Twenty years ago this week, U.S. Special Forces and a U.S. Marine task force began offensive operations against al-Qaida and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack. It was the deadliest in world history, killing 2,977 Americans. Within days, the U.S. was joined by NATO allies, united by the pledge, “Never again!”
Sept. 28 and 29, 2021, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees held hearings on the disastrous end of this bloody, two-decade-long war that took the lives of 2,464 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and 3,840 U.S. civilian contractors. More than 24,000 U.S. and allied troops were seriously wounded.
Last week’s hearings could and should have been an opportunity to determine who is responsible for the catastrophic defeat our nation suffered at the “end” of a brutal contest in which we won all the major battles but still lost the war. It didn’t happen.
Instead, we witnessed our senior military leaders making excuses, obfuscating, distorting, and attempting to blame former President Donald Trump to deflect blame for this unmitigated disaster they and their feckless president caused.
Ironically, the outcome of the hearings was best summarized by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a man who has his own issues with truth-telling. Blumenthal chided Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for providing “no real responses,” and after repeatedly asking who should be held accountable for leaving American citizens and our allies behind, concluded, “There is nobody in charge.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command, testified they urged President Biden to keep 2,500 U.S. troops and 5,000 NATO personnel in the country, and to retain possession of Bagram Air Base until all American citizens, Afghan allies and third-country civilians were evacuated. Biden evidently ignored this advice. When asked in a televised interview on Aug. 18 if he was advised to leave troops in Afghanistan, the president said: “No. No one said that to me that I can recall.” The functional words here were “that I can recall.”
Many assumed this response was another presidential lie, like so many others: “We will leave no one behind.” “We have enormous leverage over the Taliban.” We have “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism “capabilities.” But was it a deliberate falsehood? The only alternative raises serious questions about our president’s cognitive competence and who other than our senior military officers are giving this president military advice.
Two things are certain: First, the headline, “Top Generals Contradict Biden,” is true. So is the acknowledgment by two of our top military officers. Second, the American people and our homeland are now at “greater risk from terrorism” because of the way this war ended.
Congressional hearings with 5-minute Q&As are inadequate if the objective is to determine who should be held accountable for the humiliation our nation suffered in the worst military, national security and humanitarian disaster in U.S. history. But it’s about more than fixing blame. It’s about doing everything necessary to prevent anything like what occurred in August 2021, and the atrocities now underway in Afghanistan, from ever happening again.
To that end, we urge the formation of a “joint, bipartisan” commission on Operation Enduring Freedom. Here are two suggested parameters:
Give the commissioners authority to review classified messages, meetings and transcripts of calls, particularly calls made between Milley and Chinese Gen. Li Zuochong, and the call made by the president to Communist China’s leader, Xi Jinping, on Sept. 9.
Require the commission to deliver its report no later than Sept. 1, 2022.
This is the only way we can keep the pledge, “Never Again.”