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U.S. officers recall the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal in hearing on Capitol Hill

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

First, let's turn to Afghanistan in August 2021.

(CROSSTALK)

SHAPIRO: Sound there of the chaos unfolding at Kabul Airport as crowds surged to get out on U.S. military aircraft. Well, today on Capitol Hill, two retired senior officers recalled those days, including the advice they gave and the advice that was rejected by the Biden administration. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spent years reporting from Afghanistan and followed that testimony today on the Hill. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This exit has been well reported, well investigated. What was new in today's hearing?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, not a lot. And much of this has to do with this being a presidential election year. Republicans like House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul wanted to hammer the Biden administration for this chaotic withdrawal. And if you remember, 13 American service members lost their lives in a suicide attack outside the Kabul Airport around this time. Some of the family members were there with pictures of their loved ones, and two retired generals appeared - former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley and Frank McKenzie, who oversaw the region at the time.

One Democratic lawmaker called it a, quote, "highly politicized hearing." And other Democrats pointed out that, listen, it was President Trump who reduced the number of U.S. troops and approved a deal with the Taliban that called for a withdrawal of all U.S. troops even earlier in the spring. And the military was not involved in those talks. So the endgame in Afghanistan, they say, was more than just a few days in August.

SHAPIRO: But as Republicans kept pointing out, the withdrawal took place on President Biden's watch. So what did the generals say about advice that the administration rejected?

BOWMAN: Well, the generals said they wanted everyone to leave in early July - the troops, NATO, American diplomats, U.S. citizens - before the Taliban were able to sweep through most of the country. But the administration agreed with the State Department to keep the embassy open. So obviously, you had to have troops there to protect the diplomats. General Milley thought that was not a good idea. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MILLEY: It was also our assessment at the time that keeping an embassy open in a war zone, which Afghanistan was, and to do that without the presence of the U.S. military and the contractors, NATO, etc., that that embassy would be untenable.

BOWMAN: And Generals Milley and McKenzie said the embassy was dragging its feet on an evacuation plan. Finally, there was a decision by the State Department to leave, which came the following month, in the middle of August. That decision came too late, said Milley. The Taliban were in the city. The Afghan government fell, and by then, the evacuation was, they said, extremely difficult.

SHAPIRO: But both generals wanted the Biden administration to keep American forces there longer, despite the Taliban agreement?

BOWMAN: That's right. They wanted to keep some 2,500 troops there to keep working with the Afghan military, shore it up, make sure the Taliban upheld their part of the agreement. But General Milley said those American troops would be in open warfare with the Taliban, and, of course, the Biden administration decided against keeping any U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

One senior officer told me, in talking with the president, we never had a good argument for maintaining a troop presence. How long do they stay? What if they come under fire? Do you send more troops in? So that 20-year American presence finally came to an end.

SHAPIRO: Twenty years is a long time. And as you said, some Democrats say this all goes beyond that chaotic withdrawal period.

BOWMAN: Right. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York, said Congress has to look at the entire 20 years in Afghanistan. Well, Ari, Congress already set up an Afghan war commission to study all aspects of the war. So when do they report? In about four years.

SHAPIRO: Four years. Many hundreds of pages and I'm sure looking forward to reading them.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.