In a virtual briefing with members of Congress this morning Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley were pressed by lawmakers about the rapid timeline of the drawdown in Afghanistan amidst the news that Taliban fighters have entered Kabul.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pushed officials on why the process happened so quickly, saying “We didn’t give them air cover. You say you had this plan. No one would plan out this outcome. The ramifications of this for America will go on for decades and it won’t just be in Afghanistan,” according to a GOP source on the call.
But a Democratic source on the call said Austin defended the administration’s actions as an extension of the timeline for withdrawal initially laid out during the Trump administration.
Austin also said the US maintains the capacity to do air strikes to respond to any Taliban actions that interfere with evacuation.
Milley said the evacuation was a “highly dynamic and very risky operation” and also called it a “deliberate and controlled evacuation.”
Austin said the security situation rapidly deteriorated across the country, with Taliban controlling the majority of the territory. The Taliban faced very little resistance from Afghan forces.
“We will defend ourselves and our people and any attack on an American will be met with strong and immediate response,” Austin said.
Austin also said they want to keep Kabul airport open and secure. They had a contingency plan in place, which is why they were able to respond so rapidly to the rapidly deteriorating situation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked about the status of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani; officials refused to say where he is because it wasn’t a secure line.
Some more background: The call largely walked members of Congress through the strategy for removals from the country and specifically the capital with the secretaries saying that the following groups would be prioritized. Officials did not have any answers for who interpreters and other Afghanis could actually call to leave.
Blinken said the DOD is deploying aircraft to move more people out and will be brought directly to DOD places in the US. They are still having conversations with third countries, and nothing is finalized. They are prioritizing US citizens and local staffs and Afghan SIV holders and applicants; P1 and P2 folks; and women advocates. Embassy staff (non combatants), local employed staff, SIV, qualifying refugees and other third country staff under agreements that the US has with those embassies would also be prioritized.
A Democratic member on the call tells CNN that diplomatic efforts to find third countries for Afghans for processing is still underway, and a number of offers have been put out there, but nothing has been finalized yet. Officials made clear it is still a priority. Officials also said as of now Kabul airport is still open to charter and commercial flights