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Anger at the Pentagon is coming from both sides of the aisle

Democrats are joining the call for Afghanistan oversight, complicating President Biden's hopes of moving past the withdrawal

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, criticizes President Joe Biden's handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, criticizes President Joe Biden's handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 9:37 a.m. |

President Joe Biden wants to move past the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan. But bipartisan anger over the rushed evacuation burst into the open on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. In a worrisome sign for the president, Democrats joined the calls for continued investigation.

Much of the anger was aimed at the top leaders of the Defense Department, Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.

Fireworks came first from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which took testimony from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, but was rebuffed in its request for testimony from Austin. 

Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, threatened to subpoena Austin, saying that “a full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon — especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained and -funded Afghan military.”

Amid that Afghanistan debate, a Washington Post report on revelations in a new book that Milley had sought to calm the Chinese military following Biden’s election win over Donald Trump, cast the spotlight on him as well.

Florida’s Marco Rubio, the Foreign Relations Committee’s second-ranking Republican, announced that he’d sent a letter to Biden demanding Milley’s resignation, citing reporting from “Peril,” by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, that says Milley had secret, back-channel calls with his Chinese counterpart after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol over concerns that Trump might launch nuclear weapons, and that he instructed senior Pentagon officials not to carry out related orders without his involvement. 

Rubio wrote that Milley’s action “threatens to tear apart our nation’s longstanding principle of civilian control of the military.”

Democrats want answers

Meanwhile, it was Democrats who led the questioning over another news report, from The New York Times, that a U.S. drone strike amid the Afghanistan evacuation last month had not killed a terrorist, as the Pentagon has claimed, but an Afghan worker for a U.S.-backed humanitarian group and several of his children.

Minnesota’s Betty McCollum, the chair of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, tweeted that “We must get answers as to why a US contractor & 7 children were killed.” Another House Democrat, Judy Chu of California, reiterated the calls for investigation.

The bipartisan outcry demonstrated that Biden’s problem in explaining away the Afghanistan debacle is going to be more complicated, and more difficult, than fending off Republican blame-laying.

GOP takes aim

There was plenty of that nonetheless. Following a closed-door briefing with Army Gen. Austin S. Miller, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2018 until July, Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee told reporters that Biden ignored the advice of top military commanders when he withdrew all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan. 

Biden has said repeatedly that he followed the military’s advice on key questions, like when to withdraw from the Bagram Airfield outside Kabul.

“We heard enough to know that there are inconsistencies between what the administration has said and the truth,” said Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma. “Clearly, President Biden didn’t listen to all the military advice.”

Other members who emerged from the meeting said Biden is trying to shift the blame for the tumultuous withdrawal onto the military. 

“We’re beginning the accountability process,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. “The Biden administration’s strategy is to blame [former President Donald] Trump and blame the generals and say this was a success — everyone in the world knows this was not a success.”

But as some senators praised Miller and the military generally, elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the pressure on the Pentagon to answer a growing list of questions was building.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that Austin regretted not being able to attend the Foreign Relations hearing because “conflicting commitments made that appearance impracticable.” He said that Austin plans to testify later this month before the Senate and House Armed Services committees, where the questioning figures to be pointed.

This report has been corrected to reflect Betty McCollum‘s position on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

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