Top Defense Officials Testify at the Armed Services Committee

Bella Martin, Editor-in-Chief

On Sept. 28, three top Pentagon officials —  Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Commander of the U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie — testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August. This hearing marks the first time defense officials have spoken out about the military operation. 

Criticism towards the withdrawal of troops from the region heightened on both sides of the political spectrum, when 13 U.S. service members were killed in an attack by the terrorist group ISIS-K near the Kabul airport. With American troops gone from Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly assumed power as the new government. 

When asked by the bipartisan committee about the withdrawal of troops, the officials stated that they personally believed it would be a mistake. General McKenzie stated that he told President Biden that 2,500 troops should remain in the area after the deadline. He believed that a rapid withdrawal of troops would inevitably lead to the collapse of Afghan military forces and the government. In the same way, Defense Secretary Austin told lawmakers that he suggested keeping a “steady state” of troops in the area past the Aug. 31 deadline.  

These comments directly contrast what President Biden previously said in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about military advisers supporting his decision to withdraw troops. At Tuesday’s White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki explained that Biden received a range of viewpoints on the issue, but in his constitutional role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he had the authority to make the final strategic decision. 

Despite McKenzie’s and Austin’s remarks, General Milley told lawmakers that had U.S. troops remained in the region past Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline, American troops and citizens would have been put at a substantial risk. With tensions already running high in the region between U.S. troops and terrorist organizations such as ISIS-K and the Taliban, additional attacks and casualties would have been almost certain. 

Besides questions about the withdrawal of troops, lawmakers asked the officials why they did not anticipate a collapse of the Afghan government. When the Taliban began re-asserting their power, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Experts believe that this move demoralized the Afghan military and contributed to its demise. Additionally, in the aftermath of the chaotic exit, experts criticized the American government for not considering the history of governmental instability in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Austin supported this claim as he explained that the U.S. government did not fully comprehend the depth and impact of corruption in the Afghan government

Officials estimated that around 100 Americans still remain in Afghanistan, and the work to evacuate them is ongoing. Hearings surrounding the withdrawal from Afghanistan are set to continue in the House of Representatives and the Senate.