In an attempt to justify the debacle President Biden created in his withdrawal from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley will testify on September 28 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gen. Milley will also be questioned about his widely-reported telephone calls with his Chinese counterpart in the last days of the Trump administration.
SASC Democrats will ask the sort of questions – many prepared with the help of the witnesses and their staff – that will be crafted to ensure that the answers only result in praise, rather than criticism, for the president and the witnesses. Therefore, Republicans who want facts rather than spin will have to question Messrs. Milley and Austin as any hostile witnesses would be in a courtroom cross-examination.
Senators usually make speeches instead of asking penetrating questions. That practice won’t differ very much on September 28, but perhaps we can help the SASC Republicans to focus by parsing out some of the most important and urgent questions. Because Mr. Austin seems to be a bystander rather than an active participant in what the Defense Department does, most of the questions should be directed to Gen. Milley.
For Gen. Milley:
1. Dozens – perhaps hundreds – of American civilians and thousands of our Afghan allies were left in Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorists. Why were these people abandoned?
2. On some day before August 31, you must have known that many American civilians and Afghan allies would not be evacuated. When did you realize that fact? Why didn’t the president extend his artificial deadline to ensure they were? Did you at any time advise him to extend the deadline? If not, why not?
3. Any sensible plan for evacuation would have ensured that our civilians and allies got out first, then would have withdrawn as much of our equipment as we could, and then withdrawn our troops. Why was this done in precisely the opposite order?
4. You told an interviewer that “What you saw unfold with this noncombatant evacuation operation was one of the contingency plans,” and “There was an extensive amount of planning in this.” Was it part of the plan to leave American civilians behind? Wasn’t leaving US civilians and Afghan allies behind contrary to your creed as a Ranger and Special Forces veteran that no man should be left behind?
5. You originally called the August 29 drone strike that killed ten innocent civilians a “righteous strike.” The strike, and your comment, were obviously based on false intelligence. Was that intelligence provided by the Taliban? Since August 31 we have had no “eyes and ears” on-the-ground intelligence in Afghanistan. Doesn’t the lack of that kind of intelligence prohibit Mr. Biden’s “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism strategy from working?
6. The Taliban are reportedly using a US biometric database to identify the people who worked with us over the past twenty years. Why was this system left behind?
7. Precisely how many American civilians are still in Afghanistan? What are you doing to ensure they can get out?
8. According to Bob Woodward’s book, “Peril,” you made two calls to your Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, one in October 2020 and another in January 2021. Are any of the quotes and actions attributed to you in that book incorrect? If so, which ones and why are they incorrect?
9. Those calls were reportedly based on intelligence that the Chinese feared a US attack. Which intelligence agency or agencies provided you with that intelligence? Did you question those who provided you with that intelligence what it was based on? I will ask the chairman to go into a classified session later during which I will ask you exactly what that intelligence said.
10. If you were concerned that the Chinese feared an attack by the United States in the closing days of the Trump administration, why did you choose to call the Chinese instead of discussing your concerns with then-vice president Pence and/or the acting secretaries of defense?
For Mr. Austin:
1. Gen. Austin Scott Miller reportedly asked that about 2500 US troops be left in Afghanistan on a more-or-less permanent basis. That could have been a force to deny terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan. Who disapproved of that recommendation?
2. At what point before August 31 did you realize that American civilians and Afghan allies would be left behind when our troops withdrew? Did you at any time ask President Biden to extend his deadline so that they could be evacuated? Did he refuse that recommendation and insist that his deadline be met?
3. You must have either devised or approved the plan that resulted in American civilians being left behind to face the Taliban and other terrorists. Why did you stand by and let that happen?
If these questions are asked, the committee’s Democrats will not be able to cover up the disastrous actions the witnesses and the president took.
The blame for Mr. Biden’s debacle in Afghanistan that abandoned so many Americans and Afghans to the Taliban, ISIS, and al-Qaida must be shared among the president and Messrs. Milley and Austin. The September 28 hearing is the moment to make it stick.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”