Top generals who oversaw US withdrawal from Afghanistan criticize State Department for delaying emergency evacuation

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The two high-ranking generals in charge of the US military during the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 Both blamed the State Department for not earlier ordering a “noncombatant evacuation operation” for U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan at a congressional hearing Tuesday.

“In my opinion, that decision came too late,” retired Gen. Mark Milley, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Retired General Kenneth F. McKenzie, former commander of the US Central Command, said that “the events of mid-to-late August 2021 were a direct result of delaying the start of the NEO (evacuation) for several months, in fact , until they were in extremis and the Taliban had invaded the country.” McKenzie said he began to doubt the State Department’s ability to carry out an evacuation a month earlier, as the Taliban swept through the country.

Milley and McKenzie have discussed mistakes made during the withdrawal, including the intelligence community’s failures to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military, but Tuesday’s comments were their most candid statements about the end of America’s longest war. They provide the clearest picture yet of friction between the Defense Department and the State Department, with the former pushing for an order to evacuate and the latter delaying that decision.

Milley said the consensus military recommendation to the Biden administration was to evacuate US embassy staff from Kabul at the same time military forces were withdrawn.

“After decisions were made to maintain a diplomatic presence there, as the situation deteriorated over the summer and fall in provincial capitals etc., we were clearly pushing for early calls to run an OCT “Milley said.

McKenzie also accused the US embassy in Kabul of obstructing the coordination of a possible evacuation plan with the military.

“The Embassy in Kabul had a plan, they had what we would call an F-77 list, which is the list of American citizens and their families who are in the country, and we fought to get access to that plan and work with them throughout. over the months. July until we finally got a decision to run the OCT, which, as I mentioned, occurred on August 14,” McKenzie said.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the committee’s Republican chairman, has repeatedly called for the Biden administration to be held accountable for how the Afghanistan withdrawal unfolded. He has sharply criticized the administration over the Abbey Gate bombing, which killed 13 U.S. service members in the chaotic final days of the withdrawal. In his opening remarks, McCaul read the names of those killed in the attack. The explosion also killed dozens of Afghan civilians who were desperate to enter the walled airport complex.

“I think someone needs to be held accountable,” McCaul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday morning. “In what form that will be taken, we will see where the evidence goes in the matter.”

In January 2023, McCaul launched a separate investigation into the withdrawal from Afghanistan, an effort he said is ongoing. McCaul said many of the families of service members who died in the Abbey Gate bombing will be in the audience.

“They are not happy with this president. “They don’t believe that he ever publicly apologized to them or even said the names of his deceased, of the fallen, of his children who were murdered that fateful day,” he said.

Democrats criticized the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Afghanistan hearing as a political spectacle used to attack the Biden administration. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said the hearing began with the title “Biden’s strategic failure.”

“My understanding is that our witnesses refused to testify under that title,” Sherman said. “Now we have changed the title of the audience, but we have not reused it. He continues to be politicized.”

The hearing comes as U.S. Central Command recently completed a further review of the Abbey Gate bombing. The review was announced by CENTCOM in September, just days after an emotional congressional roundtable in which relatives of slain troops made clear their anger and what they saw as a lack of accountability for the chaotic withdrawal. It included additional interviews with service members and other personnel who were not included in the initial recall review.

The new review included more than 50 interviews, including 12 U.S. troops who were not part of the original effort. The new interviews sought “any new information about the [Abbey Gate] attack” and whether it would affect the findings of the first investigation, completed in November 2021, Central Command said in a statement last week.

This is not the first time Milley and McKenzie have testified together about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. On September 28, 2021, less than a month after the final withdrawal of US forces from Kabul International Airport, Milley and McKenzie sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The two men – at the time the top US general and the top US commander in the Middle East – said they recommended maintaining a small US military footprint in Afghanistan. Milley said he suggested keeping between 2,500 and 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan “until the conditions for further drawdown are met.” That recommendation, he noted, was consistent across the Trump and Biden administrations.

McKenzie said 2,500 U.S. troops was an “appropriate number to remain.” He also issued a warning about what could happen if U.S. troop levels fell further. “In fact, if we went below that figure, we would likely witness a collapse of the Afghan government and military.”

Maintaining a troop level of 2,500 would have been a fraction of the US force posture in Afghanistan during two decades of war, numbers that peaked at around 100,000 US troops in 2011.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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