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U.S. Military Commanders Assure Senate They Are Ready for Terrorism

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

WASHINGTON — The war in Afghanistan is officially over but the terrorism threat to the United States continues, according to military commanders who testified to the U.S. Senate Tuesday.

They acknowledged that the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal was disappointing after 20 years of war. 

A suicide bomber at Kabul’s international airport killed 13 American military personnel and about 160 Afghan civilians during the withdrawal in August.

However, they also asked the Senate Armed Services Committee to understand how the fog of war can confuse military leaders’ judgment as they tried to bring the tragedy started by the September 11 attacks to an end.

“We operated in a deeply dangerous environment,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

The U.S. military fought along with tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers, Austin said. But no U.S. military effort could overcome the corruption and mismanagement of the Afghan government.

As a result, the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in 11 days, forcing the poorly planned and hasty U.S. withdrawal.

“In the end, we could not provide them with the will to win,” Austin said.

The high profile Senate hearing was the first time top U.S. military commanders tried to explain publicly their decisions about the withdrawal and ongoing terrorist threats to the United States.

Their testimony was met with praise for the performance of the U.S. military during America’s longest war but criticism from senators about how it ended and whether terrorists still threaten the United States.

“We need to understand why and how,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He added, “We must remain vigilant about these threats.”

Harsher criticism came from Republicans.

“The Taliban is in a stronger position now than it was on 9/11,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.

He cast doubt on the military’s “over-the-horizon” strategy for countering terrorism from radical Islamic groups such as the Taliban or al Qaeda.

Over-the-horizon refers to a plan for using intelligence reports gathered from foreign agents, satellites or other covert sources about plots formulated in Afghanistan against Americans.

Inhofe called the strategy misleading and unreliable in its effectiveness.

“There is no plan,” he said.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., wondered whether the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan before a stable government was established shook the confidence in the United States among allies and adversaries.

“Our credibility has been greatly damaged,” Wicker said.

Some of the criticism fell on General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Several members of Congress demanded he resign in the days after the U.S. withdrawal.

Milley could not rule out future terrorist attacks but tried to reassure the senators that the U.S. military was watching for them.

“The Taliban was and remains a terrorist organization,” Milley said.

Another major terrorist attack from them was possible within the next one to three years, he said. He agreed the risk was heightened by the lack of a U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

“That mission could be much harder now but not impossible,” Milley said about preventing another terrorist attack. “We will continue to protect the American people.”

Meanwhile, the Taliban continue wiping out some of the U.S.-led reforms of the past 20 years. They have denied women top posts in the government, beaten or intimidated journalists who criticize them and sometimes violently enforced strict Islamic codes of behavior.

In some districts, flags of Taliban-affiliate Islamic State are now flying.

President Joe Biden continues defending his decision for a U.S. withdrawal, saying it was time to end the conflict or face a “forever war.”

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