United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Joint Chief of Staff chairman General Mark Milley are set to face tough questions from legislators over the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, the military officials, along with General Frank McKenzie, the head of Central Command who oversaw the withdrawal, will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. On Wednesday, the officials will appear before the House Armed Services Committee.
The proceedings will yield, to date, the most extensive public comments from the officials on the August 30 withdrawal, a deadline set by President Joe Biden after his predecessor Donald Trump reached a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in 2020.
The officials are expected to face particularly charged questions from Republicans, who have accused the Biden administration of misreading the situation in Afghanistan, failing to predict how quickly the Taliban would rise, and leaving the US more vulnerable to attacks from groups affiliated with ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
Republicans have demanded more details on the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) suicide bombing near Kabul international airport that killed about 175 Afghans and 13 members of the US military in the waning days of the evacuation. Legislators are also expected to address the subsequent US drone attack that killed 10 Afghan civilians.
US military officials had initially said the August 29 bombing killed ISKP facilitators, but later retracted that claim and apologised, admitting they were civilians, including seven children.
“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,” wrote the committee’s ranking Republican, James Inhofe, in a lengthy list of questions about multiple aspects of the withdrawal given to the Pentagon last week.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously testified about the withdrawal before Congress, staunchly defending the administration’s actions, which included a last-minute airlift of some 120,000 people.
Advocates say thousands of vulnerable Afghans – including many who worked for the US government – have been left behind.
‘I don’t know if we’ll get answers’
Legislators are expected to again address how the US intelligence and military community failed to predict how quickly the Taliban would rise, with the group entering Kabul on August 15 following a lightning-fast offensive across the country that saw little resistance from the Afghan forces the US had trained and supplied for years.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen told Reuters news agency that legislators planned to ask pointed questions about “a lack of coordination and a real plan for how we were going to get all the Afghans who helped us out of the country”.
“I don’t know if we’ll get answers. But questions will be raised again about why we got to the point that we did in Afghanistan,” Shaheen, a Democrat, said.
While criticism of the withdrawal extends across party lines, Democrats have argued that Trump bears a large part of the blame stemming from his initial withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, which did not include the Afghan government in power at the time or require a political resolution between the warring parties.
Democrats have also pointed to a years-long US failure to build an Afghan military that could stand up to the Taliban.
Still, Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal, a project that monitors the so-called US “war on terror”, said the officials will have to answer how the “the multibillion-dollar defence and intelligence establishment” misread the situation in Afghanistan when monitoring groups were aware of the weakness of the Afghan military and the Taliban’s ability to advance quickly.
“The reason you won’t get an honest answer is simple. Either the DoD didn’t know what was happening [admit that their leaders failed],” he wrote in a series of tweets on Tuesday, “or DoD leaders lied about the security situation to cover for the withdrawal/hope they could leave before collapse.”
Calls to China
Although Tuesday’s hearing was scheduled to focus on Afghanistan, other topics, including Milley’s actions during the final months of Trump’s presidency, will also likely come up.
Some in Congress have accused Milley of disloyalty for reaching out to his Chinese counterpart in the final days of the Trump presidency to assure him that the US had no plan to attack China, as reported in the book Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
Senator Marco Rubio has called for his resignation, while Senator Rand Paul has said Milley should be prosecuted if the account in the book is true.
Milley has said the calls were routine and within the duties and responsibilities of his job, but has declined to comment in detail on the book.
He has instead told reporters that he would lay out his answers directly to Congress.