The Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee threatened to subpoena Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after he declined an invitation to appear before the committee on Tuesday to explain the administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying he was “very disappointed.”
“A full accounting of the U.S. response to the crisis is not complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained and -funded Afghan military,” Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey said at the start of Tuesday morning’s hearing, in which only Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified. “I expect the secretary will avail himself to the committee in the near future, and if he does not, I may consider the use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others over the course of these last 20 years to testify.”
Menendez threatened to create further headaches for the Pentagon if it does not appear, adding that Austin’s failure to do so “will affect my personal judgement on Department of Defense nominees.”
Austin would have faced many fundamental questions that remain outstanding as the U.S. continues to reel from the stunning collapse of the government in Kabul and supposed 300,000-strong military that it spent 20 years and nearly $2 trillion trying to stand up. Chief among them are the inputs that went into the timing and strategy of the withdrawal President Joe Biden ordered, which he has described as a relative success given the unforgiving parameters left to him by his predecessor Donald Trump and the secret deal he signed with the Taliban in early 2020.
Yet chaos continues to roil Afghanistan as the Taliban appears to systematically roll back societal freedoms, particularly for women and girls. As many as 100 Americans remain stuck in the country, as do thousands of Afghans whom the U.S. pledged to protect in exchange for their help in the war effort.
More sharply, new details have emerged in recent days of the devastating drone strike the U.S. ordered in the final days of its military mission there which caused as many as a dozen or more civilian casualties. The Pentagon has consistently said the strike prevented an imminent attack from the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan branch known as ISIS-K and that other casualties were caused by secondary explosions, likely explosives hidden inside a vehicle, though a new investigation by The New York Times called that into question.
The committee’s top Republican, Jim Risch, appeared to confirm some of these details in his opening statement on Tuesday, saying the strike “had dire consequences for civilians but not for the Taliban.” He withheld further criticisms of the operation in order to protect classified intelligence assessments.
The Idaho Republican equally excoriated Austin for his failure to appear.
“There’s questions we really need to have answered and it’s disheartening that they declined to testify,” Risch said. Speaking to Blinken, he added, “The debacle in Afghanistan is an interagency failure and the fact that you are the only one stepping up is disheartening.”
A spokesman for Austin said he thanked Menendez for the invitation and could not attend due to “conflicting commitments made that appearance impracticable.”
“He greatly respects the oversight role of the Congress, and he looks forward to testifying at the end of this month before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees,” John Kirby said in an emailed statement. Austin is scheduled to appear before at least the Senate committee on Sept. 28. It was not clear as of Tuesday afternoon when the House hearing would take place.
Austin is not the only military leader to face accusations this week of an apparent lack of transparency. Army Gen. Scott Miller, the last commander to oversee the U.S. war in Afghanistan who was relieved of duty in July, was scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday afternoon but only in a closed session, with no open session scheduled. Miller had reportedly urged the Biden administration to withdraw fully by the end of August as planned.
Kirby had previously said, “The request for a closed discussion with Gen. Miller was made by the Senate Armed Services Committee,” adding, “I’m not aware of any public testimony right now by Gen. Miller.”
That committee’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, along with other Republican members of the committee planned to hold a press conference after that briefing on Tuesday evening.
Tuesday’s criticisms were hardly the first time in recent memory that congressional leaders expressed outrage at Pentagon leaders’ absences. Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s office informed Congress in October 2019 that it would comply with subpoenas to cooperate with House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Trump, even after the Pentagon chief had previously indicated he would be willing to comply.