The deeply partisan US Congress is rarely a place for national introspection, and Tuesday’s Senate hearing on Afghanistan’s withdrawal was no exception.
Amid the scoring and shifting blame on the senators’ questions of the nation’s military leadership, it was clear that it was a contest to share the parts of failure.
And behind the withdrawal debacle that left tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans behind, were fleeting references to the much deeper failure of the previous two decades, a reckoning that has only just begun for the Pentagon and the establishment of politics. outside the United States.
For obvious reasons, Republicans on the armed services committee sought to maintain focus over the past eight months, accusing Joe Biden of surrendering to terrorists, launching occasional demands for the immediate resignation of the three military leaders sitting before them: the president. of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, the Head of Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
The three witnesses, pushed from time to time by Democrats, would occasionally point out that the surrender in question actually began in February 2020, with the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban in Doha.
In exchange for a US withdrawal before May 1 of this year, the Taliban agreed to seven conditions, but as General Milley pointed out, they only stuck to one of them: not to attack leaving Americans. In all other ventures, such as entering into good faith negotiations with Kabul and severing ties with al-Qaida, the Taliban had reneged. But Trump nonetheless tried to speed up the withdrawal, at one point demanding that it be completed in January.
Republicans barely mentioned the Doha deal, preferring to frame the pullout as Biden’s original idea. It was not surprising. Over the past four years, the party has grown accustomed to cognitive dissonance. The only indirect Republican reference to Doha came from Thom Tillis, who asked why Biden had stuck with Trump’s bankrupt deal.
“I don’t buy the idea that this president was bound by a decision made by a previous president,” Senator Tillis said. “This was not a treaty. And it was clearly an agreement in which the Taliban were not fulfilling it. President Biden could have come in, reaffirmed the conditions and completely changed the timeline. “
The answer the White House has given is that the Doha agreement gave the Taliban a considerable boost, raised their morale, destroyed the self-confidence of the Afghan government and freed 5,000 Taliban fighters. Denial of the deal by a new administration would have meant a return to war with much higher stakes, and likely tens of thousands of soldiers.
Milley, McKenzie, and Austin, however, took a different route in their testimony. They confirmed that in the review policy in February, March and April, they had advocated retaining a small force of around 2,500.
They were not asked how such a remnant could have resisted the resumption of direct attacks by a strengthened Taliban. Instead, the focus of many of the exchanges was on Biden’s disconcerting insistence on a ABC News interview on August 19 that he had received no such advice from his military advisers.
The three witnesses tried to get around this discomfort by saying that while they had believed that a small force should have been withheld, they could not reveal the nature of their advice to the president.
When asked by Senator Tom Cotton if Biden had been telling the truth, Austin could only squirm and insist that the president was “an honest and straightforward man.”
In his opening statement, Austin had sadly sought to broaden the focus of the past few weeks on the US presence in Afghanistan to the previous two decades and cautioned: “We have some uncomfortable truths to consider.”
“Did we have the correct strategy? Did we have too many strategies? “He asked. So much faith had been placed in nation-building that the sudden collapse of the army and government and the panicked flight of President Ashraf Ghani” took us all by surprise. “” It would be dishonest to claim otherwise. ” Austin said.
Milley said the US military will try to learn the lessons of the Afghan failure for a long time, but he outlined some of his initial thoughts.
One of his lessons, the general said, was not to give the enemy a fixed date for his departure as the Doha agreement had done, but to base it on a set of conditions. Another of Milley’s conclusions was “not to Americanize the war” and not to try to build another country’s army as the mirror of American forces.
But, as Milley himself admitted, these were lessons that were supposed to have been learned in Vietnam. The Biden White House had been eager to avoid parting scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975, but that’s exactly what happened, in part because those lessons had been forgotten.
The deeper question, which will probably never be answered, or even asked, in the bear pit of Congress, is why the United States has suffered such recurring amnesia every time it has gone to war.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism