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The U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Gets A Hearing In The House

NOEL KING, HOST:

Top U.S. military officials will testify today before a House committee on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yesterday, senators questioned these officials on how the Taliban took over so quickly and why the end of 20 years of war in Afghanistan was so chaotic. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is following this story. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So today will be Day 2. What did we learn on Day 1?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, let's look at the lineup. You had Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. You had Central Command's top officer, General Frank McKenzie and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley. In opening remarks, General Milley said there were actually efforts to withdraw all U.S. forces in the final weeks of the Trump presidency. A White House memo said all troops should leave before January 15, so five days before President Biden was sworn in. General Milley balked at that, talked to officials, and the memo was rescinded. And about 2,500 troops remained and continued into the Biden administration. Now, we also heard a startling admission from Defense Secretary Austin.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: We need to consider some uncomfortable truths - that we didn't fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks.

BOWMAN: Well, those uncomfortable truths were well-known. There were numerous government reports over the years from John Sopko, the Afghan inspector general who wrote about problems with the Afghan army, also from the CIA and numerous Pentagon advisers. Corruption was a huge problem, and few senior U.S. officials through three administrations were really willing to take it head-on. It was corrosive and sent Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.

KING: OK. What else did senators want to know about the withdrawal? What did they focus on?

BOWMAN: Well, there's a lot of focus, of course, on the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government and the military and the rapid takeover by the Taliban. It took just 11 days. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, the senator from New Hampshire, talked about the failure to anticipate what - about those final days. Let's listen.

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JEANNE SHAHEEN: What did we miss?

MARK MILLEY: I think, Senator, we absolutely missed the rapid, 11-day collapse of the Afghan military and the collapse of their government. I think there was a lot of intelligence that clearly indicated that, after we withdrew, that it was a likely outcome of a collapse of the military and a collapse of the government.

BOWMAN: But officials thought that the earliest the Afghan military would collapse would be sometime in the fall.

KING: OK. Tom, there was a very interesting moment where General Frank McKenzie, who heads CENTCOM, said the U.S. might not be able to stop al-Qaida and ISIS from regrouping in Afghanistan. How significant is that?

BOWMAN: No, it is significant. General McKenzie and others said it'd be very difficult to deal with the terrorist groups now that all U.S. troops are out. They'll handle it with aircraft coming from elsewhere in the region, what's called over the horizon to keep an eye on things. But it's very, very difficult to do that if you don't have boots on the ground, if you don't have a good ally on the ground.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.