Collapse of Afghan army ‘took us all by surprise,’ says US defense secretary

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress on Tuesday that the sudden collapse of the Afghan military caught the Pentagon off guard as it admitted miscalculations in America’s longest war, including corruption and damaged morale in the Afghan ranks.

“The fact that the Afghan army that we and our partners formed simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – took us all by surprise,” Austin told the Senate Forces Committee. armies.

“It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

Austin was speaking at the start of two days of what is expected to be one of the most controversial hearings in memory about the chaotic end of the war in Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of American soldiers and civilians and left the Taliban in power.

The Senate and House committees overseeing the U.S. military are holding hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, and Republicans hope to focus on what they see as mistakes President Joe Biden’s administration made towards the end of the year. the two-decade-old war.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, United States, September 28, 2021 (Reuters)

The hearings follow a similar interrogation two weeks ago that saw US Secretary of State Antony Blinken firmly defend the administration, even as he faced calls for his resignation.

Biden faced the greatest crisis of his presidency because of the dramatic loss of the war in Afghanistan and America’s handling of its troubled withdrawal, raising questions about his judgment and expertise in foreign policy.

Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, blamed the Biden administration squarely. Inhofe said Biden ignored recommendations from his military leaders and left many Americans behind after the US pullout.

“We have all witnessed the horror of the president’s own making,” Inhofe said.

A US Army Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2, 2021 (The New York Times: Jim Huylebroek)

Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he did not anticipate the speed of the Taliban takeover. But he noted warnings from the military since late 2020 that an accelerated withdrawal – without being tied to any conditions – could precipitate the collapse of the Afghan army and government.

“That was a year ago. My assessment has remained constant throughout,” Milley said.

DRONE STRIKE, suicide bombing

Austin praised US personnel who helped airlift 124,000 Afghans out of the country, an operation that also claimed the lives of 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghans in a suicide bombing outside from Kabul airport.

“Was it perfect? Of course not, ”Austin said, noting the desperate Afghans who died trying to climb the side of a US military plane and the civilians killed in the last US drone strike of the war.

Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Army XVIII Airborne Corps, boards a C-17 cargo plane at Kabul airport as the last U.S. serviceman to leave the Afghanistan. (PA)

Milley said the Taliban “remains a terrorist organization” that has not severed its ties with al-Qaeda. He warned that a reconstituted al Qaeda in Afghanistan with aspirations to attack the United States was “a very real possibility” – perhaps in just a year.

This warning is likely to confuse Republican lawmakers, who are skeptical of the Pentagon’s ability to follow threats from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and to act quickly on any information it obtains.

However, Austin has defended the Biden administration’s plans to deal with future counterterrorism threats from groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State by flying drones or commandos from overseas.

“The operations on the horizon are difficult but very possible. And the intelligence supporting them comes from a variety of sources, not just American boots on the ground, ”Austin said.