Congress' new Afghanistan challenge: Bipartisan oversight of Biden's Pentagon

“When the dust settles, Biden will likely be most of the guilty,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., A former Navy intelligence officer. “I think someone needs to be held accountable, but we have to do our due diligence before we can determine if that person is the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or the National Security Advisor.”

The future of this due diligence will test the ability of the two parties to cooperate on oversight as the GOP seeks to keep Afghanistan in the headlines ahead of the midterm elections. Most Democrats, like Republicans, are eager to investigate the mistakes of the past few months – nonetheless, they insist that Congress should not ignore the mistakes of previous governments of both parties, especially the one that worsened the mayhem during the tenure of former President Donald Trump Retreat.

At the top of this list of problematic decisions that preceded President Joe Biden are the Pentagon’s decades-long efforts to train the Afghan army, which ultimately fell to the Taliban in a matter of days.

“The first thing we have to do is focus on how the Afghan military and police collapsed so spectacularly after we spent all that money – $ 88 billion to train these people,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth ( D-Ill.), A combat veteran.

The push began Monday when Secretary of State Antony Blinken began his first of two consecutive days of congressional hearing. The Senate Armed Forces Committee will have its first opportunity to criticize General Scott Miller, commander of US Forces Afghanistan until July, in a closed hearing on the matter on Tuesday. Public hearings with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, and Chief of US Central Command General Frank McKenzie are due to begin September 28.

Other congressional bodies are already stepping up their oversight efforts. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has hired Ryan Browne, a former Afghan National Army Embedded Contractor Advisor and CNN’s national security rapporteur, as the chief investigator for the minority to investigate a “catastrophic” withdrawal by the committee.

Senator Angus King (I-Maine) said Congress needs to dig deeper into what Biden has referred to as unanimous advice from military leaders to meet the final August 31 exit date, despite leaving behind some Americans and thousands of Afghan visa applicants. This task, and the fact that 13 American soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack during the withdrawal, made lawmakers particularly persistent in their Afghanistan accountability flash this fall.

Biden has vigorously defended his decision to end the US presence in Afghanistan, describing the evacuation effort as an “extraordinary success” and saying that the cost to Americans would have been higher if he had extended the war.

“Some say: ‘We should have started the mass evacuation earlier’ and ‘couldn’t it have been more orderly?’ I respectfully disagree, ”he said on August 31.

A senior Biden government official, who spoke openly on condition of anonymity, noted that the Trump administration had barred its successor from a date-based withdrawal and that it was clear to the Taliban that Washington would stick to the deal.

“It’s a magical idea to say that somehow we could have negotiated a conditional withdrawal after the previous government broke the deal for Jan.

At the height of the frantic military withdrawal, several House Republicans called for leaders to roll over Afghanistan or for Pentagon officials like Milley to stand aside in protest. Some lawmakers have suggested that defense officials are not comfortable expressing conflicting opinions with the president and his closest circle.

While that has calmed down somewhat, it has been replaced by a GOP interest in exposing certain blame as the party seeks much of the Biden-era soil for evidence of military missteps.

“Did the Pentagon recommend that the White House retake Bagram, as a primary base or even as a backup?” Said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), A former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan. “Did you make this recommendation and it was not accepted by the White House? Or did you feel like you were in a position where it would not be well received? “

Waltz has also focused on the Pentagon’s recommendations to the White House as performance “assumptions” [were] to fail at the Afghan army. “

In retrospect, critics say the decision to hand Bagram over to the Afghans almost two months before the August exit date – made by Miller and McKenzie as part of the timeline for the withdrawal – was a gross miscalculation.

Bagram’s airfield, which has two runways, could have provided an additional nearby evacuation point to the one-way airport in Kabul. And the military could have defended it with air forces instead of thousands of additional troops, some argued.

Milley said the government’s troop cap essentially forced the military to abandon Bagram. Since the troop strength is dwindling due to the planned withdrawal, securing the embassy has priority over continued operations in Bagram, he said.

“If we kept both Bagram and the embassy going, it would be a significant number of forces that would have surpassed what we had,” Milley told reporters in August. “So we had to break down one thing or the other and a decision was made.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told POLITICO that Austin was “more than happy with the degree to which senior defense and military leaders have contributed to the policy-making process.”

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

And not every conservative is eager to see resignations because of political differences that may have sprung up between the Pentagon and the White House. Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the steps would undermine trust between civil and military leaders.

“The president said the money stops with him, and it does: the important decisions were his and he owns the consequences,” she said. “It is perverse to punish the policymakers who opposed these decisions for the consequences.”

Marianne LeVine and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.

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