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Top U.S. Defense Officials Took Lawmakers' Questions On Afghanistan Withdrawal

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What happened in Afghanistan and why? Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was on hand to account for failures during the U.S. withdrawal. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley spoke about Afghanistan and took questions about his role at the end of the Trump presidency. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us with more.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be with you.

FADEL: So what can you tell us about General Milley's appearance today?

BOWMAN: Well, of course, the hearing comes after what many Democrats and Republicans say was a hasty and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. I think General Milley knew it would be combative at times. He, of course, had been prepared for the obvious questions about whether there were too few troops, whether more time was needed.

And it wasn't just about Afghanistan, Leila. There was also the report in the book by author Bob Woodward that General Milley made what was described as secret calls to his Chinese counterpart, General Lee, in the final chaotic weeks of the Trump administration. Intelligence reports said the Chinese were on high alert. Milley tried to calm things down, assuring the Chinese that no U.S. attack was coming.

And Milley said senior Pentagon, state and White House officials were aware of the two calls. And there was a readout after them, so clearly not secret, he said.

FADEL: And back to Afghanistan, what did General Milley say about that?

BOWMAN: Well, the general said the speed of the Afghan military collapse - just 11 days - surprised everyone. The earliest estimate, he said, was sometime in the fall. So the Taliban return to power was a major theme. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, the senator from New Hampshire, talked about the failure to anticipate what happened with one pretty succinct question. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEANNE SHAHEEN: What did we miss?

MARK MILLEY: I think, Senator, we absolutely missed the rapid 11-day collapse of the Afghan military and the collapse of their government. I think there was a lot of intelligence that clearly indicated that after we withdrew that it was a likely outcome of a collapse of the military and a collapse of the government.

FADEL: OK. On that note, Tom, I want to get your reaction to a really striking moment from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's testimony today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: The fact that the Afghan army that we and our partners trained simply melted away, in many cases without firing a shot, took us all by surprise. And it would be dishonest to claim otherwise. We need to consider some uncomfortable truths - that we didn't fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks.

BOWMAN: You know, Leila, that really jumped out at me and, frankly, makes absolutely no sense. First of all, there were numerous government reports from the Afghan Inspector General John Sopko going back years talking about corruption, the poor quality of the Afghan army leadership, desertions in the ranks. There were also CIA reports along these lines and U.S. government advisers, including the likes of Sarah Chayes and others who continually brought up corruption and cronyism. No one paid adequate attention - no senior leaders.

And frankly, you know, I saw it myself. I would meet Afghan generals in the field over the years. And American officers would praise them. I'd go back just months later and find out that these same Afghan officers, Leila, were either in jail or fired for corruption.

And here's the other thing - you know, I think Congress bears some of the blame, too. They never really held serious oversight hearings on Afghanistan, especially in the last 10 years since the death of Osama bin Laden. Why were U.S. troops still there? What was the mission? The bottom line, it was hard to leave and hard to stay, so they just kept going.

FADEL: NPR's Tom Bowman, thank you so much for your reporting.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.