Lawmakers press Pentagon to keep Taliban from sheltering terrorists

Bipartisan skepticism of military's 'over the horizon' capabilities emerges at hearing

The Taliban, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, center, arrive for talks with Russian officials in Moscow in 2019. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The Taliban, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, center, arrive for talks with Russian officials in Moscow in 2019. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Posted September 29, 2021 at 4:54pm

Pentagon leaders withstood withering criticism, largely from Republican members, about the handling of the American exit from Afghanistan as they testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

But underneath the political posturing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised real concerns about the implications for the United States’ ability to suppress terrorist activity in Afghanistan with the country fully under the control of the Taliban.

At the hearing’s outset, Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who chairs the committee, tried to stave off partisan sniping, saying that keeping 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would not have changed the outcome but delayed the inevitable collapse of the government while putting U.S. forces at risk.

“Our larger mission to help build a government in Afghanistan that could govern effectively and defeat the Taliban had failed,” Smith said. “More money and more lost American lives were not going to change that. The events we witnessed in Afghanistan in the wake of the collapse of the Afghan government in August happened primarily because of this reality.

Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the panel’s top Republican, called President Joe Biden “delusional” for describing the withdrawal, which included the evacuation of 124,000 people via Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, as “an extraordinary success.”

“This wasn't extraordinary success; it was an extraordinary disaster,” Rogers said. “It will go down in history as one of the greatest failures of American leadership.”

Generals take flak

All of the witnesses — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, and U.S. Central Commander Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie — fielded questions about why they didn’t anticipate the complete collapse of Afghan Security Forces, why they didn’t argue more strongly in favor of keeping forces in Afghanistan, and why they relinquished control of Bagram Air Base. But the most pointed criticism was reserved for Milley.

As he had the previous day during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Milley acknowledged having granted interviews to authors of multiple books on the final months of former President Donald Trump’s term, including with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward for “Peril” and Carol Leonnig for “I Alone Can Fix It.”

Republican Michael R. Turner of Ohio focused on calls Milley had on Oct. 30, 2020, and Jan. 8, 2021, with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, to try to alleviate concerns that Trump might order an attack on China.

If intelligence suggested heightened Chinese anxiety, Milley should have raised it with the president, the Cabinet or with Congress, Turner said.

“You chose to talk to reporters instead of us, and that's of great concern,” Turner said.

Milley replied that the intelligence was widely shared and part of his job is to deescalate tensions with potential adversaries. The calls in question were not secret back-channel communication but made at the direction of then-Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.

'Over the horizon'

Other members, both Democrats and Republicans, focused on the concern over how the U.S. would protect itself from terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan using the “over the horizon” capabilities the Biden administration has touted.

“You talked about the attacks at the airport, no, they're coming here," said Republican Joe Wilson of South Carolina. "We are at greater risk. Suicide bombers can operate from the safe haven of Afghanistan."

Republican Michael Waltz of Florida drew parallels to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which enabled the emergence of ISIS and required the U.S. to send troops back three years later.

But unlike Iraq, the U.S. does not have any bases nearby from which to launch airstrikes on Afghanistan, he noted. Afghanistan is landlocked, which reduces the effectiveness of sea-launched strikes, and the U.S. does not have any local allies in Afghanistan, as it did with the Kurds in Iraq, Waltz said.

“I appreciate your candor in saying how difficult this is going to be, but the president is selling this country a fiction” about what the U.S. can accomplish in Afghanistan, he said. “I am just livid at the fact that future Americans are going to have to go back and clean up this mess.”

Democrat Elissa Slotkin of Michigan asked Austin and Milley to describe what tripwires they are watching that if breached might make them recommend sending troops back in, as was necessary in Iraq, where she served as a CIA officer.  

“The level of back and forth on the committee today represents some real stress in the system about the withdrawal and what it means,” she said.

Austin said the ability to export terrorism to the United States, and moving people back and forth across international boundaries would be concerning.

“It will take time to develop a true intel picture of what’s going on,” Austin said.

“Leadership, capability, training, those sorts of things, and demonstrations of intent that al-Qaida or ISIS is going to do external operations against the U.S. or our interests,” Milley added. “If we pick up on those, then it’s our obligation to present the president with options to deal with it.”

Negotiating with the Taliban

McKenzie described in greater detail than he had previously a conversation with Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar in Doha on Aug. 15. McKenzie said he brought a map that had a ring drawn about 19 miles outside Kabul with the intent of asking the Taliban to stay outside that perimeter, but not to threaten them.

But by the time of the actual meeting, Taliban forces had already entered the capital city, and he never showed the map to the Taliban.

“On the day of the meeting, they were already in downtown Kabul, so the graphic was outdated,” he said. “We had to proceed from the new reality.”

The Taliban envoy raised the possibility of U.S. forces handling security for all of Kabul, but McKenzie said he did not consider it a formal offer.

“That was not why I was there. That was not my instruction and we did not have the resources to undertake that mission,” McKenzie said, noting that his message was to warn the Taliban that they would face dire consequences if they disrupted the U.S. evacuation operations.