(Trends Wide) — US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley will testify publicly before Senate lawmakers on Tuesday, marking the first time that senior military officials have appeared before Congress since the total withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Austin and Milley will be joined by the leader of the US Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, who played an integral role in facilitating the evacuation of Kabul, an effort that has been the focus of immense bipartisan criticism since the last American military plane departed from the Afghan capital.
The three officials will undoubtedly face questions about the chaotic nature of the pullout, will be pressured to explain the Biden administration’s plan to carry out counterterrorism missions in the country in the future, and will be asked to answer for any shortcomings that led to a drone strike that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, in Kabul during the final days of the evacuation.
Milley may also be questioned about the new reports in “Peril,” a book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, which details the military leader’s phone conversations to reassure a nervous Chinese general and his efforts to limit to then-President Donald Trump of potentially ordering a dangerous military strike.
Milley’s actions, which were reported by Trends Wide and others earlier this month before the book was published, drew strong criticism from Trump and his allies, including calls for his resignation and for him to be tried for treason.
The hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaotic evacuation effort during back-to-back hearings in Congress earlier this month.
The top U.S. diplomat was the first member of the administration to publicly account for the events in Afghanistan before Congress and remains the only high-level official to testify on that issue to date, frustrating legislators from both parties who have tried to identify those responsible for what happened.
That will change on Tuesday when lawmakers finally get a chance to hear from top Pentagon officials who oversaw key parts of the pullout and are now tasked with preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
The Biden administration has yet to detail its plan to counter terror threats emanating from Afghanistan now that US troops have left the country, although senior military and intelligence officials have acknowledged that groups like al Qaeda could soon reconstitute there.
Last week, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, the commission’s top Republican, formally asked the Pentagon for information related to the Aug. 26 attack on the Kabul airport in which 13 US servicemen were killed.
Also on US attacks carried out on August 27 and 29, the efforts to evacuate the country’s civilian population, the US military equipment and material that was left behind, and the administration’s future counterterrorism plans.
While the Pentagon has until October 8 to respond to that request, Inhofe’s letter provides a window into the kinds of questions he and other lawmakers may raise during Tuesday’s hearing.
Inhofe and a group of leading Republicans also raised concerns Monday about the prospect of military cooperation between the United States and Russia in counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after The Wall Street Journal reported that Milley raised the issue last week during a conversation. with his Russian counterpart.
A source with knowledge of the discussion and two others briefed on the matter confirmed to Trends Wide that Milley, at the request of the National Security Council, asked his counterpart to clarify an earlier comment made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the which suggested that the two countries could coordinate in this area in the future.
The first source argued that this was not a politically motivated discussion, but simply an effort to understand what Putin meant when he raised the possibility of allowing the United States access to regional military facilities in Central Asian countries during a meeting with Biden earlier this summer, given it was unclear at the time if he was serious.
That said, the source pointed out that the Biden administration is not going to wait for the acquiescence of Russia or any other country to carry out its policy in this part of the world. The source also said it was unclear if Milley received any clarification during his discussion with his Russian counterpart.
Milley’s office did not immediately respond to Trends Wide’s request for comment, but they could press him on the issue during Tuesday’s hearing.
Meanwhile, McKenzie will likely face questions about the deadly Kabul drone attack last month that killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
McKenzie told reporters earlier this month that the attack was a “mistake” and offered an apology, acknowledging that a military investigation determined that the targeted vehicle was likely not a threat associated with ISIS-K as previously believed.
While McKenzie emphasized that future strikes will likely be carried out to a higher standard, confirming the civilian death toll also provides insight into the obstacles that lie ahead for military and intelligence officers tasked with delivering on President Joe’s promise. Biden that ISIS-K, the terror group that claimed responsibility for the attack that killed the 13 US soldiers, would “pay” for its deadly suicide bombing in Kabul.
In addition, Pentagon leaders could be asked about tens of thousands of Afghan refugees temporarily housed in military installations in the United States.
Several of those facilities are nearing capacity, according to new numbers provided by Northern Command on Monday, raising further questions about where the administration plans to send those still trying to flee Afghanistan.
Trends Wide’s Ellie Kaufman, Nicole Gaouette, Kylie Atwood, and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.