RECAP: Senate hearing on the Afghanistan evacuation
September 28, 2021

For hours today, the top defense leaders during the Afghanistan evacuation, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, and CENTCOMM Commander Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., were all grilled by a group of Senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee over the mistakes made during the withdrawal.

The questions ranged from inquiries about each leader’s original assessments, to President Biden’s considerations of those assessments, to questions about unrelated matters; such as Gen. Milley’s recently-uncovered contacts with China in late 2020 and earlier this year.

While the questions varied widely, the unifying factor for each of them was an underlying desire to identify where exactly blame should be placed for the evacuation and the events leading up to it.

Blame game

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked a series of questions aimed at gauging whether the majority of blame should be placed on these three leaders, instead of President Biden.

“We poured money and support and air cover, and the Afghan government continued to fail. By 2021, it was clear that 2500 troops could not successfully prop up a government that had been losing ground and support to the Taliban.” Sen. Warren began.

She continued with, “Secretary Austin, I understand that you advised President Biden to stay in Afghanistan. But, as you acknowledge, staying or withdrawing is a decision for the President alone. Once President Biden made the decision to have US forces leave the country, who designed the evacuation?”

“That was planning done by Central Command, and certainly principally by General Miller. Very, very detailed planning. And then we came back and briefed the entire inter-agency on the details of that plan.” Sec. Austin confirmed.

Seeking exacted answers, Sen. Warren asked of Austin: “Did President Biden follow your advice on executing on the evacuation plan?” Austin replied that Biden did in fact follow that advice about the evacuation.

“Did President Biden give you all the resources that you needed?”

“From my view, he did.”

“Did President Biden ignore your advice on the evacuation at any point?”

“No Senator, he did not.” Austin clarified.

Warren finally asked: “If we had stayed in Afghanistan for another year, would it have made a fundamental difference?”

“Again it depends on what size you remain in, and what your objectives are. There are a range of possibilities. But, if you stayed there at the force posture of 2500, you’d be in a fight with the Taliban. And you’d have to reinforce yourself.” Austin offered as his reply.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is interviewed by ABC’s Martha Raddatz, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 21, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Half-answers on the evacuation process

“It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in 17 days. Was it perfect? Of course not.” Gen. Milley surmised of the operation, admitting firstly that there were mistakes that occurred.

The initial questions quickly focused on the topic of timeliness in regards to decision-making. “Was anybody asked before August 25 if we should keep troops at the Kabul Airport?” Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Sec. Austin.

Austin replied that, “The President tasked us to make [sic], to provide an assessment on whether or not we should extend our presence beyond August 31. And as General Milley just said, that assessment was made. We tasked him to make that assessment on the 25th, and he came back and provided his best military advice.”

Particular concern was placed on this narrow time slot for solidifying a decision, to which Milley clarified by offering his own position.

“My advice is don’t put specific dates, make things conditions-based. That is how I’ve been trained over many, many years.” Milley affirmed. “And the American citizens, I know there’s American citizens there, but they would have been at greater risk that [sic] we stay past the 31st, in our professional opinion.”

CENTCOMM Commander Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. during the Senate hearing on the August evacuation from Afghanistan

CENTCOMM Commander U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. as he answers the Senators’ questions. (Screenshot courtesy of DOD live stream)

Why did the Afghan military collapse so fast?

“Did they lack confidence in their own political and military leaders? Were they demoralized by a 2020 peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban that didn’t even include the Afghan government?” Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked the leaders.

“We thought we knew what Afghans wanted, what they feared, and what they would fight for, but was our belief, though well-intentioned, incredibly naive?” Sen. Kaine elaborated.

While Gen. McKenzie didn’t respond to Sen. Kaine’s exact question, he responded to a similar one by noting the impact of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s sudden departure from the country.

“I think that really demoralized those remnants of Afghans, and there were considerable Afghan combat formations around Kabul on August 15. I believe they were really disorganized by that, and led to the Taliban really pushing, and as fast as they wanted to go, into the center of the city.” Gen. McKenzie said of Ghani’s departure, and the subsequent collapse of the government.

Gen. Mark Milley

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley provide testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee for a defense budget posture hearing, Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., March 4, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Were the choices surrounding the evacuation conditional?

“My advice is don’t put specific dates, make things conditions-based.” Gen. Milley recalled of the decision-making process. Despite this, Milley also acknowledged that the decision to follow through with evacuating was largely unconditional.

“Did President Biden, or any of his national security advisors, express any military or diplomatic conditions for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan beyond the looming date of 9/11? What were those military conditions or diplomatic conditions?” Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) posed in regards to the nature of the decision.

Sec. Austin admitted: “All of us wanted to see happen was for this conflict to end with a diplomatic solution. And so one of the things that we certainly wanted to see was progress being made in the Doha negotiations, and we did not see, or he did not see any progress being made, and there was really not much of a bright future for that process.”

“So, can you then say that the President directed you, Secretary Austin, to execute an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan?” Sen. Ernst continued, narrowing the question.

“Once we made the decision to withdraw, I mean we [sic], that was a decision to leave, and we certainly wanted to make sure that we shaped conditions so that our embassy could maintain a presence there continue to engage the government of Afghanistan.” replied Austin.

Slightly shifting gears, Senator Angus King (I-Maine) asked Gen. Milley, “Were there any efforts on behalf of the prior administration to enforce that condition of negotiation with the Afghan government and the Taliban?”

