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New congressional challenge in Afghanistan: bipartisan surveillance of Biden’s Pentagon

“When the dust settles, I suspect most of the blame will fall on Biden,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), A former maritime intelligence officer. “I think someone has to be held accountable, but we have to do our due diligence before determining whether that person is the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or Security Advisor national. “

The future of this due diligence is bound to test the ability of both sides to work together on surveillance as the GOP tries to keep Afghanistan in the headlines ahead of the midterm elections. Most Democrats, like Republicans, are eager to examine the failures of the past few months – but they insist Congress must not ignore the failures of previous administrations from both parties, especially those in the former president’s tenure. Donald Trump, who exacerbated the chaos of the withdrawal.

At the top of that list of problematic pre-President Joe Biden choices is the Pentagon’s decades-long effort to train the Afghan army, which ultimately fell to the Taliban within days.

“The first thing we need to do is figure out how it is that the Afghan military and police force collapsed so dramatically after spending all this money – $ 88 billion to train these people,” the police said. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a veteran.

The surge began on Monday, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken began his first of two consecutive days of testimony in Congress. The Senate Armed Services Committee will have its first chance to grill General Scott Miller, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan until July, on the matter during a closed-door hearing on Tuesday. Public hearings with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, and Chief of U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, are scheduled to begin on September 28.

Other congressional panels are already stepping up their monitoring efforts. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has hired Ryan Browne, a former Afghan National Army integrated subcontractor and CNN national security reporter, as the senior minority investigator on what the top Republican committee called the withdrawal “catastrophic.”

Senator Angus King (I-Maine) said Congress needed to deepen what Biden said was a unanimous council of military leaders to maintain the final August 31 withdrawal date, even though some Americans and thousands of visa applicants Afghans were left behind. . That abandonment, and the fact that 13 U.S. servicemen were killed in a terrorist attack during the pullout, made lawmakers particularly fierce in their blitz of accountability in Afghanistan this fall.

Biden fiercely defended his decision to end the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, calling the evacuation effort “an extraordinary success” and saying the cost to the Americans would have been higher if he had prolonged the war.

“Some say ‘we should have started the mass evacuations earlier’ and ‘could it not have been done in a more orderly fashion? I respectfully disagree, ”he said on August 31.

A senior Biden administration official, who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity, noted that the Trump administration had locked its successor in a date-based withdrawal and that the Taliban were clear they would hold Washington to that. OK.

“It’s a magical thought to say that somehow we could have negotiated a conditional withdrawal after the previous administration struck the May 1 deal and reduced our troop presence to historically low levels, ”the official said.

At the height of the rampant military withdrawal, several House Republicans called on administration leaders to overthrow Afghanistan, or Pentagon officials such as Milley to step down in protest. Some lawmakers have suggested that defense officials were uncomfortable expressing an opposing point of view to the president and his entourage.

While this has calmed down somewhat, it has been replaced by a GOP interest in uncovering specific places to blame, as the party is exploiting plenty of Biden-era land to prove military missteps.

“Did the Pentagon recommend to the White House that we take back Bagram, as a main base or even as a backup base?” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan. “Did they make this recommendation and it was not accepted by the White House? Or did they feel like they were in a position where it wouldn’t be well received? “

Waltz also focused on the Pentagon’s recommendations to the White House as performance assumptions. [were] begins to fail vis-à-vis the Afghan army.

In retrospect, critics say the decision to hand Bagram over to the Afghans almost two months before the August withdrawal date – taken by Miller and McKenzie as part of the withdrawal schedule – was a major miscalculation.

Bagram airfield, equipped with two runways, could have been an additional evacuation point near the single runway airport in Kabul. And the military could have defended it using air assets instead of thousands of additional troops, some argued.

Milley said the administration’s troop cap essentially forced the military to abandon Bagram. With force levels dwindling due to the planned withdrawal, priority has been given to securing the embassy rather than continuing operations in Bagram, he said.

“If we were to maintain both Bagram and the embassy, ​​it would represent a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had,” Milley told reporters in August. “So we had to collapse one or the other, and a decision was made.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told POLITICO that Austin is “more than comfortable with the extent to which senior defense and military officials have contributed to the drafting process. policies “.

“It was a difficult and challenging mission for everyone,” Kirby said. “As [Austin] said so, we will all learn from this experience and be honest with ourselves. “

And not all Conservatives are eager to see resignations because of the political differences that may have arisen between the Pentagon and the White House. Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the measures tended to erode trust between civilian and military leaders.

“The president said the responsibility ends with him, and it does: the important decisions were his and he takes the consequences,” she said. “It is perverse to penalize policy makers who have advised against these decisions for their consequences.”

Marianne LeVine and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.

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