Congress' new Afghanistan challenge: Bipartisan oversight 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 Marine intelligence officer. “I do think someone needs to be held accountable, but we need to do our due diligence before we determine whether that person is the secretary of state, secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the national security adviser.”

The future of that due diligence is bound to test the two parties’ ability to work together on oversight as the GOP tries to keep Afghanistan in the headlines ahead of the midterm elections. Most Democrats are eager, like Republicans, to examine the failures of the last few months — yet they’re insistent that Congress shouldn’t ignore the failures of previous administrations of both parties, particularly those during the term of former President Donald Trump, that exacerbated the chaos of the withdrawal.

High on that list of problematic choices that predated President Joe Biden is the decades-long Pentagon effort to train the Afghan Army, which ultimately fell to the Taliban in a matter of days.

“The first thing we need to do is focus on how is it that the Afghan military and police forces collapsed so spectacularly after we spent all that money — $88 billion to train these folks,” said Sen. 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 testimony. The Senate Armed Services Committee will get its first chance to grill Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan until July, on the topic at a closed hearing on Tuesday. Public hearings with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, and U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie are slated to begin Sept. 28.

Other congressional panels are already ramping up their oversight efforts. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has hired Ryan Browne, a former embedded contractor adviser to the Afghan National Army and CNN national security reporter, as the lead investigator for the minority into what the committee’s top Republican has called a “disastrous” withdrawal.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said Congress needs to dig deeper into what Biden has said was unanimous advice from military leaders to maintain the final withdrawal date of Aug. 31, even though some Americans and thousands of Afghan visa applicants were left behind. That abandonment, and the fact that 13 American service members were killed in a terrorist attack during the withdrawal, has made lawmakers especially dogged in their Afghanistan accountability blitz this fall.

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

“Some say, ‘we should have started mass evacuations sooner,’ and ‘couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner?’ I respectfully disagree,” he said on Aug. 31.

One senior Biden administration official, who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity, noted that Trump’s administration locked its successor into a date-based withdrawal and that the Taliban were clear that they would hold Washington to that agreement.

“It’s magical thinking to say that somehow we could have negotiated a conditions-based withdrawal after the previous administration made the deal for May 1 and drew down our troop presence to historic lows,” the official said.

At the peak of the frantic military pullout, multiple House Republicans were calling for administration heads to roll over Afghanistan, or for Pentagon officials such as Milley to step aside in protest. Some lawmakers have suggested that defense officials weren’t comfortable expressing an opposing view to the president and his inner circle.

While that’s quieted somewhat, it’s been replaced with a GOP interest in uncovering specific places to lay blame, as the party mines plenty of Biden-era ground for evidence of military missteps.

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

Waltz also zeroed in on the Pentagon’s recommendations to the White House as performance “assumptions [were] starting to fail in regard to the Afghan army.”

In retrospect, critics say the decision to hand Bagram over to the Afghans nearly two months before the August withdrawal date — made by Miller and McKenzie as part of the pullout timetable — was a major miscalculation.

Bagram’s airfield, equipped with two runways, could have provided an additional nearby evacuation point to the single-runway airport at Kabul. And the military could have defended it using air assets instead of thousands of additional troops, some argued.

Milley has said the administration’s troop cap essentially forced the military to give up Bagram. With force levels dwindling due to the scheduled withdrawal, priority was given to securing the embassy over continuing operations at Bagram, he said.

“If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be 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 spokesperson John Kirby told POLITICO that Austin is “more than comfortable with the degree to which senior defense and military leaders contributed to the policy-making process.”

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

And not every conservative is eager to see resignations over any policy differences that may have arisen between the Pentagon and the White House. Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said those moves tend to erode trust between civilian and military leaders.

“The president said the buck stops with him, and it does: The important decisions were his, and he owns the consequences,” she said. “It’s perverse to penalize the policymakers who counseled against those decisions for the consequences of them.”

Marianne LeVine and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.

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