In a September 28 hearing, the Senate Armed Services Committee faced off against top military officials regarding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, General Mark Milley, and General Frank McKenzie did all they could to protect President Joe Biden from political fallout. Aided in this effort by Senate Democrats, it seems that accountability for the disastrous end to the Afghanistan War rests with everyone but those actually involved.
In a marathon session, Biden loyalists sought to deflect any hint of blame from those who oversaw the operations, and for good measure, try to lay the fault at the feet of anyone who is not under scrutiny. But it was not an easy task, and like the botched withdrawal itself, the hearing left casualties in its wake. Not least of which was Joe Biden’s credibility.
Contradicting the President
While the military officers for the most part sought to direct blame away from the president, they admitted to disagreeing with the commander-in-chief in one notable exception.
President Biden has repeatedly said that no military advisers had recommended keeping troops on the ground after the August 31 deadline. When ABC’s George Stephanopoulos questioned the president in August on whether he had received this advice, he replied “No, they didn’t … No one said that to me that I can recall.” It was, in fact, a point Biden made on numerous occasions, insisting that he was following military guidance to the letter. The military leaders on the panel, however, had a somewhat different perspective.
U.S Central Command leader General Frank McKenzie told the Senate committee that “I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. I also recommended earlier, in the fall of 2020, that we maintain 4,500 at that time. Those are my personal views.” Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also stated that he felt more troops should be left on the ground and that his position “remained consistent.”
Either the military brass are lying about their stated recommendations, or the president is lying about advice he received from them.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki sought to provide cover for the president in the presser that followed. When asked about the contradictory positions, she explained, “We’re not talking about long-term recommendations. There was no one who said, ‘Five years from now, we could have 2,500 troops and that would be sustainable.’” Observers will note Psaki constructed a classic “strawman fallacy.” Neither of the generals suggested that troops should stay on the ground for five more years, and no reporter asked Psaki if they should.
Democrats to the Rescue
With the balance of power hinging on the 2022 midterm elections, Senate Democrats appeared unwilling to let their boss take the political hit. In a bizarre point-counterpoint tennis match, each grilling by a Senate Republican was tangentially addressed by a Democrat. It seemed that rather than asking direct questions to the attendees, efforts were spent on rephrasing the points made by opposition colleagues to water down any facts that may have been deemed damaging.
Talk of accountability was rife, but perhaps not in the way interested Americans might have hoped. The narrative that prevailed was that to find fault, the entire 20-year history of the Afghanistan saga must be investigated from its inception to its end by a non-partisan panel that would examine every decision made over two decades … In other words, kicking the can much further down the road.
A Funny Idea of Accountability
With President Biden beset on all sides, Democrats and the media have made the decision to protect their man at any cost. Accountability for the Afghanistan withdrawal will not be forthcoming in the near future, and the Fourth Estate will point to an ongoing internal investigation that will not see the light of day for years to come.
But if recent poll numbers are any indication, it seems the American people are insistent on their own form of accountability. With an across-the-board average of minus five points on presidential job approval, Joe Biden’s unwillingness to accept responsibility as the commander-in-chief could be the final straw for this administration’s future hopes.
~ Read more from Mark Angelides.