WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) member U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) questioned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, and Commander of U.S. Central Command General Frank McKenzie on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations.
Senator Rosen specifically questioned the nation’s top military officials about our withdrawal from Afghanistan, how we plan to counter future terrorist threats, holding the Taliban accountable, why the U.S. failed to adequately train the Afghan military to maintain aircraft critical to the defense of their country, how we can combat foreign influence in Afghanistan, and the future of women’s rights in the country.
ROSEN: Thank you, Chairman Reed and Ranking Member Inhofe, for holding today’s important hearing – a critical part of this committee’s oversight responsibilities—it’s an opportunity for the American people to get answers about our withdrawal from Afghanistan and how we plan to counter terrorist threats in the future. I also want to thank the brave men and women who served our country in Afghanistan – many who made the ultimate sacrifice – and of course, their families as well.
Secretary Austin, General Milley, and General McKenzie – I appreciate you all being here to address lingering concerns we have about the last two decades of war generally and the past two months in particular. You are all men of honor and integrity who have served our country nobly, and so I look forward to your candid responses to my questions, even if they require admitting that in some cases, serious mistakes were made.
Like all Senate offices, as the Taliban approached Kabul and eventually took over the city and the country, my team and I worked to help vulnerable individuals evacuate. These were people who in many cases had the State Department’s approval to leave Afghanistan for the U.S. or a third-party country, but due to crowds, Taliban checkpoints, or legitimate fear of being killed along the way, they just could not physically get to a gate to present their paperwork, no matter how many times they tried or how long they waited. My office worked with CENTCOM and the Afghanistan Task Force to try to coordinate opportunities just to grab these people from the crowd so that they could present their paperwork and flee to safety, but, unfortunately, again, these efforts were to no avail.
As these individuals wait for help that may never come, I remain frustrated that the U.S. did not set up a perimeter around Kabul or, at the very least, create a safe corridor for the SIV holders to get to the airport, or their families, and potential asylum seekers who were attempting to escape a near-certain death.
So, continued support. General Milley, I appreciate the State Department now taking the lead on evacuations, but like our military, the State Department no longer has any presence on the ground in Afghanistan. Did the U.S. military’s experience facilitating the evacuation from Kabul give you confidence that the Taliban will be honest brokers in working with our diplomats to help vulnerable Afghan nationals leave the country?
MILLEY: I think that what we’ve seen so far, since the 31st, is some Americans have gotten out through diplomatic means, and they have reached safety either through overland routes or through aircraft. I don’t know all the details, but I can’t imagine that didn’t happen without Taliban facilitation.
ROSEN: Well, we can get back to Afghan nationals, helping them leave the country as well—those SIV holders and others who supported us. But, Secretary Austin, the Administration has said they will utilize every tool available to hold the Taliban accountable if they fail to meet their commitments to provide safe passage for anyone who wants to leave the country. Certainly, we know there are economic levers, but can you elaborate on what the military tools are? And could that be a shared interest in targeting ISIS-K?
AUSTIN: In terms of military tools, Senator, as you know we have the ability to offer a range of options depending on what the President’s objectives are. So, we can do most anything that’s required of us because we have substantial resources. But in terms of our cooperation with the Taliban to counter ISIS-K, I won’t venture to make any comments on that. I’ll just say that we have coordinated some things that are very narrow in scope with them to get our people out, as you know, and to continue to further evacuate American citizens. But I won’t…I don’t think it’s right to make assumptions to broader and bigger things from that coordination. They are still the Taliban.
ROSEN: You know, I just want to speak about how, as Americans, we are really frustrated, all of us, about the way we withdrew from Afghanistan, but we nonetheless understand the difficult position that you and our men and women in uniform on the ground were—the position you were in last month. So, what the American people fail to understand, however – and what I too have difficulty accepting – is the idea that the circumstances we found ourselves in were inevitable. So, I’d like to ask about a few areas where perhaps we might have taken a different approach that could have given us more time to accomplish the mission.
So, General McKenzie, why was it always the responsibility of U.S. and Coalition Forces or contractors to maintain Afghan aircraft and equipment? And why were Afghan Forces either not trained or given this responsibility over the last 20 years?
MCKENZIE: So, I think you begin with the basic technological literacy of the country, which began when we first had dealings with them in 2001. You know you’re talking to people who are coming out of rule by the Taliban, imposition of Sharia law, the stone age approach to these things. You cannot impose technological literacy quickly. So that’s why it took a long time, and we were still not finished with the Afghan Air Force. And you know there’s a lot of contract maintenance done for a lot of air forces around the world—the Afghan Air Force is not unique in that regard, although in this case, it was particularly telling because they were so dependent on it.
ROSEN: Well, thinking of what we may have gained or may have lost as we leave, we think about countering adversaries. So, again, General McKenzie, what is your assessment of foreign influence in Afghanistan in the wake of our withdrawal? And what are the measures we could take to prevent our adversaries from filling the vacuum created by our departure?
MCKENZIE: Senator, last week I was in Kazakhstan, in the capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, where I hosted what we call the CASA CHOD Conference. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, the Kurdish Republic, and Pakistan—we all met and, we talked about that region after the fall of Afghanistan. And generally, what they want is, they want assurance. They want to continue to have ties with the United States because they want alternatives to Russia, and they want alternatives to China. Unfortunately, because of their geographic location, they are going to always have to deal with Russia and China, but I think our partners in the region want a message that the United States is not going to turn our back on them even though we left Afghanistan. And we had a very productive two-day conference based on those themes.
ROSEN: Well, I couldn’t agree more because I think it makes us more vulnerable if we allow anyone else to fill that vacuum. I’d like to, in just the minute I have left, touch briefly on the fate of Afghan women. What we’ve seen regarding the status of women in territories where the Taliban had retained control prior to overthrowing the Afghan government, we know how horrible the conditions are. And, so, what do you see moving forward for the fate of Afghan women? What can we do? What do you see for the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan?
MCKENZIE: So, during our long engagement in Afghanistan, I think we made great strides in educational and other opportunities for women in Afghanistan. I think those are all now gravely at risk with the return of the Taliban. So the levers that we have are economic and diplomatic, which are not part of, you know, of the Department of Defense. But I think that’s how we have to work the problem and I do think there is opportunity. It will not be a long lived opportunity—a matter of months perhaps—where we can force the Taliban down a certain path based on their desire to have international financing, international recognition, release of sanctions, and other things that are very important to them. So I think we’ve got to be very hardnosed as we negotiate with them going forward to ensure these gains are not lost.
ROSEN: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I really appreciate the hearing today, and I’ll be submitting more questions for the record.