Oct 04 2021
By U.S. Senator Deb Fischer
**Click here to download audio of this week’s column**
The withdrawal from Afghanistan is the biggest U.S. foreign policy blunder in decades. We left hundreds of American citizens and thousands of our Afghan allies at the mercy of the Taliban, the same group that gave safe haven to al Qaeda as it planned the 9/11 attacks. A suicide bombing at the Kabul airport killed 13 American servicemembers, including a Nebraskan, Marine Corporal Daegan Page, making it the deadliest day in Afghanistan for the United States since 2011.
The American people deserve to know why things went so wrong in Afghanistan. To find answers, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on September 28 with the highest-ranking military leaders who oversaw our withdrawal: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, and CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie.
As a senior member of this committee, I questioned these military leaders about the implementation of the decision to leave Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s plans to keep our nation safe from terrorists going forward. Many of their answers directly contradicted what the president has told the American people.
During an interview with ABC News in August, President Biden said that none of his military advisers suggested maintaining a small presence in Afghanistan. But at our Senate hearing, both General Milley and General McKenzie testified that they had advised the president to do exactly that. President Biden either was not truthful during that interview, or he wasn’t able to recall the advice of his own generals.
I asked General Milley directly about whether President Biden took his advice into account before going ahead with the withdrawal. He said that the president considered the advice of our military, but chose not to follow it. That is his right, but the events of the last two months have shown that if he had, we may not be in this position.
I also asked the generals about what our withdrawal means for the future of the war on terror. The president has said that having a presence in Afghanistan isn’t important for counterterrorism missions because we can rely on “over-the-horizon” strikes, which allow us to use drones to take out terrorists hundreds or even thousands of miles from where the drones are based.
But unlike other places we conduct “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism operations, Afghanistan is a landlocked country, which means we will have to use other countries’ airspace to reach al Qaeda or ISIS-K targets. General McKenzie confirmed to me during the hearing that because we no longer have a military presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. has to rely on Pakistani airspace to conduct these strikes. Pakistan – historically an ally of the Taliban – could stop granting us access at any point.
For “over-the-horizon” to be successful, the U.S. needs three things: a presence, or ally, in the country; solid intelligence capabilities; and reliable airspace. Our chaotic withdrawal has limited our reliance on these capabilities, and it has inspired al Qaeda and helped their recruitment of new members.
There are other long-term consequences: Many of our NATO allies have told me privately that they are unsure they can trust us to be there for them in the future. I understand their hesitancy. After 9/11, our NATO allies fought by our side for 20 years in Afghanistan. They too lost servicemembers to the Taliban and other terrorist fighters. But President Biden did not consult with them or meaningfully inform them about our withdrawal.
Many questions still need answers, but one thing is clear: The blame for this debacle rests with President Biden. General Milley said during our hearing that presidents are elected to make strategic decisions. He also told us that the Afghanistan withdrawal was a strategic failure.
President Biden needs to be more honest with the American people about what this fiasco means for our nation’s security. So far, we have heard nothing but excuses. I hope that will change very soon.
Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.
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