Lawmakers threaten to subpoena SECDEF over Afghanistan mistakes

Senate lawmakers suggested they may subpoena Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify on missteps with the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan after the top civilian leader of the military declined to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he was “very disappointed” in Austin’s absence during a hearing on Afghanistan Tuesday that featured testimony from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He did not say what reason the defense secretary gave for the decision not to appear.

“A full accounting of the U.S. response to this 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,” Menendez said.

“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 who made [Afghanistan] decisions over the course of these last 20 years — to testify.”

In a statement Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that Austin did not attend the event because “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.”

Austin is scheduled to testify at a public hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28 on Afghanistan, alongside Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley and the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie.

House Armed Services Committee members have said they expect to hold a public session on Afghanistan with senior defense officials sometime this fall, but have not announced a specific date for Austin to appear.

In addition, Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, former commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, is scheduled to testify in a closed session about the military withdrawal from that country on Tuesday afternoon.

But Menendez said that his committee also needs to hear publicly from Defense Department leaders, to perform its oversight role. He said refusal from Pentagon officials “will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees,” suggesting he could place holds on defense confirmations in coming weeks.

Republicans on the committee also voiced displeasure at Austin’s decision, and said they wanted more answers on military decisions, such as the closure of Bagram Air Base ahead of other withdrawal operations.

“It’s disheartening that they declined to testify on the debacle in Afghanistan,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, ranking member on the committee, told Blinken. “Afghanistan is an interagency failure, and the fact that you’re the only one stepping up is disheartening.”

The hearing was the second in less than 24 hours for Blinken, totaling about nine hours of often partisan questioning about the evacuation mission in August.

Blinken insisted that U.S. intelligence officials were caught off guard by the rapid collapse of the democratic Afghan government and security forces, and forced into a complex withdrawal plan by agreements made between former President Donald Trump and the Taliban.

As they have in recent weeks, Republican lawmakers bristled at Blinken’s attempt to shift blame on the previous administration. Several Democrats expressed skepticism that White House officials could be completely surprised by the downfall of the fragile Afghan government.

“Over the last 20 years at different times, Congress has been misled by assessments [about Afghanistan] that were definitely overly rosy, to say the best,” Menendez said. “If we are not to repeat the past, we need to learn from it.”

Committee leaders said they will announce additional hearings in coming weeks on the issues of the Afghanistan withdrawal and future security situation in the region.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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