McKenzie says Taliban offered Kabul, Austin blames State Dept.

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McKenzie says Taliban offered Kabul, Austin blames State Dept.

The head of the US Central Command admitted Wednesday that the Taliban offered to let American troops take charge of security in Kabul during the final days of the US evacuation from Afghanistan — an offer the US did not accept — while Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin blamed the State Department for the failed evacuation of American citizens, green card holders and Afghan allies.

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee that the offer to let US forces secure the Afghan capital was made by Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s political leader, when the two met in Doha, Qatar on Aug. 15. The CENTCOM chief explained that he had met with Baradar “to pass a message to him that we were withdrawing, and if they attempted to disrupt that withdrawal, we would punish them severely for that.”

“But did he offer to allow you to have security over all of Kabul?” asked Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.).

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, testify before the House Armed Services Committee
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, testify before the House Armed Services Committee on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan.
Olivier Douliery/Pool via REUTERS

“As part of that conversation, he said, ‘Why don’t you just take security for all of Kabul?’” McKenzie affirmed. “That was not why I was there, that was not my instruction, and we did not have the resources to undertake that mission.”

McKenzie added that he did not know if Baradar’s offer was conveyed to President Biden, but did note that it was made in the presence of Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan.

“So who made the decision to turn down the Taliban offer to allow the US military to secure Kabul and put the safety of our troops in the hands of the Taliban?” asked Gallagher.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during the House Armed Services Committee on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during the House Armed Services Committee on plans for future counterterrorism operations.
Rod Lamkey/Pool via AP

“I did not consider that to be a formal offer. It was not the reason why I was there, so I did not pursue it,” McKenzie said. “So if someone actually made a decision, that would have been me.”

Baradar’s offer was first reported in late August by the Washington Post, but McKenzie’s statement Wednesday represented the first public confirmation that it had been made.

The Aug. 15 meeting took place as Taliban fighters swept into Kabul with little resistance, capping a major offensive that resulted in the fall of the Western-backed Afghan government and the collapse of the country’s security forces.

For the next 15 days, US forces were confined to Hamid Karzai International Airport on the capital’s outskirts as they attempted to evacuate thousands of American citizens and legal permanent residents — as well as Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) due to their service in the US-led 20-year war against the Taliban.

When Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) asked Austin why the removal of Americans and SIV holders and applicants did not begin sooner, the defense secretary claimed that “the call on how to do that and when to do it is really a State Department call.”

Austin also alleged that the State Department was “being cautioned” by the Afghan government that “if they withdrew American citizens and SIV applicants at a pace that was too fast, it would cause a collapse of the government that we were trying to prevent. And so, I think that went in to the calculus.”

“We provided our input, and we certainly would have liked to see it go faster, or sooner,” the defense secretary added. “But again, they had a number of things to think through as well.”

The Biden administration has acknowledged that approximately 100 American citizens who wished to leave Afghanistan were left behind when the evacuation ended Aug. 30. In addition, several thousand legal permanent residents are believed to have been left at the mercy of the Taliban, along with thousands more SIV applicants who have gone into hiding to avoid deadly retribution.

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