Senators on Tuesday emerged from another closed-door hearing on the Afghanistan exit frustrated by senior military leaders’ lack of information on the security situation and status of evacuees.
The scene was a likely preview of next week, when the Senate Armed Services Committee will host a high-profile, public hearing on Afghanistan featuring Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley.
The pair are expected to face intense questioning from committee lawmakers of both parties on the sudden end of U.S. military involvement after nearly 20 years and the tumultuous final evacuation operations that included a terrorist attack which killed 13 American service members.
“We’re going to have questions that have to be answered that have not been answered before,” said committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.
Tuesday’s closed briefing included testimony from Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, Defense Department Comptroller Michael McCord and Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, deputy director for operations.
Staff said the goal of the event was to provide lawmakers with the latest information on the status of Afghan nationals evacuated from the country and related security concerns. Attendees did not offer specifics of the information discussed because of the classified nature of the meeting.
But several senators who attended the briefing said that defense officials couldn’t answer many of the questions posed to them about the current status of evacuation and refugee logistics, directing those issues to the absent State Department instead.
“They weren’t answering questions on simple information as to how many [evacuees] are in third countries, how many men and women and children, how many of them are [special immigrant visa] holders,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa and an Army National Guard vet. “That should be very easily accessible information that they should have come to this hearing with.”
Ernst also bristled that Kahl would not answer questions related to the committee’s last classified briefing on Sept. 14. Republicans said at that event, Gen. Scott Austin Miller — former commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan — told lawmakers that he had opposed President Joe Biden’s plans for a full withdrawal from the country.
“I’m very frustrated that we have an under secretary who doesn’t get information from commanders on the ground,” she said.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she was not concerned by the information provided in the briefing but acknowledged that “a number of the questions in there applied to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, and they were not there to answer them.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said that will have to be addressed in next week’s public session.
“It can be a little frustrating, even if I understand [some issues] are State Department’s or DHS’s responsibility,” he said. “I’ll encourage them just to make sure that the next military panel can answer some basic questions on State Department numbers, and not just point to the State Department for answers.”
Committee officials have not announced full details for next week’s hearing, scheduled for Sept. 28.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, is also scheduled to testify alongside Milley and Austin. Portions of the questioning could also be shifted into another closed session.
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.