Generals who carried out Biden’s Afghan exit face new GOP scrutiny

The Washington Post
March 19, 2024

The top two generals who oversaw the deadly evacuation of Afghanistan are facing renewed scrutiny Wednesday, as House Republicans escalate their campaign to hold President Biden accountable for the fiasco and Democrats accuse Donald Trump of having set the conditions for the Kabul government’s collapse.

Retired Gens. Mark A. Milley and Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, career military officers who served in senior roles under both presidents, are testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee as part of its oversight investigation.

The U.S. departure from Afghanistan, marked by scenes of desperation and violence, continues to be a political challenge for Biden, who has defended his decision-making and blamed Trump for boxing him in by signing a deal with the Taliban that agreed to withdraw troops with few conditions.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the committee chairman, has highlighted in the past that Milley, McKenzie and other senior defense officials recommended against the United States’ full withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 but that Biden disregarded their advice. The congressman said at the hearing’s outset that his committee’s investigation has uncovered “repeated instances” of the White House “refusing to listen” to such warnings.

During a hearing in February, McCaul accused leaders at the White House and the State Department of having “stuck their heads in the sand” as it became increasingly clear that Afghanistan’s fall was imminent. Taliban fighters had overrun numerous cities and districts on their march to Kabul, facing nominal resistance from the Afghan security forces trained and subsidized by the U.S. government over 20 years.

Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected to discuss the timing for shuttering the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, a key tipping point in the crisis, said a person familiar with his thinking. A U.S. military investigation released in 2022 exposed profound frustration among numerous defense officials who detailed what they deemed a lack of urgency within the State Department despite clear evidence that security was crumbling.

Military personnel would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation, Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top U.S. commander in Kabul during the operation, told Army investigators, “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.”

Biden administration officials have fiercely disputed those characterizations, saying that while early parts of the evacuation were difficult, the U.S. government eventually stabilized security well enough to airlift 124,000 people from harm’s way. That was made possible in part by McKenzie, the former head of U.S. Central Command, striking a deal with the Taliban in which the militants would provide security outside the international airport in Kabul while U.S. forces manned the airfield’s perimeter.

Thousands of desperate civilians choked the streets around the facility in the days that followed as they sought to leave the country. The Taliban executed some of them, U.S. troops have said in interviews with military investigators and the media.

On Aug. 24, 2021, as the end of the evacuation neared, a suicide bomber later determined to be affiliated with the Islamic State detonated a bomb in a tightly packed outdoor corridor at the edge of the airport, killing 13 U.S. troops and an estimated 170 Afghans. Dozens more were wounded.

U.S. troops who survived the blast said they also came under gunfire, but U.S. military investigators found that the loss of life was linked to the single explosion. Military officials later agreed to review those findings and conduct additional witness interviews. The results are expected to be made public soon.

Generals who carried out Biden’s Afghan exit face new GOP scrutiny