Austin lays out 'uncomfortable truths' about U.S. war in Afghanistan

By Tony Bertuca / September 28, 2021 at 9:59 AM

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, testifying before Congress today on the chaotic and violent completion of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, said American forces deployed there over 20 years “helped build a state, but we could not forge a nation.”

In his opening testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin, who once led U.S. Central Command, said along with “tactical issues” associated with the evacuation of Kabul last month, there are also “tough questions” and “uncomfortable truths” about the 20-year U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

“Did we have the right strategy? Did we have too many strategies?” he asked. “Did we put too much faith in our ability to build effective Afghan institutions -- an army, an air force, a police force, and government ministries?”

Austin said it would be “dishonest” to claim the collapse of the Afghan military -- which the United States spent years funding and training -- came as anything other than a surprise to U.S. military leaders.

“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,” he said.

Skeptical lawmakers, however, have pointed to the work done by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which for years has released reports about the failing U.S. mission to build the Afghan government and military.

Austin said the United States must now grapple with the fact it “did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement, that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which -- and for whom -- many of the Afghan forces would fight.”

Austin also acknowledged the lives “tragically” lost during the evacuation of Kabul, including several Afghans killed climbing aboard a departing aircraft the first day; 13 U.S. servicemembers and dozens of Afghan civilians killed in a terrorist bombing on Aug. 26 and as many as 10 innocent people, many of whom were children, mistakenly killed in a U.S. drone strike Aug. 29.

“As for the mission’s end, my judgment remains that extending beyond the end of August would have greatly imperiled our people and our mission,” he said. “The Taliban made clear that their cooperation would end on the first of September, and as you know, we faced grave and growing threats from ISIS-K. Staying longer than we did would have made it even more dangerous for our people and would not have significantly changed the number of evacuees who we could get out.”

Austin said the U.S. government is still working to evacuate Americans who remain in Afghanistan, along with Afghan allies not yet enrolled in the Special Immigrant Visa program.

“We take that very seriously,” he said. “That is why we are working across the interagency to continue facilitating their departure. Even with no military presence on the ground, that part of our mission is not over.”

Austin said the U.S. military planned to move between 70,000 and 80,000 people out of Afghanistan but ended up transporting more than 124,000.

“It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in just 17 days,” he said. “Was it perfect? Of course not. We moved so many people so quickly out of Kabul that we ran into capacity and screening problems at intermediate staging bases outside of Afghanistan.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI) said lawmakers need to understand why and how the Afghan state failed and fell to the Taliban, despite 20 years of U.S. presence and “enormous sacrifice” and “vast investment.”

“While there is a temptation to close the book on Afghanistan and simply move on to long-term strategic competition with China and Russia, we must capture the lessons of the last two decades to ensure that our future counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere continue to hold violent extremists at bay,” he said. “The United States faces new and evolving threats around the world. To overcome them, we must first understand what went wrong during our mission in Afghanistan and learn from those missteps. We owe it to the American people.”

Reed said he understands many lawmakers will want to focus their attention on the final months of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

“I think it is equally important, however, that this committee takes a step back and examines the broader two-decade mission that shaped the outcome we face today,” he said. “Our withdrawal this summer and the events surrounding it did not happen in a vacuum. The path that led to this moment was paved with years of mistakes, from our catastrophic pivot to Iraq, to our failure to handle Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, to the flawed Doha Agreement signed by President Trump.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the committee’s ranking member, said he is concerned the Biden administration has yet to present a strategy for future counterterrorism operations in the region.

“There is no plan,” he said. “We have no reliable partners on the ground. We have no bases nearby. The Afghan government is now led by terrorists with long ties to al-Qaeda. And we’re at the mercy of the Pakistan government to get into Afghanistan airspace. Even if we can get there, we can’t strike al-Qaeda in Afghanistan because we’re worried about what the Taliban will do to the Americans still there.”

Inhofe said President Biden made a “disastrous decision” to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

“President Biden’s decision to withdraw has expanded the threat of terrorism -- and increased the likelihood of an attack on the homeland,” he said. “The administration is telling the American people that the plan to deal with these threats is something called ‘over the horizon’ counterterrorism, and that we do these types of operations elsewhere in the world. That’s misleading at best and dishonest, at worst.”

Austin said U.S. forces conducted an “over-the-horizon” strike in Syria a few days ago.

“When we use that term, we refer to assets and target analysis that come from outside the country in which the operation occurs,” he said. “These are effective, and fairly common, operations. Just days ago, we conducted one such strike in Syria, eliminating a senior Al Qaeda figure. Over-the-horizon operations are difficult but absolutely possible and the intelligence that supports them comes from a variety of sources, not just U.S. boots on the ground.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the United States has been drawing down troops from Afghanistan for the past decade.

“This has been a 10-year multi-administration drawdown, not a 19-month or a 19-day deal,” he said.

In fact, Milley said, he received an unclassified, signed order on Nov. 11 from former President Trump directing the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Jan. 15.

“After further discussions regarding the risks associated with such a withdrawal, the order was rescinded,” he said.

Milley said it is “clear that the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms that we wanted with the Taliban in power in Kabul.”

Still, he said, “there is no doubt in my mind that our efforts prevented an attack on the homeland from Afghanistan, which was our core mission and everyone who served in that war should be proud.”