Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told lawmakers that he has “no regrets” about how the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan was carried out, despite the quick toppling of the U.S.-backed government and the August 2021 suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 13 U.S. troops and at least 170 Afghan civilians.
On Wednesday, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee grilled the defense secretary during a hearing to review the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2024 budget. Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, a who served in Afghanistan, pressed Mr. Austin on the chaotic withdrawal there spurred by the capture of Kabul by insurgent Taliban forces.
Mr. Banks said retired Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command at the time, has said he had many regrets about how U.S. involvement in Afghanistan ended.
“Do you have any regrets about the withdrawal?” Mr. Banks asked.
“I support [President Biden’s] decision. I don’t have any regrets,” the defense secretary replied.
“Mr. Austin, that is very telling,” Mr. Banks said.
In August 2022, General McKenzie told NPR that they got more than 120,000 people out of Afghanistan. While he called those figures part of a “good news story,” it didn’t change the fact that a number of Afghans who worked closely with U.S. troops — including those at risk to their own lives — were left behind when the last U.S. plane lifted off.
“They had every expectation that we would bring them out. We did not, and we were unable to do that,” Gen. McKenzie said. “That’s something that … still haunts me to this day.”
GOP lawmakers also criticized what they said was a lack of accountability among civilian or military leaders for how the Afghanistan withdrawal played out. Mr. Banks asked what would happen to a Navy captain of a ship that runs aground.
“Typically, that captain is removed,” Mr. Austin said.
Asked if anyone in the Pentagon’s chain of command was ever held accountable for the collapse of the 20-year war effort in Afghanistan, Mr. Austin replied, “To my knowledge, no.”
Mr. Austin, appearing with Joint Chiefs of Staff head Gen. Mark A. Milley, told the panel he was proud of the “tremendous work and sacrifices” that the U.S. troops made throughout the war.
On a very different topic, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, questioned Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley about reports of drag shows involving children on U.S. military posts such as Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and Joint Base Langley-Eustis near Norfolk, Va.
“Drag shows are not something that the Department of Defense supports or funds,” Mr. Austin told the congressman.
After Mr. Gaetz read off a list of news articles describing drag shows hosted on U.S. military bases, Gen. Milley asked if he could get a copy so he could “find out what actually is going on there.”
“That’s the first I’m hearing about that kind of stuff,” Gen. Milley said. “I’d like to take a look at those because I don’t agree with those.”