After SecDef Skips Hearing on Afghanistan Withdrawal, Senator Threatens Subpoena

September 15, 2021Hannah Ray Lambert

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the press from the Pentagon Briefing Room Feb. 19, 2021, Washington, DC. Department of Defense photo by US Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders.

The head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations threatened to subpoena Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan after Austin declined to appear Tuesday, Sept. 14, at a hearing on the matter.

Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said he was disappointed Austin declined to show up at the hearing.

“A full accounting of the US response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the US-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 [involved in Afghanistan] over the course of these last 20 years to testify.”

Marines provide assistance during the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021. Photo by Cpl. Nicholas Guevara.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement that conflicting commitments made it “impracticable” for Austin to appear at the Senate hearing, Politico reported.  

Austin is scheduled to testify on Afghanistan Sept. 28 before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, as are Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and head of US Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was the sole witness at Tuesday’s Senate hearing. Blinken testified that, while the Biden administration prepared for the withdrawal with a surge of resources toward processing Special Immigrant Visas, nobody could have predicted how fast Kabul would fall.

Blinken commended the US military for completing “one of the biggest airlifts in history,” evacuating around 124,000 people from Kabul ahead of the Aug. 31 withdrawal date. Now, Blinken testified, a new mission is underway.

Afghan child
An Afghan child sleeps on the floor of a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, kept warm by the uniform of Airman 1st Class Nicolas Baron, C-17 loadmaster, during an evacuation flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 18, 2021. Photo by 1st Lt. Mark Lawson.

The US has moved diplomatic operations from Kabul to Doha, the capital of Qatar, Blinken said. The government is continuing to evacuate the remaining Americans and Afghan allies in Afghanistan using charter flights and overland routes. The US government is still calculating the exact number of SIV applicants who need to leave Afghanistan, and thousands of US permanent residents remain in the country, Blinken said.

“There is no deadline to this mission,” Blinken told lawmakers.

Republicans excoriated the Biden administration during the hearing, declaring the withdrawal “an epic failure” and, in the words of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, “the worst foreign policy catastrophe in my lifetime.” 

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney questioned why the Aug. 31 deadline wasn’t pushed back further to allow for a more orderly evacuation.

A Taliban fighter shows off his new M16. Photo by Jacob Simkin.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul grilled Blinken on a deadly drone strike last month in Kabul that a New York Times investigation suggests may have killed an aid worker rather than an ISIS operative, military equipment that has fallen into the Taliban’s hands, and whether the Biden administration will pledge to not release any aid money to the Taliban.  

This week, officials announced nearly $64 million in new assistance to Afghanistan, bringing the total amount of US funding directed toward the Afghan people this fiscal year to nearly $330 million, Blinken said. If the Taliban fails to uphold its commitments to the international community — including upholding the basic rights of the Afghan people, allowing freedom of travel, and preventing terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base — Blinken said future aid could be withheld. 

Republicans also criticized Austin’s absence from the hearing, saying they wanted more answers on military strategy during the fall of Afghanistan, such as the decision to close Bagram Air Base.

Read Next: DISPATCH: With an Arsenal of US-Made Weapons, the Taliban Storm Through Panjshir

Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

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