The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told lawmakers Wednesday that terrorist organizations could regain footing in Afghanistan in as soon as six months leaving some lawmakers concerned that the war there is not over.
The remarks by Gen. Mark A. Milley came amid two consecutive days of contentious testimony before House and Senate panels escalated into heated flareups among lawmakers and calls for the Pentagon’s top brass to resign.
“I think right now, right this minute we are safer because of the efforts over the last 20 years,” Gen. Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. “However, I do think that conditions are more likely than not to develop over the course of time that will allow for the reconstitution of al Qaeda and/or ISIS.”
“And that time varies depending on which analyst you’re listening to, but some time between say six to 12 and maybe 36 months,” he said.
Gen. Milley’s testimony came in hearing along with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command.
Gen. McKenzie echoed the need for the U.S. to remain vigilant.
“The war on terror is not over, and the war in Afghanistan is not over either,” he said.
Neither general predicted a return of U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the near future, but their warnings compounded fears by some lawmakers that the U.S. ceded Afghanistan prematurely as the war on terrorism continues to rage.
Of particular concern for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle is whether the U.S. maintains a capability to combat terrorism in Afghanistan without boots on the ground.
The Biden administration has lauded its over-the-horizon counter-terrorism strategy, but with no military footprint and degraded intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan and the closest airbase from which to fly unmanned intelligence aircraft hours away, lawmakers were skeptical of the strategy.
Gen. Milley conceded in his testimony that the withdrawal damages the ability to confront potential terrorist threats in the region.
“I think the ends are going to remain the same to protect the American people, but I think the ways and means are going to change,” he said. “I think it is going to become much more difficult now to conduct counterterrorism operations against a reconstituted al Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan. Not impossible … but it will be more difficult.”
Rep. Mike Waltz, Florida Republican and a former Army Green Beret, became incensed by the strategy during his questioning and predicted the U.S. would be forced to return to Afghanistan sooner or later, drawing parallels with the U.S. return to Iraq to fight Islamic State after its 2011 withdrawal.
“I appreciate your candor with how difficult this is going to be. But the president of the United States is selling this country a fiction,” Mr. Waltz said.
“I am just livid at the fact, of the future Americans, that are going to have to go back to clean up this mess,” Mr. Waltz said.
Republicans seized on Wednesday’s testimony as another misalignment between the Pentagon and the White House contrasting Gen. McKenzie’s statement about the continuation of the war in Afghanistan with President Biden’s assertion on Aug. 31 that “the war in Afghanistan is now over.”
Wednesday’s testimony followed revelations Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gen. Milley and Gen. McKenzie both advised keeping at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and had privately advised the White House of their opposition to a full withdrawal.
Their statements seemed to contradict Mr. Biden’s claims in an August interview that Pentagon brass was on board with his Aug. 31 exit date, and led to a bitter partisan divide at Wednesday’s hearing.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith defended President Biden’s decision to end the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, telling the Pentagon’s top leadership the generals were “wrong” to keep U.S. troops in-country.
He also took aim at Republicans for their claims that Tuesday’s remarks were proof that Mr. Biden had misled the public in an August press interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
“This has been the subject of a huge misunderstanding in the last 24 hours and that, again, I find very, very disingenuous,” Mr. Smith said in his opening statement Wednesday.
But Mr. Smith’s comments did little to assuage Republicans, several of whom continued to raise the issue throughout the hearing.
“What President Biden said is we’re done,” Mr. Smith said in a heated argument partway through the hearing in response to continued Republican digs at the president. “We’re not going to have these hearings anymore. We’re not going to have the funerals anymore. We’re not going to lose the service members fighting a war that it is clear we cannot be successful.”
“We all pick nits with this decision, with that decision, why didn’t you say this, why didn’t you do that. Twenty years of a whole lot of people have led us to this point. And we said we’re going to stop,” he said.
While Republicans were quite galvanized in their criticism of Mr. Biden for the withdrawal, they were split in their criticism of the Pentagon.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Missouri Republican, chided Gen. Milley over the calls to his Chinese counterpart telling the general that the call was “worthy of your resignation.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, urged all three leaders to resign over the botched Afghanistan withdrawal.
“You have let down the people that wear the uniform in my district and all around this country,” he said. “You’re far more interested in what your perception is and how people think about you in insider Washington books than you care about winning which this group seems incapable of doing.”
But other Republicans apologized for their colleague’s remarks.
“For any member of this committee, for any American to question your loyalty to our nation, to question your understanding of our Constitution, your loyalty to our Constitution, your recognition and understanding of the civilian chain of command, is despicable,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican.
Wednesday’s hearing concludes the first round of testimony from Pentagon leadership on Afghanistan, though several members of the House panel have requested a closed hearing.
The Senate committee will hear testimony from outside national security experts on the withdrawal Thursday.