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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Afghanistan withdrawal: Key takeaways from US Senate hearing

Over the past few days, the United States Senate Armed Services Committee has been holding hearings on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan

By: Express Web Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: October 1, 2021 10:04:44 am
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin looks on during the Senate hearing. Also pictured is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Army General Mark A. Milley and General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., USMC Commander, US Central Command. (Reuters)

The Afghanistan war and the botched withdrawal of foreign troops led by the United States from Kabul has been at the forefront of a Senate hearing in Washington. Even Democrats expressed frustration with a chaotic withdrawal that left 13 US troops dead and Afghanistan in the hands of Taliban, a long-time US foe.

Over the past few days, the United States Senate Armed Services Committee has been holding hearings on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations in Capitol Hill. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, along with General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Frank McKenzie of US Central Command have been appraising the Senate on the behind-the-scene decisions in their first public congressional testimony since the Taliban won the war in August.

Here are the highlights:

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Afghan collapse rooted in 2020 deal with Taliban, says US general

Senior Pentagon officials the collapse of the Afghan government and its security forces in August could be traced to the 2020 Doha agreement with the Taliban that promised a complete US troop withdrawal.

Gen. McKenzie said that once the US troop presence was pushed below 2,500 as part of President Joe Biden’s decision in April to complete a total withdrawal by Sept., the unraveling of the US-backed Afghan government accelerated. “The signing of the Doha agreement had a really pernicious effect on the government of Afghanistan and on its military — psychological more than anything else, but we set a date-certain for when we were going to leave and when they could expect all assistance to end,” McKenzie said.

Military commanders wanted to keep at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan

One of the most important testimonies came from the military generals who told lawmakers that they had recommended having 2,500 troops in Afghanistan to which Biden disagreed. The White House, however, defended the presidential decision, acknowledging that it was a split recommendation from Biden’s advisors and generals.

“I won’t share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion, and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation. I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time. Those are my personal views,” Gen Frank McKenzie told the senators. In an August interview, Biden had denied his commanders had recommended that, saying: “No. No one said that to me that I can recall.”

Afghan army collapse ‘took us all by surprise’

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress that the Afghan army’s sudden collapse caught the Pentagon “by surprise,” as military leaders confronted a contentious Senate hearing about how and why America lost its longest war.

“The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – took us all by surprise,” Austin, a former four-star general who served in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”

Asked why the United States did not foresee the rapid collapse of the Afghan army, Gen. Milley said that in his judgment the US military lost its ability to see and understand the true condition of the Afghan forces when it ended the practice some years ago of having advisers alongside the Afghans on the battlefield. “You can’t measure the human heart with a machine, you have to be there,” Milley said.

Pakistan and ISIs ties with Taliban is confidential info

Defence Secretary and the two top generals told Senators that the ties that Pakistan and its spy agency ISI have with the Taliban can only be discussed within closed doors. In the public domain they can only say that the relationship between the two is going to become increasingly complex post withdrawal.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 28, 2021. Patrick Semansky/Pool via REUTERS

“An in-depth conversation about Pakistan probably would be better suited in a closed hearing here so,” Austin told the committee members when Senators asked pointed questions about recent news reports of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence wing of Pakistan Army, and its ties with the Taliban. Generals Milley and McKenzie said the same.

Afghan war was a ‘strategic failure’, says miltary officer 

Gen. Milley called the 20-year war in Afghanistan a “strategic failure”.

“Outcomes in a war like this, an outcome that is a strategic failure — the enemy is in charge in Kabul, there’s no way else to describe that — that is a cumulative effect of 20 years,” he said, adding that lessons need to be learned, including whether the US military made the Afghans overly dependent on American technology in a mistaken effort to make the Afghan army look like the American army.

On future threats and al-Qaeda

Gen. Milley acknowledged the possibility of future threats to the US from a reconstituted al-Qaida or Afghan ISIS. There is “a very real possibility” that al-Qaida or the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate could reconstitute in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and present a terrorist threat to the United States in the next 12 to 36 months.

It was al-Qaida’s use of Afghanistan as a base from which to plan and execute its attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, that triggered the US invasion of Afghanistan a month later. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over after Osama bin Laden’s killing, had appeared in a new video marking the 20th anniversary of the Sept.11, attacks, months after rumors spread that he was dead.

Screengrab from a video showing al-Qaida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri at an unknown location, in a videotape issued in September 2006. (AP)

“And we must remember that the Taliban was and remains a terrorist organisation and they still have not broken ties with al-Qaida,” Milley said. “I have no illusions who we are dealing with. It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power or if the country will further fracture into civil war.”

Defence Secretary Austin said it will be “difficult but absolutely possible” to contain future threats from Afghanistan without troops on the ground.

Milley defends calls to Chinese at end of Trump presidency

Gen. Milley also reacted to criticism that followed reports of him making two calls to Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army to assure him that the United States was not suddenly going to go to war with or attack China. In a vehement defense of two calls he made to his Chinese counterpart, Milley said he was responding to a “significant degree of intelligence” that China was worried about a US attack.

“I know, I am certain, that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese. … And it was my directed responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese,” Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: Stay calm, steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”

Details of the calls were first aired in excerpts from the recently released book ‘Peril’ by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

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