Lawmakers will get their long-awaited chance Tuesday to grill Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley for the first time since the disastrous U.S. exit from Afghanistan, with key senators in both parties signaling that the two men will face a steady stream of tough questions.
President Biden’s leadership will also be under the gun, as lawmakers probe how the decision was made to exit Afghanistan, what the intelligence reports suggested and why the final days of the evacuation proved so costly, chaotic and violent.
Having skirted congressional hearings on Afghanistan earlier this month, both Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley will appear Tuesday morning before the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, also will take questions from the panel in what’s expected to be a lengthy, heated hearing that focuses heavily on the Biden administration’s military missteps before and during the chaotic withdrawal, and the limitations that now face the Pentagon as it crafts a counterterrorism strategy without the benefit of having assets on the ground in Afghanistan.
Those limitations have already come into focus following an admission earlier this month from Gen. McKenzie that an August “over-the-horizon” American drone strike in Kabul initially believed to have targeted an Islamic State-affiliated terrorist actually killed an Afghan working for an American aid organization and at least nine innocent people, including seven children.
But some Republican lawmakers have even broader questions and have zeroed in on what they believe was a disconnect between Pentagon leadership and top political officials in the Biden administration. They question how it’s possible Mr. Biden would have stuck by his original withdrawal plan amid mounting evidence that the U.S.-backed Afghan government was on the verge of a quick collapse and the Islamist Taliban were poised to rapidly overrun the entire country.
“Did the president really know and understand the ramifications of the withdrawal?” Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said during an appearance on Fox News on Monday. “We want to know who knew what, when, and why were those decisions made?”
Military leaders are sure to be pressed on who made the call to turn over control of America’s massive Bagram Air Base to the Afghan military nearly two full months before Mr. Biden’s Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline. Critics argue that Bagram would have been an invaluable resource during the frantic airlift from the far smaller Kabul airport, the site of a terrorist attack on Aug. 26 that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 160 Afghans.
There are also unanswered questions about why the Pentagon didn’t have a better plan in place to quickly evacuate Americans and Afghan allies in the event of a quick Taliban takeover. Gen. Milley and other top officials have said that virtually no one predicted the Afghan government would collapse in a matter of days, though many lawmakers have not been satisfied with that explanation.
Still, some analysts argue that Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley may escape with relatively little damage, given that the Senate is controlled by Democrats and that some left-leaning mainstream media outlets have already moved on from the Afghanistan debacle.
“Secretary Austin and Gen. Milley face tougher than usual circumstances for a Senate hearing considering recent events have been somewhat disastrous for the military, but I think they’ll be just fine,” said former Pentagon spokesman J.D. Gordon.
“For one, they are only following directions from the White House, unlike what happened during the previous administration,” he said. “Two, there are arguably worse crises out there between coronavirus, an out-of-control border and a $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending plan which would reshape America. Three, the left wing media … will just bury bad news about the hearing so half the country won’t hear about it anyway.”
Tuesday’s hearing also will mark the first time Gen. Milley has appeared before Congress since revelations that he effectively went around former President Trump during the final days of his administration to reassure China’s communist leaders that the U.S. was not planning an attack.
The disclosures in a book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa also included a claim that Gen. Milley was so worried about Mr. Trump’s mental state that he assembled top military leaders and advised them not to launch a nuclear strike — even if it was directly ordered by Mr. Trump — unless he was there.
Gen. Milley also had a conversation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about Mr. Trump’s mental state following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to the book.
The general has spoken little about those incidents but has promised to answer all lawmakers’ questions.
“I think it’s best that I reserve my comments on the record until I do that in front of the lawmakers who have the lawful responsibility to oversee the U.S. military,” he said earlier this month. “I’ll go into any level of detail Congress wants to go into.”
Some leading Republicans on Capitol Hill have called for both Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley to resign over their handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Other prominent figures in the GOP said that if Gen. Milley won’t step down, the Biden administration should take action against him.
“The situation with General Milley — they didn’t create it, but they’ve got to address it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, told Fox News last week. “You can’t have the highest ranking military official in this government bragging to a reporter about how they stepped in and superseded the authority of an elected commander in chief and actually undermined him by talking to a potential adversary.”
Tuesday’s appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee likely won’t be enough for some members of the chamber. Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier this month that he may subpoena both officials to appear before his panel.
The Pentagon leaders skipped a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan on Sept. 13.
It won’t be the only Capitol Hill gauntlet for the Defense Department’s top civilian and military figures this week. Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley will testify again before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.