WASHINGTON – Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie are set to testify before Congress this week on the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the Biden administration’s handling of the Afghanistan exit last month, ending a 20-year war.
Beyond Afghanistan, Army Gen. Milley is likely to face questions about allegations in a new book that he assured China the United States would not launch a nuclear strike in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
Republican lawmakers blasted Milley’s actions regarding former President Donald Trump and his communication with China. Democrats and President Joe Biden have supported Milley.
The Pentagon officials will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday in their first public testimony since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.
Here’s what to know about the line of questioning they will face.
What happened with the Afghanistan drawdown?
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate panel, sent Austin a letter Sept. 23 requesting additional information on the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the attack on the airport in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that killed 13 U.S. service members Aug. 26.
He also asked for information on the U.S. strikes launched Aug. 27 and 29; details on how the United States evacuated civilians from Afghanistan; U.S. military equipment that was left behind; and the Biden administration’s future counterterrorism plans.
U.S. troops probably discarded tens of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment during the hasty exit from Afghanistan.
“This information will inform us as we hold further hearings on the drawdown and how the United States will conduct counterterrorism in the future,” Inhofe said. “We need a full accounting of every factor and decision that led us to where we are today and a real plan for defending America moving forward.”
Inhofe set a deadline of Oct. 8 for the information he requested.
A day before Inhofe’s letter to Austin, five Republican senators wrote a letter to Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, requesting more time to question the Pentagon officials.
“The Biden administration’s mishandling of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was as disastrous as it was unnecessary,” wrote Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Rick Scott of Florida and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.
How did an ISIS-K bombing kill US service members?
Lawmakers will question the Pentagon officials about the suicide bomber who killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 169 Afghans near Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26. Of the 13 killed, 11 were Marines, one was a Navy hospital corpsman and one was an Army soldier, according to the Pentagon. At least 18 U.S. service members were injured.
The bomber was part of an Islamic State offshoot called ISIS-K. The United States retaliated with airstrikes that Pentagon officials later admitted killed Afghan civilians.
The strikes killed at least 10 members of an Afghan family, including eight children under the age of 18, family members told The Washington Post.
Are allegations true that Milley reassured Chinese counterpart?
"Peril," a new book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, alleged Milley attempted to block Trump’s ability to attack China in the aftermath of the attack Jan. 6 on the U.S. Capitol.
According to the book, Milley feared Trump’s erratic behavior at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 could plunge the countries into war. Milley reportedly told his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, in a secret phone call Oct. 30, 2020, that the United States would not strike but that Milley would alert Zuocheng if there was an imminent attack.
On Jan. 8, Milley again reassured Zuocheng: “We are 100% steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Trump and his GOP allies decried Milley’s actions as “treasonous” and a subversion of the military chain of command. The former president used an expletive to refer to Milley in a statement.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent Biden a letter Sept. 14 calling for him to fire Milley. “These actions by General Milley demonstrate a clear lack of sound judgement, and I urge you to dismiss him immediately,” Rubio wrote.
A Milley spokesman denied the general acted improperly in his interactions with China. “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs regularly communicates with Chiefs of Defense across the world, including with China and Russia,” Col. Dave Butler said in a statement.
“His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities, conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability,” Butler said. “All calls from the Chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency.”
Did Milley move to secure nuclear codes from Trump after Jan. 6?
During Tuesday's hearing, Milley could confirm the book's account that he told subordinates that any orders from Trump to use nuclear codes must be routed through him.
Milley feared Trump could "go rogue," The Washington Post writers alleged.
At a secret meeting Jan. 8, Milley told top military officials, "No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I'm part of that procedure," according to CNN.
He asked for verbal confirmation of his request after looking each person in the eye. Milley's actions were purportedly spurred in part by a call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in which he agreed with her comments that Trump was "crazy" and assured her nuclear weapons were secure.
Should Milley confirm the reports, the fallout could result in his resignation or Biden firing him.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gen. Mark Milley, Pentagon brass to testify in Congress on Afghanistan