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Pentagon counters critics of Afghanistan withdrawal

Lawmakers of both parties have called for investigations after scenes of chaos at Kabul airport

Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, right, here testifying at a House hearing with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III in June, says “nothing” indicated that the Afghanistan forces or government would collapse so quickly.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, right, here testifying at a House hearing with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III in June, says “nothing” indicated that the Afghanistan forces or government would collapse so quickly. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, tried Wednesday to deflect criticism that the Biden administration should have anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan Security Forces and the swift takeover of the country by the Taliban.

“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” Milley told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.

Milley’s comments come amid growing calls among lawmakers of both parties for investigations into the administration’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan, leading to scenes of chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

President Joe Biden ordered 7,000 troops sent back into Kabul to help secure the airport and evacuate the American embassy, and many Afghans flooded the airport in a last-ditch effort to flee the Taliban.

Intelligence assessments suggested three likely outcomes following the drawdown of U.S. troops, said Milley, who served as a top commander in Afghanistan. One was a civil war, another was a negotiated settlement about how to share power, and the third was “an outright Taliban takeover,” he said.

But the estimated timeline of a rapid collapse of the Afghan Security Forces and the government in Kabul “ranged from weeks to months and even years following our departure,” Milley said.

For now, the Pentagon is focused on the mission of securing the Kabul airport and the safe removal of U.S. citizens, as well as qualified Afghan partners and their families who fear retribution from the Taliban because they worked with U.S. troops, Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said.

Austin told reporters the mission included the transport of any U.S. citizen in Afghanistan who wanted to leave. Military officials are coordinating with the Taliban to secure safe passage to the airport for any U.S. passport holders, he said, but the secretary stopped short of saying the military would intervene if U.S. citizens felt trapped.

Austin said he was aware of reports of Americans and Afghan partners being turned away at Taliban checkpoints outside the airport, but he did not indicate that the 4,500 troops at Kabul airport might attempt to expand the security perimeter to help people get to the airport.

“The forces we have are focused on security of the airfield,” Austin said. “So I don’t want to detract from that.”

Milley said there would be plenty of time for after-action reviews, the military’s term for after-the-fact analysis of what could have been done better or differently. But now is not the time for that, he said.

“Right now, we have to focus on this mission because we have soldiers at risk. And we also have American citizens, and Afghans who supported us for 20 years, also at risk,” Milley said. “This is personal. And we’re going to get them out.”

This week, the Democratic chairmen of three Senate committees said their panels would investigate the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover. That includes Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who said his panel would investigate what he called “shortcomings” in “the Biden administration’s flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal.”

But lawmakers already have a busy schedule once they return from the August recess, noted Roman Schweizer, a defense analyst with Cowen & Co. Hearings and investigations into Afghanistan could disrupt work on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, a reconciliation package, debt ceiling, China legislation and a spending deal/annual appropriations, he said.

“We note that Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., has suggested he will try to amend the annual defense authorization bill with a demand for a congressional Select Committee on Afghanistan,” Schweizer wrote Wednesday in a note to investors. “This idea possibly could gain traction with Democrats in coming weeks and could create a panel that could potentially dog the Administration for months.”

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