“I do know that no conditions were met except one, ‘Don’t attack American forces and coalition forces.'” Milley replied.

What is being done to learn from this?

“There’s one commentator who said, and Secretary Austin, I want you to comment on this, he said that we didn’t really have a 20-year war in Afghanistan, we had twenty one-year wars in Afghanistan. How would you respond to that?” Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.) asked of Austin.

Austin responded somewhat ambiguously, stating that “We have to ask ourselves some tough questions that we have the right strategy, that we have too many strategies. And so if you’re… reshaping that strategy, every year, one year at a time, then that has consequences. So I think that’s, that’s something we got to go back and look at and we also have to look at the impact, the effect of corruption. That was any environment [sic], weak leadership, changes in leadership, and a number of factors.”

“So as we always do Senator, we’re going to take a hard look at ourselves in terms of, you know, what we did over the last 20 years. What worked, what didn’t work, and we’re going to learn from those lessons and make sure that we incorporate that into our planning and our strategic assessment going forward.” Austin added.

The topic soon shifted from strategy-in-theory, to strategy-in-practice. Sen. Sullivan rounded back to ask Austin about the aftermath of the botched drone strike in Kabul, a little over a week ago.

“Have you reached out to the crew to make sure that they understand it’s not their fault, that there are seven dead children?” Sen. Sullivan asked.

“I have directed a three star review of this incident, General McKenzie did an initial investigation, and I’ve directed a three star review. And so I won’t make any comments.” Sec. Austin replied.

The lead-up to the Kabul suicide bombing

When asked whether or not the Taliban helped coordinate the Kabul suicide bombing, which killed 13 U.S. service members, Gen. McKenzie replied: “It is possible that they let them in on purpose, but the body of intelligence indicates that is not in fact what happened, you know, so one of them happened and that’s a terrible, tragic event. A lot of other events didn’t happen because that outer circle of Taliban forces are there.”

So, while it is unknown if the Taliban provided assistance to ISIS-K in facilitating this suicide bombing, Gen. McKenzie feels that they actually prevented more attacks from occurring.

Americans in Afghanistan, after the evacuation

“Isn’t it true that you left behind Americans on August 31st?” Senator Josh Hawley (R-Miss.) asked of Sec. Austin.

“There are Americans still in Afghanistan and we continue to work to try to get those Americans out.” Austin confirmed.

Austin continued with, “If the advisors were to stay, then there’s a possibility that the Afghan security forces would hang in there. We all knew that when we pull the advisors out, we pull the money out, that at some point in the future, most said it was in the Fall, that the Afghan security forces were going to fracture in the government collapse.”

Gen. Milley added to this, stating “There were contingencies that were built, that was a plan for rapid collapse. And that was the NEO plan that General McKenzie had come up with. And that’s what was executed. That’s why those 6,000 troops can deploy as rapidly as they did.”

Al Qaeda’s Aspirations (No, they are not gone)

“General Milley, General McKenzie and the President, around the same time, said, ‘Al-Qaeda was gone from Afghanistan,’ and told the American people that. Was that true or not true? Was Al-Qaeda gone from Afghanistan in mid-August, true or not true?” asked Sen. Sullivan.

“Al-Qaeda is still in Afghanistan, they were there in mid-August.” Milley admitted.

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) piggybacked off of this earlier question in order to elucidate the current understanding of Al-Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan.

“President Biden stated at the United Nations recently that this nation is no longer at war. Is it your personal view that Al-Qaeda is no longer at war with us?” Sen. Inhofe asked.

Milley responded immediately, stating that “I believe Al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan. I believe they have aspirations to reconstitute, and if they develop the capability, I believe that they have aspirations to strike.”

Evacuation Risk Assessment

“Are we at a greater or lesser risk of a terror attack from Afghanistan, as a result of our withdrawal?” Sen. Ernst asked of Milley, after the second-half of the hearing began.

“It’s too early to tell, too early to tell. I think we’ve got about, you know, to elaborate a little bit, probably got about six months here to really sort this out to see which direction things are going to go.” Gen. Milley stated.

Milley also said, “There’s not much time. My personal estimate, it could be up to 12.”

“Is the War on Terror over?” – Sen. Sullivan

When each leader was asked this question, as it was posed by Sen. Sullivan, none of the three could admit an end to the War on Terror.

“Absolutely not.” Milley responded to this question, giving no credence to the idea that the Afghanistan evacuation could possibly mean the end of the war which has lasted over two decades.

Likelihood of another attack

“Just so I’m sure, and everybody’s got this on the record, so, if we’d stayed another week, or two, or three, then it’s likely there would have been another attack that killed American service members. Is that what you’re saying?” Sen. Warren asked of the leaders.

Gen. Milley offered the answer to this. “I would say that that is a near certainty,” he replied briefly.

These hearings will continue through today and tomorrow, but here are some takeaways from today:

1. The War on Terror is decisively not over (big surprise).

2. Al-Qaeda is still in Afghanistan, and is still a threat to U.S. interests.

3. Americans are still in Afghanistan, despite calls to leave prior to the evacuation.

4. Blame is being danced-around, as should be expected.

5. Further understanding of these events will only be reached once these hearings are carried out to the fullest extent possible.

Also Read: Iraq Vet uses memes to criticize Congress over budget

Recent News