The nation’s top general said Wednesday that there are “lessons to be learned” from a chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, all while he and other top Pentagon leaders face growing questions over whether the Biden administration has tried to hide the extent of the weapons haul lost to the Taliban.
In his first remarks since the last U.S. troops exited Afghanistan on Monday, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan and its rushed exit, which left more than 100 U.S. citizens stranded in the country, will be studied for years to come.
He gave the sobering take on the conflict on the same day that the Islamist Taliban held a major victory parade in the city of Kandahar and flaunted the cutting-edge U.S. vehicles, weapons and other military equipment it captured after quickly defeating Afghan government forces en route to retaking control of the country.
Exactly how so much equipment fell so easily into Taliban hands is one of the key questions before Gen. Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Both of them have fended off loud calls to resign after the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle.
They will eventually have to address whether the military could and should have done more to prevent U.S. arms from falling into Taliban hands. Evidence that has emerged in recent days suggests the Biden administration may have tried to shape the release of key information about the size of the arsenal abandoned in Afghanistan.
Officials with the Government Accountability Office confirmed Wednesday that they took down roughly 400 studies posted online relating to Afghanistan, including a 2017 document that provided a comprehensive list of American military gear given to Afghan security forces from the start of the war in 2001. GAO officials said the reports were removed at the direct request of the State Department.
Officials said the reports could identify Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort and could be targeted for retribution by the Taliban.
“Given ongoing events in Afghanistan, the State Department requested we temporarily remove and review reports on Afghanistan to protect recipients of U.S. assistance that may be identified through our reports and thus subject to retribution,” the GAO said in a statement to The Times. “We did so out of an abundance of caution” about Aug. 16, a day after the U.S.-backed government in Kabul fell to the Taliban.
Of the 400 reports initially removed, GAO officials said, about 300 have been reviewed and are back online. The 2017 study detailing all of the equipment given to Afghan forces remains under review, as are about 75 other documents related to Afghanistan, officials said.
In a statement late Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson said the move was made to protect the “safety of our Afghan contacts.”
“The State Department advised other federal agencies to review their web properties for content that highlights cooperation/participation between an Afghan citizen and the [U.S. government] or a USG partner and remove from public view if it poses a security risk,” the spokesperson said.
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. provided a cumulative total of more than $82 billion in arms and training to the forces of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The forces quickly folded in the face of a major Taliban military offensive last month. Although the GAO has not reposted the 2017 report, it can be found using Google’s Wayback Machine and other tools.
According to that study, the U.S. from 2003 to 2016 directly provided or funded the purchase of a massive amount of equipment for Afghan forces, including 162,643 pieces of communications gear; 75,898 vehicles; 599,690 weapons; 29,681 pieces of explosive ordnance disposal equipment; 16,191 pieces of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, equipment; and 208 aircraft.
No one believes all of that equipment is now in Taliban hands. Much of the military materiel was reclaimed in the struggle, and many large pieces of equipment, such as aircraft given to Afghan forces, were rendered inoperable by U.S. troops before they left Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said. In addition, a massive amount of military equipment was moved out of the country during the U.S. withdrawal effort over the spring and summer.
Still, Taliban fighters in recent days have been seen flying U.S. helicopters and driving armored vehicles. The insurgent group also appears to have captured a cache of guns, night-vision goggles, surveillance equipment, camouflage uniforms and a host of other military gear.
On Wednesday, the group held a victory parade showing off much of that equipment.
As images spread online of fighters proudly displaying their American-made guns and uniforms, watchdog groups accuse the Biden administration of trying to hide how well-armed the Taliban have become.
“The war in Afghanistan has always been a black box, but now we’ve reached an entirely new level,” Adam Andrzejewski, CEO of the watchdog group Open the Books, said in a statement Wednesday.
The Taliban‘s newfound military prowess and the widely criticized final withdrawal also have fueled calls for Gen. Milley and Mr. Austin to step down.
“The loss of billions of dollars in advanced military equipment and supplies falling into the hands of our enemies is catastrophic,” more than 90 retired military officers wrote in a letter this week.
“The damage to the reputation of the United States is indescribable,” they wrote. “We are now seen, and will be seen for many years, as an unreliable partner in any multinational agreement or operation. Trust in the United States is irreparably damaged.”
The political sensitivity of the issue was already on display Wednesday when Facebook and Instagram briefly flagged as inaccurate a post by Rep. Richard Hudson, North Carolina Republican, that cited the estimates of the weaponry and firepower seized by the Taliban from retreating U.S. forces.
Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, later removed their flag on the posts, but Greg Steele, a spokesman for the lawmaker, said their actions by the social media sites are concerning.
“Joe Biden promised the most transparent administration in history, but is reportedly trying to scrub information about his catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the equipment left behind,” Mr. Steele said. “My fear is Facebook was also trying to keep the truth away from people, but I am glad they have corrected the false labeling.”
The graphic Mr. Hudson posted was originally published by the Sunday Times and details the number and types of equipment seized by the Taliban.
Mr. Hudson accompanied the graphic with a brief comment which read:
“In addition to thousands of Americans and allies left behind in Afghanistan, President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal also left billions of dollars of military equipment — paid for by American taxpayers — in the hands of the brutal Taliban regime. Thanks to President Biden, the Taliban now has more Black Hawk helicopters than 85% of countries in the world. This is a disgrace.”
On Tuesday, The Washington Post fact-checked specific claims concerning the total dollar value of the equipment that was turned over. All told, the U.S. provided more than $80 billion in materiel and training to the Afghan war efforts, but only a relatively small fraction of that total constituted the weapons, helicopters vehicles and equipment abandoned by U.S. troops in last month’s hurried evacuation.
The Post did not, however, specifically dispute the inventory that was turned over, though pointed out that some of the equipment may be “obsolete or destroyed - or soon may not be usable.” Mr. Hudson’s original post did not include a dollar figure.
“While fact-checkers have disputed the exact dollar amount of equipment left in Afghanistan (estimated to be $24 billion of our total $82.9 billion investment in Afghanistan), there is no dispute of the inventory of vehicles, arms, and aircraft American taxpayers sent to Afghanistan over the last two decades,” Mr. Hudson said after Facebook flagged the post.
“These figures have been compiled by the U.S. Government Accounting Office and the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. Censoring these facts is ridiculous!” he said.
Gen. Milley didn’t offer specifics Wednesday on what he would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight, though lawmakers have pressed for answers about the lost equipment and surely will grill the general when he eventually appears before Congress.
“We’re going to learn from this experience as a military. How we got to this moment in Afghanistan will be analyzed and studied for years to come. And we in the military will approach this with humility, transparency and candor,” he said.
“There are many tactical, operational and strategic lessons to be learned,” he added.
Mr. Austin also seemed to concede that some parts of the mission could have been handled differently.
“There hasn’t been a single operation that I’ve ever been involved in where we didn’t discover something we could have done better or more efficiently or more effectively,” he told reporters. “No operation is ever perfect.”
• Joseph Clark contributed to this report.