Not quite one month after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, we are now entering the phase when our politicians ask, “Who’s to blame?”
It officially began on Tuesday, when the top three officials responsible for the war—Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of Central Command—appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee. One of the most remarkable things about the hearing was that all three admitted that there’s something worth blaming someone for—that the 20-year war, the longest in our history, was a rout. Or, as both generals put it in more delicate but still damning terms, a “strategic failure.”
The question posed throughout the daylong session was whether the decisive failure occurred just in the last few months or whether the seeds of the failure were planted in the war’s beginnings. In other words, is President Joe Biden to blame, or should responsibility be spread across four presidents, 11 congresses, debilitating aspects of the way America trains client-states to fight wars, and the corruption endemic in the recently deposed Afghan government? Most of the panel’s Republicans took the former position, and most of the Democrats took the latter. The witnesses tried to avoid taking a stance but suggested that no one is blameless.
The hearing also opened up a potential rupture within the Biden administration. Asked whether the withdrawal and its poor execution had damaged U.S. credibility around the world, Austin replied, “As I engage my counterparts, I think our credibility remains solid.” However, Milley responded very differently, though hesitantly: “I think our credibility with allies and partners around the globe—and with adversaries—is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go. And ‘damaged’ is one word that could be used, yes.”
Austin, of course, was nominated for his job by Biden, mainly on the basis of the close professional relationship they’d formed during the Obama administration. Milley has avidly been trying to mold an image of himself as an independent, apolitical military adviser—which is what the JCS chairman is supposed to be—ever since a Bible-toting President Donald Trump roped him into the infamous photo-op outside the church across from the White House during the massive street protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd.* Having spoken frankly of Trump in the final weeks of that presidency, Milley may feel doubly compelled to speak frankly of Biden as well. As a result, he probably emerged from the hearing with heightened credibility among lawmakers in both parties—and possibly diminished standing in the eyes of Biden, who, before the hearing, had expressed “complete confidence” in the general.
Still, none of the witnesses came off as paragons of wisdom or high principle on the central issue of the Senate hearing (and of the Afghanistan war): why the Afghan army collapsed so quickly after two decades of intense American support.
Milley shrewdly diagnosed the failure: The U.S., he said, trained the Afghan soldiers in a way that made them too dependent on our technology and our support. Take away that support, and collapse was inevitable—though, he added, he and the intelligence agencies thought the collapse would occur in months, not days. Beyond military considerations, he said, the Afghan leadership was corrupt, the police were parasitic, and the whole government never gained legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.
This analysis is true, but not remotely new. Senior officers spoke openly about these problems as potentially fatal to the mission as far back as 2009, when President Barack Obama weighed whether to escalate or wind down the war. (He chose to escalate, to his eventual regret; then–Vice President Biden urged him to wind down, which helps explain his insistence on a total pullout now.) And Milley has held command positions in the Army for 20 years, including as the Army chief of staff, while McKenzie has held similar posts in the Marines, including several high-ranking assignments in Afghanistan. Why didn’t they warn of these problems, or suggest solutions to them, back when he could have spoken and acted with on-the-ground authority?
The Republicans on the committee have their credibility gaps as well. They howled in anger on Tuesday over Biden’s mishandled evacuation, which went against the advice of military officers and civilian officials. But last year, when the GOP still controlled the Senate, they didn’t hold a single hearing about the Doha agreement, which Trump signed with the Taliban. That accord, which was negotiated without the Afghan government’s participation, mandated the total U.S. withdrawal—which Republicans are criticizing now.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren got in a pointed round of questions. By the time her turn came, others had already prompted the witnesses to acknowledge that they’d all recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan—though Austin emphasized that, if those troops had stayed after the Aug. 30 deadline, the Taliban would have resumed fighting them, and Biden would have had to send in many more troops to stave them off. Milley and McKenzie agreed: The issue was not whether to leave or stay—it was whether to leave or to escalate substantially.
Warren focused on the evacuation, which many critics see as Biden’s main mistake. Did Biden follow the military’s recommendations on the evacuation? Austin replied, Yes. Did he give you all the resources you needed? Yes. Did he reject any of your advice on the evacuation? No. So now who’s to blame—and for what?
Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat whose fiscal conservatism has obstructed some of Biden’s most ambitious economic plans, seemed almost pained when asking his questions. Manchin, who is 74, said he well remembered Vietnam and couldn’t understand why no lessons were learned from that disastrous war. “How did we get into this and not get out?” he asked. If we’d set “specific goals,” would that “have made a difference?” Milley agreed that the Afghan war was a “strategic failure … the cumulative effect of 20 years, not 20 days.”
That created an opening for Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who lost both of her legs as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq war. She said that she would soon introduce a bill creating an Afghanistan War Study Commission, a bipartisan panel to examine all these questions and more, looking not just at the final days under Biden but the entire span of the past 20 years and even earlier.
Let’s see what happens with Duckworth’s proposal. If the commission is really created, we might force a deep look into the abyss—not just of this war but of the entire American way of war. If her bill gets voted down, or if the commission is clearly a mélange of partisan hacks, then the debate we’re seeing—and are likely to keep seeing from now till Election Day—is nothing more than partisan theatrics.
Correction, Sept. 29, 2021: This post originally misstated that George Floyd was shot by police.