more so, all of the veterans who sacrificed in that war and the families of the fallen deserve the truth.

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