Rapid Collapse of Afghan Forces Wasn’t Foreseen, Milley Says
(Bloomberg) -- American intelligence assessments didn’t foresee such a rapid collapse of the Afghan military, and the U.S. now has a limited ability to aid allies stuck in Kabul, the Pentagon’s top leaders said.
“There are not reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday at a news conference alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Pressed on what the U.S. could do to help thousands of Afghan allies seeking to evacuate but unable to get to the airport because of Taliban checkpoints and threats, Austin signaled that the U.S. is largely dependent on negotiating with the militant group to let people with the right credentials get through.
“I don’t have a capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul. We do not have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” Austin said. “We will continue to coordinate, de-conflict with the Taliban and make sure that those people that need to get to the airfield have the right credentials to ensure passage” through checkpoints.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday defended his decision to withdraw all U.S. combat forces, saying in an interview with ABC News that the turmoil that followed was unavoidable.
“The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” Biden said.
The two military officers said the situation in Kabul remains dangerous and fluid, and the focus of American forces are on security of the airfield.
The 4,500 U.S. military personnel now deployed to secure the airport and assist evacuations is almost double the troop levels that were in the country when Biden took office. The president has authorized an increase of up to 6,000 troops.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who opposed former President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, said the U.S. should have maintained a force of about 2,500 military personnel in the country to bolster the U.S.-backed government. But now more may be needed to rescue Americans and allies.
“Whatever needs to be done, the administration needs to do it,” he said at an event Wednesday in Kentucky.
Lawmakers have also said the Biden administration should have been better prepared for a collapse of the Afghan military, which the U.S. spent more than $80 billion building up over the past two decades.
Milley said it’s not the time for second-guessing or post-mortems on the Afghan defense force’s collapse as Taliban militants swept across the country in recent weeks.
“Right now there are troops at risk,” Milley said. “We are the United States military, and we will successfully evacuate all American citizens who want to get out of Afghanistan.”
Milley added that the U.S. intends to evacuate as many of the Afghan allies who helped American forces “as possible.”
His comments come after the administration insisted that it will stick to a deadline to get U.S. citizens and Afghan allies out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31 even as lawmakers of both parties are pressuring the administration to extend the effort.
More than 40 House lawmakers spanning the political spectrum from progressive Democrats to conservative Republicans signed a letter imploring Biden to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan until they finish evacuating those fleeing the Taliban.
There are still 11,000 “self-identified” U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
In addition to U.S. citizens, who the Pentagon said must travel to the airport at their own risk, there are about 20,000 special immigrant visa applicants and 80,000 of their family members for a total of 100,000 people awaiting to be evacuated, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project. Many of those applicants worked with the U.S. military as translators, guides and in other support roles.
Single women unaccompanied by a male relative don’t even have the option of attempting to travel to the airport, a huge concern for lawmakers, lawyers and advocacy groups worried about the fate of a huge swath of the population that they argue has been overlooked.
“We have a very narrow window of opportunity to evacuate the women who we encouraged to be educated, to be mayors and to be visible in public, and it’s closing fast,” said Dina Haynes, professor of law at New England Law Boston and former protection officer at UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. She’s urging the Biden administration to create Temporary Protected Status or other protections for Afghan women.
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