WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress on Tuesday (Sep 28) 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.
Republican lawmakers accused President Joe Biden of lying about recommendations from his military that some troops should be kept in the country. Even Biden's Democrats expressed frustration with a chaotic withdrawal that left US troops dead and American citizens behind.
Biden's approval ratings have been badly damaged by last month's spectacular collapse of the two-decade-old war effort, marked by painful images of Afghans clinging desperately to a US military plane as they tried to escape Taliban rule.
Thirteen US troops also died in an Aug 26 suicide bombing trying to safeguard the civilian evacuation effort that, ultimately, relied on support from Taliban foes outside the airport walls.
As well as Austin, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Frank McKenzie of US Central Command acknowledged being caught off-guard by the speed of the Taliban takeover following the collapse of the US-backed government in Kabul.
"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 told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"It would be dishonest to claim otherwise."
McKenzie and Milley both testified that they had believed it would have been best to keep a minimum of 2,500 troops in the country. In an August interview, Biden denied his commanders had recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. He said then: "No. No one said that to me that I can recall."
Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, said Biden's decision to keep Trump's unconditional withdrawal agreement with the Taliban had squandered US sacrifices for what he thought would be "a cheap political victory".
"The loss of our service members, and abandonment of Americans and Afghan allies last month was an unforced, disgraceful humiliation that didn't have to happen," Ernst said.
Senator James Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee's top Republican, described it as a "horror of the president's own making."
Milley, the top US military officer, noted military warnings since late 2020 that an accelerated, unconditional withdrawal could precipitate the collapse of the Afghan military and government.
"That was a year ago. My assessment remained consistent throughout," Milley said.
'WHY DON'T YOU RESIGN?'
Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked Milley why, if everything he said was true, he didn't resign his position in protest at Biden's decisions.
Milley pushed back strongly, saying a US president does not have to agree with the advice of his generals.
"This country doesn't want generals figuring out what orders we are going to accept and do or not. That's not our job," Milley said, adding a decision to resign would be "an incredible act of political defiance."
Austin, Milley and lawmakers - many of whom oversaw aspects of the war effort for years - seemed still full of questions about what went wrong in Afghanistan, citing failures to appreciate the impact of far-reaching corruption and damaged morale in the ranks.
"There's a series of strategic lessons to be learned," Milley said.
Democrats faulted Republicans for blaming Biden, who has been president since January, for everything that went wrong during the 20 years US troops have been in Afghanistan.
"Anyone who says the last few months were a failure, but everything before that was great, clearly hasn't been paying attention," Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said.
Austin praised US personnel who helped airlift 124,000 Afghans out of the country.
But Milley acknowledged that while the evacuation effort was a logistical accomplishment, the US withdrawal was a "strategic defeat" that left the Taliban back in power.
He warned the Taliban "remains a terrorist organisation" which has not broken ties with al Qaeda.
A reconstituted al Qaeda in Afghanistan with aspirations to attack the United States was "a very real possibility" - perhaps in as little as a year, he said.
That warning is likely to unsettle Republican lawmakers, who are sceptical of the Pentagon's ability to keep track of al Qaeda and Islamic State threats, and act quickly on any information it gets.
Austin defended the Biden administration's plans to address future counterterrorism threats from groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State by flying in drones or commandos from overseas.
"Over-the-horizon operations are difficult but absolutely possible. And the intelligence that supports them comes from a variety of sources, not just US boots on the ground," Austin said.